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Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Levin's Tips, Week 3 -- Character

People fall in love with characters, not stories.

There are dozens of predictable romantic comedies that only work because the characters are so well drawn and we want the central duo to end up together. There are thousands hours of  listless TV shows involving doctors, lawyers and cops that are just... existentially unjustified to exist at this point and time. But they work because the central character is amusing/fascinating/different, take your pick.

There is no easy way to teach people to create indelible, memorable characters. But, hey, here are two "tricks" I use. Maybe they'll work for you too!

                              Online Impersonation

No, no, it's way less sketchier than it sounds, I promise!
There are lots of sites (reddit being the chief one among them) that have personal advice/help forums.

So, let's stay you're writing a thriller about a stay home suburban man with a wild past who discovers an alternate version of himself, the road-not-taken version of himself who did not settle down and kept on roaming, is haunting him.

Let's say you have the structure of the story but this character, you can't quite get into his head. What does he sound like? What are the specific details that differentiate him from the rest of people? What does it mean to have had a crazy past and a serene present?

So, maybe you create an account on reddit and write a post asking for advice. Something like this.

Chances are, you will get a lot of advice from people who have been in your situation. They've been there. As they talk about themselves, you get a better idea of what it must feel like.

I know this sounds a bit morally fucked up or something but I feel like, or maybe I justify it by saying this, we sort of become our characters at the moments when we inhabit them, so it's okay?

So, there you go. That's character-building-exercise number one. Then there is...


                                       MBTI TABLE

If you haven't heard about the Myers-Briggs test, go here first. If you have the time, take the test.

I'm an INTP, my wife is ENTP. So, naturally, we get along... Just like Varys and Tyrion!
Now, I know many people think this is all bullshit, and it might be honestly, but if you have a bunch of characters and you want to figure out their voices, assigning them MBTI types works wonders. Of course, it's all broad outlines and you don't want to write stock characters, but it can be a helpful start in getting into their shoes.

So, let's say you created your characters. Then what? What do we do with them in, you know, the actual screenplay?

                                              CHOICES

Choices reveal character.

Let's say your character is a brave woman.

The best way to convey this to the audience is to put her in a situation that %99 of people would get the fuck out of, but she doesn't. She stays and she helps.

Or, say, your character is logical and introverted. Then maybe you put her into Disneyland, but instead of enjoying the rush of the place like her friends, she chooses to figure out how a certain roller-coaster works on a structural level.

You see the pattern? Give her a choice that contrasts with what anyone else would have done.

And super-bonus points if you put your character in a situation at the beginning of the movie where he/she makes a certain choice, then, at the end of the movie, you put him/her in a similar situation and he/she makes the other choice, conveying to us his/her change.

The poster child for this is Robert De Niro's character in The Deer Hunter. At the beginning of the movie, he has a deer in his sights. He shoots, he scores. After his experience in the War, he goes hunting again. This time, he can't bring himself to shoot the deer.

But change is hard. In fact:


And once they do, they make different choices to prove to us that, yes, they have changed.

Well, that's that for now. Next week, we will talk about more heady stuff like screenplay structure and sequences. Stay tuned!

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