I was asked to take a look at some pages recently, through one of those “critique my work” sites. I’m not a particular fan of those sites, for they open one’s work up to assassination via trolls; every nut on the internet that thinks they are an expert goes to task on these poor writers, and they do not wield a scalpel, but rather a fucking battle axe. I don’t use those sites. I prefer to be humiliated by a professional.
That being said, I took a look. Clever premise – I smiled. The pages began… and my smile faded. Potty humor is not my thing, so I’ll overlook that (I’ll never understand the American male’s fascination with poop). The main problem for me? No distinct characters.
A character is like an onion – “you gotta peel back the layers” in order to understand them. I think that is where a lot of us fail – we don’t truly know our characters. We think we do, of course… but if we did, each character, even the one-line housekeeper, would be unique. Their mannerisms, their cadence, the way they look at the world – no two characters should be alike.
For me, the way to create distinctive characters is through research (yes, that again) and backstory. It is the character’s backstory that shapes them. The lives they have led colors the present-day lives they lead, just as your backstory, your personal history, is what has shaped you into the person you are today.
“Drama is life with the boring bits cut out,” said dear old Hitch, and this is true when applied to character… but remember… characters should never be one-dimensional. They are archetypes, not stereotypes. They should have depth, resonance, meaning. They have lived an entire lifetime up to the moment they first appear on the page – and they carry that lifetime with them.
Do your characters honor. Treat them as you would an onion, or an artichoke. Peel back the layers – and get to their hearts.
Now, go write.
HRH, Princess Scribe
P.S. – If you have not read it yet, check out @jeannevb’s newest Balls of Steel column. It’s a keeper.
This post has compelled me to conduct another rewrite. Thanks a lot. (No, really) It was your line, “They have lived an entire lifetime up to the moment they first appear on the page – and they carry that lifetime with them.” that got me. I am repeatedly amazed at how informed a state of understanding and consciousness is required to write a screenplay. Your comments on character are a great thing to keep in mind while rewriting. It seems like each rewrite is from a different perspective for me. Every time I learn something profound about the art, I rewrite my screenplay from that new perspective. Some rewrites have been for structure, some for plot, character, dialogue, etc. I am using my one screenplay as a classroom in which each rewrite is my homework. I mention this because it seems to have helped me understand how to achieve that informed state of consciousness required to pull off a decent screenplay. I also agree with you about the “critique my work” sites. “Why should I stand here and be insulted by you when I can go down the street and get it done by experts.” I also wanted to mention that when a writer, seeking to improve his work, runs across a bit of advice that stings his ego, his ego is usually stung because he knows his own writing could use some improvement in that area. I think my acceptance of this ego death along my journey to understand this craft has saved me a lot of money on screenwriting courses and evaluation services.
What a wonderful comment, Frank. I wholeheartedly agree. I don’t consider myself an expert; I never will, as with each new project, I’m like a newborn babe trying to figure out the world, because no two projects are alike. Each has its own set of challenges and obstacles to overcome.
I bring a lot of my experience and training as an actress to the writer’s table. The two crafts are so alike; the same vernacular is used. Actors analyze scripts; they break scenes down into beats… and even if they are cast in a one-liner, or even background, the good ones create a history for their characters.
Re: Criticism and ego – you are spot on. It stings a bit when we are told what we already know – that the work needs improvement…. but to be closed to such criticism is not in the best interest of the work, and as a writer, our principal task is to serve the story, not the self.
Anne, you better be careful or I’ll start calling you My Muse. Seriously though, another inspiring and contemplative piece, beautifully crafted.
Coming from you, praise indeed!