Category Archives: Character mapping

The character you never invited.

The story’s coming together, you know who’s the hero and who’s the baddie.  You’ve got all the ancillary characters, the locations, you’re sure of the theme.  You’re ready to get down to the scene by scene and then suddenly from nowhere this character appears.  You’re not quite sure how they’ve got there but suddenly they’re in the scene and they’re part of the story and if you tried to take them out, you’d find yourself with a hole in the plot.  Your uninvited guest has made themselves at home.

This kind of development happens more to me in prose than it does in scripts and it may well be that prose at the early draft stage is more relaxed and open to experimentation..  Also it could be novels allow the reader to handle more characters than drama – there’s time for the reader to wander down meandering roads.  The novel is not the tightly constructed screen play, where, if you follow the Hollywood model, you’ll know exactly where you are and if you’re not, what you need to do to get there.  Films need a story as tightly nailed down as a short, short story.  There’s no room f.or uninvited characters.

Yet just because you didn’t know they were coming, until you opened the door on a scene and there they were, doesn’t mean that your uninvited characters are going to change the story you want to tell.  You could suddenly find that your story expands or gains depth through the new character providing a storyline that has resonance for the hero.

In the children’s novel I’m working on at the moment, I was writing a scene where a lieutenant has to report to the arch villain, Jeremiah, who’s evil and cruel.  Writing’s all about show not tell as we’re continually told, so to leave the reader in no doubt as to Jeremiah’s despicable nature, I wrote a scene where he’s interrogating a poor snivelling wretch.  Even poor snivelling wretches if you give them dialogue have to have names but beware, as soon as you give them one, they’ll come alive and start offering you insights into how they could add a bit of variety and humour and even allow your main characters to show who they really are.  Still you should think carefully before you christen them; will Snivelling Wretch No. 1 become a monster and try to take over the show.

So Edwards, as he is now, is part of The Curse of Millie Hapless.  He hasn’t taken over the show, just fitted in nicely.  Millie is a 12 year old girl who accidentally travels back in time and discovers that her ancestor, a famous lady smuggler and spy has been wrongly accused of betraying England, a slur that has echoed through the centuries and impacted on the modern day Hapless family. Millie naturally sets about overturning this injustice.  It was only when I wrote Edwards into that interrogation scene that I saw how he could add to the twists and turns of the plot and even help to save Millie’s great, great, great, great grandmother, Lucy from the gallows.

I’m not saying that all uninvited guests shouldn’t be shown the door but just occasionally it’s worth offering the odd one some hospitality for they could repay you handsomely.

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Filed under Character mapping, Characters, Children's writing, Feature films, Film writing, Novels

Fiction and Fact – Telling the same stories

 

So, do you write fiction or fact?  I started as a short story and article writer but I very soon decided which one I was – a fiction writer at heart.  Just recently  however, I was tempted out of my comfort zone by a series of  courses organised by Nine Lives Media who produced the recent terrific Poundland Wars.  They were funded by Skillset and focused on different areas of factual television from documentaries to format shows.

The excellent Robert Thirkell came to Media City in Salford and spent two days talking us through his career as a documentary film maker.   Even though you know the story you’re watching has been edited, it’s only when you see the process that you begin to realise that storytelling is storytelling, whether it’s fiction or fact.  Both of them have a script because a story has to have structure and a beginning, middle and end and just as with fiction, it helps to know where you want to end up with.  If you don’t know Robert Thirkell, he’s the man behind Jamie Oliver’s School Dinners and a host of other successful shows.

I was the only writer in a room of producers and assistant producers but Robert pointed out that he sees his job as being a writer also, finding the best way to tell his stories.

The same elements that work in fiction also work in factual storytelling.  It’s all back to character, character, character.  Just as you have to spend time working with your characters, finding their fears and how they drive them, how everything they do will be driven by these fears, so producers of factual stories have to find characters who will stand out, who are literally larger than life and who will drive those stories.

As fiction writers, there’s much we can find in these stories, from their structure to their characters, that we can borrow.  The hero will be there and there’ll be an antagonist, someone  or something that’s standing in his way.  The most successful work when the story’s tight and keeps the hero/heroine in almost every scene, for it’s him/her that’s driving everything.   When there are too many stories being interwoven, it’s like too many sub-plots.  You can lose track of what’s going on, unless the theme is strong and keeps them all going in the same direction.

Watching good factual programmes like Jamie Oliver’s School Dinners and Poundland Wars, both UK television shows, and comparing them to fictional feature films, will tell you a great deal about structure and  character.  Good ensemble films will show  how some of these factual films are put together – take a look at “Magnolia”,  (1999) with its use of opening narrative and two parallel stories with interweaving stories.  Check out the storyline and plot on IMDB – a word of warning – sometimes it’s best to read the shortest, most concise version and not become mired in too much character detail.

In her book “Secrets of Screenplay Structure“, Linda J. Cowgill sums up ensemble films and, in my opinion, the elements they have in common with documentaries with multiple story lines and characters:

To create a seamless intertwining of plot lines, a filmmaker needs three things; 

1.    A clear issue or theme for the characters;

2.   A context in which the characters relate;

3.   An event which frames the story.”

In the end it comes down to basic storytelling no matter whether it’s come out of our imagination or true life.

Secrets of Screenplay Structure” Linda J. Cowgill, (1999) ISBN 1-58065-004-X

Conflict” Robert Thirkell,  (2010) ISBN 978 1 408 12909 8  This has a good section on scripts and a breakdown of an episode from “Jamie’s School Dinners.”

Happy writing!

 

 

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Filed under Character mapping, Characters, Documentaries, Feature films, Film writing

Suddenly September

Yes it’s happened again, another summer has flown past and we’re rushing towards the end of the year.  My time was divided between nose-to-laptop and a wonderful wedding.  Family weddings are joyous things where you share the moment when someone you’ve known and loved all their life begins another life with someone they love.  And then the day you’ve prepared for over many months is gone as quickly as the summer that you’re left remembering.  But from that day you have a mosaic of memories of faces, glances, laughter, words whispered and declared, silhouettes on the dance floor, speeches you remember so clearly, they’re etched in the air,  all of it your own private album, never dimmed by time, coloured by that unique moment, playing on a live, moving screen, unmatched by anything in the world.

You could lift them complete and slot them into your latest screenplay, novel or story and wonder why they don’t work or we could plunder them as writers do, though never the things that are closest to our hearts.  But the more you relive and remember, you’ll sift the essence and distilled, it will filter into your writing, though you must be careful with your own emotions, if you want your characters to be as individually pure as they can.

When I first started writing I was given a list of things you should know about your character which included what size shoes and colour socks they would wear and, okay, so maybe it was meant as a guide from which you could build a picture but there was nothing on that list about emotions.   Even the most bloodless, boring person has those and the reason they appear so sanguine could be just as valuable to the writer as what lies behind a life and soul of the party person.  Our greatest fears influence everything we do and every character has a colossal fear that drives and restricts them.  Find that fear and work out what is stopping them from overcoming it.   The best piece of advice I ever had from a script editor was “dig deep”.   But first dig into yourself and find out what your greatest fear is, and it will hurt, but only if you’re completely honest.

Some resources I’ve found valuable on character:  favourite screenplays, The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri and Laurie Hutzler’s Emotional Toolbox Character Map.

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Character mapping, Characters, Film writing