Does character drive story, or does story leave place for characters?
In other words, how do you go about figuring out plot? What comes first? Character, or story? I took notes recently on a conversation between screenwriting experts on the matter:
Dwayne Alexander Smith, Screenwriter, Damn Good Ideas Productions
Steve Faber, Screenwriter
Pamela Jaye Smith, Consultant, Teacher, MYTHWORKS
Anthony Grieco, Screenwriter, Story Specialist at The Writers Store and a mentor for the Industry Insider Screenwriting Contest
Michael Hauge, Story Consultant/Author/Lecturer
Lee Jessup, Career Coach for Screenwriters
Pamela: “Character-driven story” vs “Action adventure” – both are valid instances of screenplays that start with character
Anthony: Various inspirations lead to story. The big question, “what if”… and start to play with a ball…How would the ending sentence go and what is the moral of the story? I will create a character with a flaw in opposition to the moral…If you’re not interested in figuring this flaw out, the reader won’t be. I would find the story and then find the character that helps me find that story.
Michael: Don’t think stories are plot or character-driven. They are DESIRE driven, but character in pursuit of goal drives the plot. What is the big desire?
Steve: Obsessed with story. Best when focused on, outline story like crazy. It’s about an outline. Tell the story in a few sentences. No more high-concept stories. They are anomalies. Done. When budgets were high. A good story can be described to someone in a few words.
Dwayne: It starts with story. Outline like crazy: Always be writing for a star. Then create a protagonist or lead that a star wants to play.
What are the must-have ingredients for a great lead character for a star?
Dwayne: Changes by genre/movie. Likeable. Focus on Point-of-view. A strong character is in almost every scene in the movie. Rocky, Raiders, Indiana Jones. And looking over their shoulder and follows the movie (pulls you in).
Michael: Elevating character from OK to great: What terrifies this character emotionally? What is the deep, hidden emotion, fear they don’t want to face? Where does it come from? What armor do they wear? Unite this with plot: find the fear they must face. In Wedding Crashers, it’s the fear of commitment.
Steve: Level of ambiguity. This is one important aspect that propels them along the journey. It makes them stop to question, are they doing this for the right reasons? They must have some level of uncertainty and ambiguity.
Pamela: Aligned with one of the archetypes. This works. Because it’s about who we are. The closer they are aligned, the easier it is for us to sympathize (subconscious patterns that live in the psyche of humanity). Get recognition. A great character’s job: is to use Point-of-View as a lens to view humanity.
Anthony: Make sure your character has an attitude towards the world (what Michael calls “armor”). Whether they’re introverted or extroverted, how they approach the world matters. Throw people who don’t have that attitude with them. A curmudgeon with a Sunshiny. Other characters must be affected by or impacted by the lead character. Don’t buy into your character must be likeable. Dude in Big Lebowski – identify with strong, laissez faire. We like watching people get tortured.
How much does the development of character dictate their ultimate fate?
Anthony: With one of my heroes, the outline falls apart at the midpoint because character becomes…uncontrollable? Interesting. By the time I get to that part of the script, I let them take control… it’s very organic. You should outline and structure, but once you get good at it, throw it all away… Most sell-able screenplays have happy endings. Cautionary tales and heroic tales.
Pamela: Inner drives – putting a different backstory to characters to same lines of dialogue is a good way to flesh out characters’ inner drives…
Michael: Don’t use biographies. I often get bombarded with questions about stories and characters. Oftentimes, writers don’t know their character… yet they more likely to say, they know the answer to these questions. The end goal is to know the character as well as your siblings, or spouse.
Steve: The Graduates. Did they stay together at the end? You need to know every aspect of character. Question: do your scenes compromise the character? Be stubborn. Throwing a cake away, in the script, that you don’t necessarily need. Always give them a cut if the budget doesn’t work out. If you really know your character well, they not to compromise (on throwaway scenes).
Dwayne: Rarely gets a note about character. More about changing the story.
How would you pitch a character-driven story?
Steve: Would spec Napoleon Dynamite. Not pitch it. Very difficult to pitch them. Well done, but not easy to pitch. e.g. Juno is never going to come out to people even if it looks good in your head. “Pitching to an oil painting” – you get nothing.
If you had 10 aspects to a character, how many would you bring in as subplot?
Anthony: Never approach a story that way. The big question is what bomb went off in their lives before this movie started? How do we break this spell? The other stuff fills in with re-writes. “I don’t need to know what my character had for breakfast.”
In an age of Transformers, is film the place for character development, or more TV?
Pamela: New fertile ground: short-mini series. Storylines over six to twenty episodes produced by people like you. Not done with majors. Freedom of expression without the restrictions of studio executives, development people, and investors. Check out the Web Series (Marseilles Webfest/ LA Webfest). A lot of creative projects ** All into TRANSMEDIA. Transformers is about toys. The movie platforms put a story that is more attractive to investors.
What do you never want to see in a character?
Steve: Pedophelia. Unnecessary side journeys to go make sandwiches. Romcom’s bother me. Because I know what’s going to happen.
Michael: Static, inaction, indecisive characters. Whether it’s a right or wrong decision, force them to take action.
Anthony: If a character can just stop what they’re doing and say “I don’t need to be here” then you have a problem. Because there are NO STAKES. It must be about life and death.
Michael: Whatever they pursue, if they fail, what are the consequences? Don’t have a millionaire who falls in love. It has got to be life and death.
Dwayne: I don’t like protagonists who don’t believe in their course. They must be totally gung-ho about their goal.