The Process: What is Your Dramatic Moment? The Process: Who Are Your Main Characters?
Because of Mama

The Art of Storytelling...

Finding Your Story

What is Your Dramatic Moment?

Who Are Your Main Characters?

What is Your Big Idea?

What is Your Story?


The Art of Storytelling: Who Are Your Main Characters?

    You won't interest people in your story if you populate that story with dull, unrealized caricatures. You need to create believable characters that people can relate to, and that they can care about. In order to do this, you need to get to know your characters.

    How do you get to know your characters? To begin, you need to spend time with them. You need to dress them, ask questions of them, find out what they like to do, what they like to eat. You need to find out what they're afraid of, what's perverse or irrational about them, what's terrifyingly simple and heartbreakingly complex.

    Syd Fields says that the first thing to do when trying to get to know your characters is to consider their interior and the exterior lives. Fields says that the interior life of a character takes place from birth until the moment that your film begins. The interior life is a process that forms character - that motivates character. The exterior life, on the other hand, takes place from the moment that the film begins, and ends when you end the story. The exterior life reveals character.

    When you create your character, you can begin with either the exterior or the interior lives. If you begin with the exterior life, you will want to consider the character's professional, relational, and private lives. In other words, you need to ask: What will my character be doing on screen? What does my character do for a living? Who are his friends and loved ones? What does he do when he's alone?

    Answer these questions in specific ways. For example, when you think about your character alone, where do you see him? In his apartment? If so, what kind of furniture does he own? What sort of knick-knacks are lying around? What is the character doing in this space? What is he wearing? Then consider the person in the other sectors of his life. What do these spaces look lie? What is he wearing there? Who populates these worlds? What are they wearing? How does the character relate to them? What is his verbal style? What are his mannerisms? Remember: details are useful. Someone who wears black is different from someone who wears pastel blue. Someone who knits peacefully when she's by herself is different from someone who paces and chain smokes.

    To develop a character's interior life, you'll want to consider your character's psychology and how it got that way. To start, divide your understanding of the interior life into two sectors: those that are immediately relevant, and those that are historically relevant. In other words, what is the character feeling or thinking now, and how did he come to feel/think that way? Ask yourself questions like:

  • What does your character need? and What is the history of this need?
  • What is your character afraid of? and What is the history of that fear?
  • What does your character want? and What is the history of that desire?

    Again, this interior world will be more vivid, more moving, if you're specific. For example, if you ask, "What does my character need?" You might answer, "Redemption." But you need to push further. What is the history of this need for redemption? In what ways has this need haunted him all his life? What form will redemption come in when it finally appears? Why this form?

    When you have a strong sense of the interior and exterior lives of your character, you're ready to think about the ways in which the two lives collide. For in this collision of the interior and the exterior is the germ of your story. Characters have needs (interior), but they encounter obstacles (exterior). They have fears (interior) that are exacerbated by events (exterior). They have desires (interior) that are met or denied by others (exterior). In the simplest terms, story occurs when conflict arises between a character's interior and exterior lives.

    Sometimes, however, the conflict is purely interior. As Robert McKee points out, a well-developed character needs to have dimension, and dimension means contradiction in the interior life of a character. McKee offers the example of Macbeth. Macbeth's character rests on an internal conflict: he is ambitious, and he is guilty. His ambition is at war with his guilt, and from this conflict springs his story. Still, Macbeth's external world is important to his story, in that it expresses or illustrates his internal world. For what would the story be without Lady Macbeth? Without the witches? Without the castle?

    In any case, remember: even in a short film you need well-developed, dimensional characters with rich interior and exterior lives. You may not have the screen time to develop these characters on the page, but this is all the more reason that the characters need to be well-developed in your own mind. If you make short cuts, you will have types, not characters­just as if you make short cuts with the plot you end up with situation, not story. Films that use types and situations may dazzle us with irony, or with technical prowess, but they are not likely to move us. They will not make us laugh, or cry ... or care.

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