Friday, October 20, 2006

Surprising Characterisation

We’ve already spoken about characters being the most important part of your screenplay. We’ve even discussed how you describe them, had a few thoughts on how to explore their multi-dimensional qualities, establish their dramatic need, and hey, even those saddo passive protagonists got a mention.

Bored with character? Not a chance. Today, let’s chat about finding original and surprising facets of characterisation that help define a person with their interests and personality.

No matter where you go, no matter who you meet, people will always surprise you. A quick glance, handshake and some polite conversation will usually provide us with a one-dimensional portrait of who the person is and what he’s like. However, once you get to know them a little bit better, you discover interesting snippets of personal information that indicate their true tastes and interests which helps to fully-define their unique personality. These traits could have their roots in deeper emotional issues: a traumatic experience from their school days, overcoming a difficult illness or constantly being dumped by girlfriends, and so on.

Real people, despite how mundane and ordinary they may appear, often have interesting and fascinating depths to their character. And so it’s somewhat surprising, and always disappointing, that fictional characters in spec screenplays do not possess these attractive quirks. Far too often in scripts, the characters are one or two-dimensional characters who only exist to serve the plot or fill a role of expectancy. In some respects, this is fine - you want the hero to be the good guy - but that doesn’t mean that they have to behave like ‘cookie-cutter’ copies of everything we’ve seen before.

The reader is looking for something - anything - to make them more interested in a character. Typically, in the first thirty pages of an ordinary script, a reader knows exactly what’s going to happen because the characters are so predictable and cliché, and they behave accordingly throughout. Here’s the tip: think of your characters as real people. You don’t have to go to exhaustive lengths of backstory and biography, just flesh them out a bit more so you know what they like or what they get up to behind closed doors. It could lead to some pleasantly surprising revelations of character that could heavily influence your story.

Real life examples: Wayne Rooney. The big grunt of a Liverpool lad who plays for Manchester United and England. Amazing talent on the pitch, questionable grooming off it, and typical working-class eloquence in TV interviews. You look at him and you think: great footballer but he’s a moron. Recently, he revealed that he has a soft spot for Oliver! The Musical. He can sing every word and his favourite song is ‘Who Will Buy?’ Eh? Come again? You can’t make that up?! That’s amazing. And you look at him in a whole new light. The big brute is a sensitive sod after all, for crying out loud.

Delia Smith. The prissy Middle-England cook who famously taught the country how to boil an egg. Her defining obsession in life? Not cooking, no sir. Football. So much so that she’s joint major shareholder in Norwich Football Club, the team she supports. And last year, to her credit and embarrassment, she stepped out on to the pitch at half time, picked up a microphone and berated the crowd for their lack of support: “Where are you? Where are you??” she cried, the second call tailing off like a drunken grandmother. And you look at her in a whole new light. She’s a passionate and emotive businesswoman, by jiminy.

What can you say about your characters? Have they any such original and surprising facets of characterisation that would help define them as human-beings, and perhaps have dramatic value within the context of the story. Yes they do. Of course they do. But you may not know it yet. Get to know them a bit better and they’ll reveal stuff you never would have believed.

12 comments:

Lucy said...

Funny you should write this about Wayne Rooney - only the other week I discovered something I didn't know about Him Indoors - he has a penchant for THE SOUND OF MUSIC! The Sound Of Music! I feel so dirty. Hell, maybe even divorce is on the cards...

(BTW, I TRIED to avoid being first again, but it's just....so....difficult...!!! *SOB*)

Anonymous said...

For me one well weird character nugget was Osama B L's alleged crush on Whitney Houston ...

Danny Stack said...

Ha! Didn't know that.

Pillock said...

I just read Scorcese's Mean Streets. In it the character Charlie maintains an ongoing 'confession' with Jesus. He quotes from the Gospels and dresses up as Jesus for a party. All of this is interesting in a budding wise guy from the neighbourhood.

sam morrison said...

Danny why the new visuals? I preferred your old layout. Can the readers have a vote?

Berni said...

Yeah, me too!

James Moran said...

I changed my blog and nobody complained, so I can only assume they all hated the old design but were too polite to say... I like the new layout, Mr S, but I liked the old one too. So add a vote for both from me. I realise that's not helpful. Move along now.

Mystery Man said...

Well, if you're interested, Danny, we've been doing a study on my blog on Character Depth. We've been looking at them in terms of the believable contradictions in their personalities and through Cast Design.

-MM

Anonymous said...

I just found this and didn't see the old layout. I'd be interested.

Anonymous said...

the new layout is fantastic Danny - - all crisp and fresh. Love it.

Danny Stack said...

Thanks MM, I have your blog on my Bloglines and I'll add you to t'links soon.

Wyndham said...

Wayne Rooney - Oliver, The Sound of Music, the best footballer of his generation and a penchant for sex with grannies - what depths!