Who? From Where?

Hey, everyone! It’s been a while since the last blog. The Christmas period and the month after tend to be way too busy for me so my time has been taken up elsewhere. I hope you all had a most excellent festive season and that ’12 has been good to you so far.

In this blog I want to talk about building a character. We’ll talk about the importance of giving your character a history and how it can impact on your story. It’s something I don’t see enough of in a lot of big films and it annoys me to see one dimensional characters that I really don’t believe in.

Each and every one of your characters should have a fully fledged backstory that is logical and explainable. They need to make sense as a human being (or whatever). The main reasons for this are simple. In real life, your life leading up to now has made you who you are. Whether it’s the places you’ve been, the people you met or what you were taught at school, all of these things inform how you behave, communicate and live you life.

If you’re a writer, it makes life a lot easier for you if you know the characters you are dealing with. It means you can create situations in the script and know how your character is going to react. It should also show you how the character gets to that situation in the first place.

For instance, let’s go with a Zombie film (any excuse). If there was a zombie attack on a school and a class was trapped in room 4B, waiting for rescue (if it comes) how would your teacher and your group of 8yr olds react?

Let’s look at the teacher. In one scenario your teacher is a 40yr old Gulf War vet who won medals for courage in the line of fire. He’s a family man with three kids and a wife and teaches at this primary school while specialising in History. We can add more information such as his tendency to stay calm under pressure, his easy way with the kids who have a deep respect for him. Perhaps he’s a smoker though and 15yrs out if the corps has meant he’s not as fit as he used to be. His hearing was damaged in the war due to a grenade detonation nearby. Maybe that was why he left the forces. Or maybe he just couldn’t take seeing his friends die beside him…

Now, using that information, it’s pretty clear to see where his story might go. But is it as clear cut? Look closer at what you’ve written. At first he seems like someone who could take care of himself and others. A leader. Willing to put his life on the line for anyone he cares about. You could go down the route of this guy clearing a path to safety through the undead horde which may cause him to be a bit out of breathe but he’ll do it eventually. A hero.

Or, you might look closer. His love for his family comes first- especially after the war broke him. He might ditch the kids altogether but honestly, he’s probably more honourable than that. Maybe he’s so unfit that the group don’t get very far and they all perish- a few of the remaining kids being the only ones to tell the tale. Perhaps the Zombie apocalypse pushes him over the edge and he turns in to a wild man- taking on the zombies but not thinking properly thus letting slip any tactical advantage they might have…

The end result might be influenced by how you want your story to end. Or, it might change the ending you already have if you find a more interesting route to take. It doesn’t matter of course as long as the end product is good but it does let you explore different options and actually develop a script rather than simply write it. Over the various drafts, you will most likely see major changes to the way in which your characters behave. It’s worth noting that the importance should not be to actively change what happens with a character but simply to know why it happens.

I used a picture of Jason Bourne from the brilliant thriller The Bourne Identity   in this post because in my opinion Bourne is one of the more interesting characters in a mainstream franchise of the last decade. Bourne allowed for a character who has all the traits of an expert, almost super human assassin but is believable as a real guy. The effects of amnesia help this along as he struggles to find out who he is. He is put in real life locations, situations and his backstory is gradually revealed with very little exposition. The action is dictated by his particular set of skills and is used as a story telling device throughout the series. Every moment has a point and everything we find out helps deepen our relationship with the character.

Instead of a typical remorseless action hero blowing the crap out of his environment and everyone in it, emotion is injected. He goes where he needs to go rather than the writer putting him in a certain place because it would be ‘cool’ or ‘quirky’.

All of this doesn’t have to relate to zombie films and action movies. These guidelines (because nothing in writing is necessarily a rule) apply to any script or story you’re trying to write.

So, take a look at your script. Make a list of all the characters and write some simple (or detailed) notes about their age, hometown, education, parents, work history, life experiences and their ambitions. Obviously you don’t have to use these exact categories but you get the idea. When you do this, ideas will flourish and you might even get past a part of the script which has been bothering you for ages. This is exactly what I did and it worked.

Until next time folks! Stay tuned…

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Great Scott!

In this post I want to talk about creating stories and characters that are completely original. I’ll go over what inspires my own ideas and scripts and how I go about making decisions on story and character arcs.

I watch films, I read books, I follow current events and have an interest in history. Already, through that, I have enough material to inspire me and to form ideas. There are a lot more interests I have and it is the collective experience of all of these that shape my view of the world and how I like to tell stories. More important than any of these external stimuli which have different effects on each individual is something which we all share and on which we should always trust; Our own thoughts and experiences.

These are the tools which allow a writer to construct an entirely believable story because how you perceive reality and existence is the most true thing you can possibly put on to paper. This may seem to be going down the route of existentialism and you may also scoff at the suggestion that Transformers is grounded in reality. Let me explain…

In my opinion, the two most important parts of a script are the characters and the story. In that order. It is a commonly held belief that the story is all important and that a script will fail if it doesn’t have something interesting to say or somewhere intriguing to take us. I agree but the way I see it you can envisage the most incredible story ever told but if the characters you follow in that story don’t seem credible then it kills any interest you might have and you start to forget why you care about the ending. For instance, in Transformers we follow Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBouef) as he becomes involved with a battle between warring alien robots. Far fetched, but the film is grounded in a coming of age story as Sam grows up, gets his first car and falls for a girl out of his league. One of the reasons the sequels failed was to put this story in the back seat and replace it with more ‘comedy’ amongst other things… It’s an example of how we can relate to the films we see no matter how outlandish that film’s premise is.

A lot of what I write is inspired by real life and the rest is dictated by the needs of the story and the motivations of the characters.

I’ll use my script ‘Beneath’ as an example. I have always loved monster movies and Gojira (1954) is a masterpiece. I wanted to create a monster movie that would be set in the UK (because I’m sick of seeing everything hit  N.Y. or L.A.) and I wanted to give it a twist. Around the time I had this idea, the oil disaster off the U.S. coast occured and it struck me that the environmental message behind the disaster correlated with similar messages behind most other kaiju films. I had my origin (I won’t tell you exactly of course) but I needed a window in to this story. I came up with the idea that we could view the story via multiple characters á la Rashomon or 24. I decided on two characters. One is directly involved in the catastrophe that sets the story off and another is a man working undercover to investigate what’s really going on after the government declares a media blackout so as not to cause panic. They each have their paths in the story and at the end they come together nicely. The twist I used was to integrate a Bourne-esque conspiracy thriller story in to the mix which upped the socio-political message the screenplay is trying to convey. I also wanted to maintain the tradition of making the monsters themselves characters. It isn’t good enough to simply use them as destroyers or cannon fodder. They are living creatures and need to have their own motives and a side you can empathise with. In the context of this story, they were here long before humans and it is the destruction that man causes to the planet that is far worse than the monster’s rampage through London which will surely occur…

Of course with a story that involves an epic story and multiple characters in the present day, I had to think about how the way we live our lives might be affected by a rampaging giant monster and how current forms of social media might extinguish any attempt by the government to quell the spread of information. This element came from this year’s ‘Arab Spring’ which was fascinating to follow. Humanity will always find a way to overcome.

The interesting part about writing this script is that, much like Cloverfield, you don’t see the monster as much as you think you should. There is still enough excitement and pace in the human elements to drive the story and keep you involved. Much like other movies that deal with huge events such as natural disasters or alien invasions, it is simply a setting in which we can explore humanity. Think of Ridley Scott’s Alien for example. You hardly see the cause of the terror but the film still fills you with a sense of dread and atmosphere. It’s Ripley you become fascinated by as much as the titular acid spitting creature.

The script also demands a large amount of research- specifically military and geographical. I needed to include shipping lanes, places, flights, weapon choices, aircraft, marine vessels, oil rig information and a whole host of other elements to create a believable story that is grounded in reality. I set a portion of one character’s story in London and used places that I knew well enough to describe in detail. “Write what you know” is certainly important here.

The characters themselves need to be well defined and watchable. I gave even the smallest characters details and traits that would make them seem real; as if they were living and breathing as you I read the words in the script. You really need to put time aside for these details as they can actually inspire the direction of the story a lot of the time. I was recently stuck on a script for Mystery Boys, a comic book I write. I couldn’t figure out how the two main characters were going to figure out the puzzle behind strange goings on in a remote Japanese village. I had a vague idea about a ‘crazy’ old guy who knew something more but I didn’t know why he knew it or how they met. I came up with the idea that this elderly guy likes a to drink. The main characters meet him at the village inn. I then created a backstory that stretched to his childhood in the last days of WWII and involved his father. I linked it to one of the main characters who held a mysterious past which is something I also wanted to work in to the story. It was pretty emotional and had a real kick to it. Not only had I solved a few story issues I had now created a really good character and a different ending for the book which became something more than a simple tale of agents against the unknown. It was more human and it is honestly one of the best things I have ever written. It all came from the simple idea of the old man having a drink in his hand.

Similarly, in Beneath, the main characters eventually link up because of who they are and what they do not because I simply decided to place them in the same place at the same time which I feel is far too convenient and lazy.

So, a story can form by seeing what’s around us and by also by the characters we place in that setting. This when the evolution and major changes occur inbetween drafts. It is somewhat painful to change such large portions of script but if your character dictates they should follow a certain path and it works as a story then you need to take the chance and see if it works out better for the script. The story might change which means the characters will do something different which means the consequences might affect the story that follows on and so on…

The main point I want to make here is that when you write, the only voice you should hear is your own. I don’t mean you should write everything from your viewpoint. You need to stay objective if you’re writing something like Schindler’s List for example. What I mean is you shouldn’t be someone else. Keep your style,  hone it and create something that within the first ten pages, the reader will say, “this is a <your name here> script and as usual, I love it!”