If you’ve enjoyed television drama like The West Wing and Sports Night, and movies like The Social Network and Charlie Wilson’s War, and the play, A Few Good Men (later made into a movie) you’d be familiar with the work of Aaron Sorkin, one of the world’s top screenwriters. Others include brilliant UK’s playwrights, Tom Stoppard, Alan Bennett, Dodie Smith, Alan Ayckbourn and the list goes on.
Great screenwriters are skilled writers: choosing the perfect word, developing characters that we will love, hate, cheer on and who linger in our thoughts long after the movie or play is over, building tension and breaking our hearts. These people perfect their dialogues into a sparsity that captures the essence of meaning. Sound familiar? Yep, it’s what we fiction writers aspire to do every time we write.
I like reading ‘how-to’ books by screenwriters – I believe we can learn so much from them. That’s why I asked Ben Marshall, Queensland screenwriter, YA author to come onto my blog today to talk about writing character. Ben is also a 2013 winner of an Australian Society of Authors Mentorship and will be working on his YA novel, The Pricking of Thumbs with YA author, Alyssa Brugman.
Take it away, Ben…..
Sheryl has suggested that I illuminate the arcane arts of the television script-writer in a way that might offer insights into other forms of creative writing.
It’s a huge area to cover so I’ll stick to telling you what works in terms of story creation in what I do for a living – writing soap opera.
When you have to create two and a half hours of television drama a week, week after week, month after month, year after year, there are certain fundamentals that help.
The first is character. In the industry, we refer to soap as ‘character-driven’. We’re not writing Hollywood here, but kitchen-sink drama, and on a budget where an entire week of soap would equal about fifteen seconds of blockbuster feature film.
(Please note that just in story terms, we write multiple storylines – as many as six or eight at any given time. A feature film generally has three plots, the A story, the B romantic subplot, and C, the comedy relief – so every week we write the equivalent of three feature films worth of story. There we are, sitting around a table, six of us racking our brains to keep people emotionally engaged with the stories being played out on the small screen.)
It’s tough, but when you have created a foundation of interesting, clearly delineated characters, full of plausible internal conflicts, the stories practically write themselves. By ‘clearly delineated’ I mean that any given character produces instant recognition of ‘type’. But they will only leap off the page if you understand what drives them – what gets them out of bed in the morning and keeps them moving forward.
Take, say, the misanthropic doctor. It’s a character thumbnail not uncommon in film and television, and is a good one because on the one hand a doctor is driven to care for their community, and on the other hand they dislike people. Strong drive + clear internal conflict = watchable television.
Example: the doctor may be an Asperger’s personality type who enjoys the problem-solving of tricky diagnosis, which provides the drive. Lacking the ability to read emotions in others, however, and being frustrated by ‘less intelligent’ people provides the misanthropy, and therefore the internal conflict.
As writers though, we also need to also understand the origins of the drive and the conflict. If you know a character’s background, especially their parents, you also understand how and why they act as they do, what they fear and what they hope for. You also know how they would react in any given situation, and what obstacles to place between them and their goals.
In brief, a character must be fully motivated in undertaking every action he or she takes – so much so that we, the reader or viewer, think, yes, of course that’s what they’d do. We must see the goal, understand why it’s important, but cringe when the character’s internal conflict prevents them making a bee-line for it. When the character tries, we hope they succeed but fear they will fail. When the character fails, we will understand why they failed. Above all, we the viewer or reader must care about the character and, therefore, what happens next.
Do you know how your characters would react in any given situation? If you don’t, then you need to. You need to know and care for them like they were blood, despite their faults. Faults are crucial because they expose vulnerabilities we empathise with – this character, stumbling from one bad decision to the next, is our avatar and we love them because we love ourselves and others.
I don’t use the L-word lightly, by the way. Love is at the core of all good writing. If love and passion isn’t driving your writing, then stop and leave it to those to whom it is.
If you’d like to read more about Ben’s work – here’s the link to his work-in-progress, The Pricking of Thumbs. Sounds like a fabulous read!