You can’t trust your characters

14 Jan

Regular readers to this blog will be well aware of the fact that I consider people to be stories. Many screenwriters will start with a concept or a plot and then they will create characters to “live out’ that plot. In my opinion that is the wrong way around…

I like to create the characters (people) first. I like to create them in such a way that they, through their circumstances and through their interactions with others characters will create conflict and drama. In other words the plot isn’t coerced or forced out by the writer but rather is a direct result of the imaginary choices made by the characters.

To write this way you have to throw out the blue print and be prepared to be shocked, your characters will surprise you, just like people always do.


9 Responses to “You can’t trust your characters”

  1. theothergardener January 18, 2010 at 10:24 pm #

    Multiplicity exists in the most consistent, ethical person to the same degree as the worst, most vile hypocrite. It is an ontological, rather than an ethical phenomena, in the way that I meant it. But you’re right, any way you can make characters resonate will be effective, and important.

  2. theothergardener January 18, 2010 at 2:30 pm #

    I would say that I don’t believe in the suspension of disbelief which is really what you are talking about when you say “By believing they are separate from you….” This is a kind of self-deception within a self-deception, so you don’t get rid of the aspects of repetition and reiteration anyway.

    Also, there is something very powerful, maybe even more so than in the case of ‘believable’ characters, in the use of ‘unbelievable’ ones, ones that show themselves to the audience, readers, viewers, as incomplete things, as ghosts or aggregates whose pieces don’t quite fit together. This is not only an aesthetic affect, to draw attention to the constructiveness of fiction, but a way of getting at how quite real people, in the quite real everyday world, are ghosts, too. The impression of permanence comes from a series of misimpressions or mistakes, it is not essential. We are not really the same people at noon that we were at 9am or we will be at 9pm, and so on. This is our essential multiplicity, and this is why I don’t believe that such texts, which draw attention to the constructiveness of the self, are just weird, or elitist or whatever. (You didn’t say this of course, I’m responding to a pretty common criticism of this type of work.) Actually such works have a great popular currency. David Lynch gets at multiplicity with his use of twinning, and despite the impression of strangeness, or perhaps because of it, a large audience made up of very different people are drawn to his films. Outside of America he is even considered a pop filmmaker.

    At the same time, this constructiveness of characters, and even the strategy of twinning itself, can be used in other ways. Some big-budget Hollywood cinema has picked up on this. In David Fincher’s “Zodiac” there is a pair of detectives whose lack of independent existence make them almost overdetermined examples of twinning—they finish each other’s sentences, move in harmony, and act perturbed when other characters interrupt their dualness, as if a short circuit in their machinery has taken place. The audience is quite aware of this fact, to an annoying extent I’d say, the execution being far less subtle, less experienced than in Lynch.

    The point is that these characters have taken on a functionality separate from their role as representations of people, they stand forth as instances of the insipidity and repetitiveness of authority, the way it speaks to itself constantly and even resents any interruption on the part of the ordinary, ‘real’ world. But since they are surrounded by characters made to seem as real as possible—regular Hollywood characters—who are further buttressed by the pretense that the text is “based on a true story,” the moment with the detectives is turned back on itself yet again, and forces the viewer to suspect that this might be the true role of ‘realistic’ characters to begin with: deception, and the projection of the same zeitgeist mind over and over in supposedly different frames. Whereas in Lynch he is trying to get at some existential fact (the text is constantly being swallowed up by other, more subterranean concerns), in Fincher the law-and-order context is everything, until it is violated and then made to comment on itself. In this sense Fincher is more radical than Lynch!

    At any rate, these are only two uses to which this constructiveness can be put. Why limit oneself to only one type of character, ‘real-seeming,’ and only a handful of strategies, when there are so many more that remain unexplored?

    • geofftalbot January 18, 2010 at 4:16 pm #

      Fascinating… of course if you do not believe in the suspension of disbelief ironically it will never ever happen for you, I like the idea of twinning and multiplicity although this too is a truth that is found inside many human characters… There are even examples in real life of people who ironically appear to be walking cliches or stereotypes (sometimes me)… So a stereotype can also represent truth… perhaps the greatest and most universal truth. Hypocrisy, inconsistency and unpredictability are also common flaws within characters as is single-mindedness, consistency and predictability. My greatest insistence is that human truth must be found to resonate within or without in your characters stories… If you wish to communicate and connect at all with your audience… In my case I do and I want these truth’s to operate on a level which does not alienate or confuse my audience, yet does not necessarily explain or preach itself away into oblivion… Something that profoundly resonates… if I could do that once in a film then I would die a happy man.

      Again thanks for your very enlightening comments… i am enjoying the discussion

  3. theothergardener January 16, 2010 at 9:31 pm #

    Of course, I assume you realize, that this, too, is you. So of course really you are just suggesting one way—a traditional one—of doing what I am suggesting. Here is another: provide footnotes to a text, let’s say a novel, which question the narrator’s account of things, its accuracy, tone, approach. This is more than some exercise in ambiguity too, or at least it can be, if the footnotes also introduce alternative narratives, new plotlines, even new characters. Robbe-Grillet does this in his last novel, “Repetition,” with brilliant results. But, this is just one way of nudging, ordering, and reordering. I hate to inform you though, that whatever the ‘characters’ do, it is still you, and it is still you, and so on…in this way, they are never really ‘natural,’ and of course, they are never people. They are more like ghosts, or amputated beings, they are parts of people, specifically, you, me, the author.

    • geofftalbot January 18, 2010 at 12:38 am #

      Interesting. Now if you were talking in the novel writing sense or even just the straight writing sense then you are 100% correct my friend. Interestingly with a film script… I then give my character to an actor who makes it personally theirs… which allows these characters to belong to a dichotomy of people. That several characters or interpretations of characters exist inside one person is definitely true. I think it is important that we construct these characters and attempt to make them as naturally human and alive as possible within both the writer and the readers imagination… By believing that they are separate from you the writer does in some way give them permission to speak and act in a way that is different to how you their creator would live.

      The initial blog was written in respect to screenwriters who write to a formula that is entirely plot driven forgetting that in real life, people create the drama and plot through their own wants and desires etc. I think you must have characters in both hands and your plot in one…

      great comments by the way… thanks

  4. Em January 16, 2010 at 9:52 am #

    that is the key i was searching for!

  5. Emiliy January 16, 2010 at 9:51 am #

    that is the key i was searching for

  6. theothergardener January 15, 2010 at 9:09 pm #

    Characters do seem to take on trajectories and wanderings all their own, with a little time and patience. But one always wants to force things, just a little. It is natural.

    • geofftalbot January 16, 2010 at 7:08 am #

      Well the other characters can force the issue and create the plot?

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