Monday, November 21, 2005

Writing Silly Putty Characters

Remember silly putty? It bounces, bends into all kinds of shapes and will even take on an image if you smash it into the newspaper? Well, I wrote a character like that recently.

Many times, I'll write some kind of on-the-nose dialogue that I know is lame, but I'll put it there as a placeholder and edit it later. This works pretty well for me. So, I tried an experiment doing the same thing with a character in my current project.

My outline was complete but something still didn't feel right. Something was too contrived and predictable. Okay, so technically, I guess that means the story was IN-complete and I knew it. As I was writing the screenplay, I decided to add a vague character. This character was basically a "placeholder" for a future character and he was drawn in a way that I could make him jump on any side of the fence depending on where I built that fence. He could bounce, bend, and take on any traits I needed depending on where I stuck him in the story.

I was reasonably certain this was one of the most irresponsible screenwriting stunts I've pulled yet and I had no idea what I was going to do with this character. I fully expected to cut him and his chessy pointless on-the-nose dialogue in my second draft. He was poorly drawn, wishy washy and sometimes mirrored another character. He added absolutely nothing to the story.

My red pen was readyto kill off this waste of paper as I went through the draft and started marking weaknesses in the story. Then I found a hole. It was a big gaping ugly crack in the story. Could my placeholder character fix it? I studied it for a day or two. Nope. No way he could fix it and even if he could, he's in all the wrong scenes. This was a really stupid idea. So my red pen killed him. It was quick and painless.

Yesterday, a bright cliche went off over my head. (That would be a yellow light bulb because as much as I've sought out strobe lights, lava lamps, blacklights and even a lazer pen, I always get those boring yellow light bulbs.) The solution was simple.

All I had to do was alter the crack in the story. It wasn't a bad crack. It was just too clean a crack. It was a symmetrical crack that affected each character the same way. Aha! That was the problem. I should have known better. Cracks aren't symmetrical. They zig and zag, get wider and fatter, and take bizarre nonsensical turns.

So, I put my silly putty placeholder character back in and guess what? He still didn't work.

Morale to the story? Characters aren't characters without a purpose. Maybe somebody else can make this idea work. I couldn't. But at least I was right about one thing. Writing a silly putty character was one of the most irresponsible screenwriting stunts I've pulled yet.

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