Thursday, April 26, 2012

What Your Characters Want

You're safe. No Spice Girls references ahead.

Instead of feeling like I had found a golden ticket when I ran across this gem at Script about creating characters that actors will want to play, a writing fog lifted and I realized that this was something I already knew, something I had heard before, and something that shines a harsh light on the wrinkles in my writing complexion.

I hate wrinkles.

The Script article challenges writers to know their characters beyond the adjectives we use to describe them and suggests that characteristics do not define character because characters are, themselves, an action verb. While the analogy doesn't work for me (adjectives describe nouns, not verbs), the point being made does. Characters are not a handful of descriptions.  Those are characteristics. Who characters are is demonstrated by what they want more than anything --- at that particular moment.

In this Wordplay column, Situation-Based Writing, Terry Rossio explains it this way, "Circumstances come from the world and impose onto characters from the outside, so to speak. Character wants come from inside the characters and push out at the world." He also says that once you know a character's "want", the situation exists. Be sure you read the entire column because he first discusses creating situations and how situation relates to character by being (1) immediate - somebody wants something or will be forced to want something right now and (2) imperative - somebody wants something badly.

Unknown Screenwriter once advised me to know the basic wants of each character before I ever put my fingers on the keyboard so their behavior in their circumstances will be consistent and logical, regardless of the situation. See what he did there? He, too, tied situation to character.

Our screenplays should reveal character by the characters' pursuits of what they want. In this way, there is no need to ever create a scene for the sole purpose of establishing character. Furthermore, in every single scene, somebody should want something.

So I ask you --  do you know in every scene what every character wants?

Reading through my Nicholl submission (just a few more days before the deadline), I am not only looking for typographical errors but I am also checking each scene to see if I've made it clear to the audience what my characters want. I know what my characters want but will a reader?

I hate wrinkles.


E.C. Henry said...

FINALLY a content-based post! What took you so long, MarryAn?

GREAT quote from Terry Rossio; characters wants push out into the story, whereas circumstances push in.

Knowing what a chacter "wants" is a totally misnomer. It's bullshit. I mean IF you try to make real life characters, in real life how many people do you know that are totally focused on their "wants"? Wants is bare-bones DULL character stuff. You need characters that vastly transend "wants."

Most scenes I write are geared to advance PLOT. Plot is suppior to character. WHY? Because story trumps individual character -- in the movies -- unless you're writing a bio picture about some super, well-known icon that has a built-in interest.

Glad to read you're fine-tunning your Nicol's submission -- me too :-) Was hoping to get this year's submission reviewed by Scriptshaddow BEFORE the May 1, deadline; but it looks like I've been passed over. Sigh. After 8 years of doing this, you get used to it.

Have a great weekend. Hope you make your diamond shine.

- E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

MaryAn Batchellor said...

Well, E.C., in 2006 and 2007, I wrote about 375 posts that were mostly heavy duty screenwriting content. The time came for me to do more screenwriting than writing about it.

As for "wants", I don't think you could be further away from me on this one. In every scene somebody should WANT something, even it's just a glass of water. Many times it will relate specifically to their situation - Scarlett wants Ashley, Luke wants to rescue Princess Leia, Juno wants a home for her baby, Olive wants to win Little Miss Sunshine, Woody wants to go to college with Andy, Dr. Hammond wants to save Jurassic Park, etc.


there are a whole slew of little wants as a result of, conflicting with, or hindering the big wants, too and they are all related to situation/plot.

Let's take Gone With the Wind - Ashley wants to live in peace, Scarlett wants to be in Atlanta, Rhett wants Scarlett. Scarlett wants a hat, Rhett wants a kiss, Mammie wants a red petticoat, Scarlett wants money to save Tara, it goes on and on and each one of these wants is related to a conflict which is connected to the main want - Scarlett wants Ashley and will do anything to get him.