Black List writers on the craft: Characters (Part 3)

Over the years, I have interviewed over 40 Black List screenwriters. This month, I will run a series featuring one topic per week related to the craft of writing.

This week: How do you develop your characters?

Reading through all of the responses was a fascinating exercise. Once again, this group of writers demonstrates there is no one way to approach the craft. Their respective approaches to developing their story’s characters vary from highly intuitive, even instinctual to the conscious use of specific techniques and writing exercises. In all cases, the goal is the same: To make the characters come alive in the writer’s imagination and onto the printed page.

On Monday, we featured writers who start their character development process by focusing on real people. Yesterday writers zeroed in on brainstorming and the importance of asking questions about and to characters. Today we check in with writers who use biographies as a tool for character development.

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Jason Mark Hellerman: “I have detailed bios of all the characters, and I think about what they need to get over because so much of movies is what these people are going through.”

Elijah Bynum: “Even when I’m not writing, I walk around thinking about who these people are and what they are doing at that moment as if they really exist. It’s sad, I know. I always write a little bio on them before I write the script. Their back story, their personality, some of their character traits. I know what food they like, what kind of cigarettes they smoke — but there’s a difference between characteristics and character. It’s not until you really throw yourself into the story and throw your character into the story that you can genuinely understand who they are.”

Justin Marks: “I really love to write a character bio. I think it’s important to do that kind of thing because you find all kinds of contradictions in characters, and that’s what makes them feel alive. Like, you can write a character who’s a neat freak. We’ve all seen neat freaks on screen. But then you write a neat freak, but who also has a really messy personal life, or a really messy bedroom. There are contradictions to it. That’s what makes people feel real. The more contradictions that you can find in your characters, the better off you are.”

Stephany Folsom: “I approach my characters like I’m writing their biographies. I write up where they were born, what their favorite food is, all kinds of crazy stuff. I try to envision them as people with full lives, so that I know how they will organically react to anything in the story. When developing my characters’ personalities, I try to give them traits that will create more obstacles in the plot. You want to create as much conflict as possible, and you can do that by giving your characters conflicting personality traits and motivations.”

Chris McCoy: “Before I start writing, I create character profiles that I’ll refer back to throughout the process, describing what the character wants, what the character does for a living, what he or she looks like, and so forth. After I construct these basic bones, I’ll start fleshing them out with more unique personality traits, which can come from anywhere — something you noticed in somebody on the street, something you read about in a magazine. I collect books of anecdotes and miscellanea, which always seem to give me a lot of character ideas… Once I’ve come up with a rough sketch of the characters, I’ll write out what their relationships are to each other, and how they’ll complicate each other’s lives. Once I have those dynamics figured out, I’ll start writing, and that’s when the character will invariably offer up more information who they are.”

Here’s an interesting variation:

Brad Ingelsby: “One of the things I like to do is write about the characters and what they were doing before the story starts and where they will be long after the story ends. Doing that educates me on dialogue choices. If I know where they’ve been and I know where they’re going, I can write about them in a way that doesn’t feel just about the present situation. It involves characters’ dreams and sins and damage and hope. Things that we can’t always see, but we can feel.”

Takeaway:

  • When writing a character biography, focus on macro items like big events in their lives and micro things such as personality tics and traits.

Character biographies can inform you in multiple ways, even down to aspects of their lives which you can’t even see, but you can feel.

I am reminded of a quote from Quentin Tarantino:

I need to know where these people [his story’s characters] come from. It’s a universe I’m creating, and I have to know my universe backward, forward, and sideways. The audience doesn’t need to know, but they need to know I know.

How about you? Do you write up biographies or profiles on your characters? If so, how extensive do you get in your write-ups? How do you go about working up your bios?

For Part 1 of this week’s series on character development, go here.

Part 2, here.

Tomorrow we take up another angle on prep-writing as reflected on by Black List writers.

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