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Over the last year or so, it has come to my attention that there is a central irony in how I cover and analyze screenplays.
When someone asks me what the most important aspect of a screenplay is, what I look for in recommending them for a second read in a contest or for further consideration for a production company, I always say: character, character, character.
For me, it rarely makes any difference as to how original a concept is, how clever or well plotted a story is, or how unique or intriguing the structure. If these other areas are not supported by rich and vibrant characters (or at the very least, a 7/8 on a scale of 10), it rarely matters what sort of folderol an author gets them caught up in.
There are always exceptions. Star Wars has central characters that are flat, bland and one-dimensional (it’s a movie where the androids have more depth of personality than the heroes) and backed by dialog that Harrison Ford is purported to have described as, “You can type this shit, but you can’t say”. But, as I said, it’s an exception.
There are also other advantages to having vibrant characters. The plot doesn’t necessarily have to be a melodramatic, high concept one to keep the story interesting. I will be much more entranced by a slow burn movie with richly developed people up on the screen than a fast paced one with thin protagonists.
At the same time, and here comes the irony, when I do coverage or analyze a screenplay, characterization is usually the last, and often the least, aspect I deal with.
I first came to realize this at a writer’s group I once headed. After a session, some of us were talking, and one member said to me that he noticed that even though I kept remarking that character was most important, my feedback almost invariably related to structure and plot.
And it suddenly dawned on me that he was right. Character is foremost for success, but structure and plot determined my coverage.
So I’ve been trying to figure out why.
And I’ve come up with a few possibilities.
First, perhaps, is that plot and structure usually do not drive character, but character drives plot and structure. So, if the plot or structure isn’t working in a screenplay, that usually is because the characters aren’t working either. And once the issue with the plot or structure is resolved, this also helps create a fuller and richer character.
One might claim there is an exception in to this, and that is movies with predominantly reactive characters (these are characters that were once described as passive characters, which many gurus said should never be at the center of the story, only active ones, and when too many films were received well with passive characters, they tried to save face by renaming them reactive characters). These include movies like Amarcord, What Maisie Knew, To Kill A Mockingbird and The Pianist, containing central characters who, for various reasons, have little to no control over events and thus can often do little but react to them.
However, I still maintain that the characters are driving the story in their reactions to what is going on. This may be come across as a technicality. But usually I find that in reactive stories, once the structure and plot are straightened out (usually relating to how the character is reacting to events), the characters become stronger.
Second, sometimes a plot is so convoluted, so all over the place, or there are so many or competing through lines that the characters become so overpowered they can’t come through as a real human beings. It’s sometimes amazing the difference that results in quality of a screenplay after removing all the clutter from a script and finding the right focus.
Third is an issue that is sometimes difficult to talk about because it’s more than a bit vague. The creation of plot and structure is what might be metaphorically described as practical mathematics. For those of you who studied geometry and proofs and theorems in school, you know that just about anyone can prove a theorem given certain basics. All it takes is some focus and brain power to figure out the correct series of proofs needed to reach a conclusion. It’s not rocket science and it has a sort of night follows day logic to it.
And I find this the same for plot and structure. It just takes some focus and a bit of brainwork to correct this aspect of a screenplay.
However, creating strong and vibrant characters is more instinctual, more like theoretical mathematics, if you will. Depth in characters is more than just how they act or drive a story, though this plays a large part. How vibrant a character is also has to do with how they speak (their rhythm, style and choice of words); with certain qualities and quirks of personality that exist outside of plot; with a history or backstory that affects how a character acts, and makes his actions believable even if the backstory is never revealed; and, of course, in an avoidance of clichés and stereotypes.
But these can’t really be taught. They are usually more instinctual, something a writer either can or can’t do as it is, something outside of training or instruction, something indefinable that often writers either have or don’t have. That’s one of the reasons, for example, why some authors are often called in on an existing screenplay for no other reason than to work on character and dialog.
This isn’t to say there aren’t ways to strengthen one’s characters whether one has the instinct or not. Here is a link to a blog entry on the subject of dialog, for example. http://ow.ly/HC0p307nRht
I am planning to devote a future essay on ways to help focus the plot, structure and/or through lines in a screenplay, as well as some ideas on strengthening character.
But in the end, if nothing else is taken away in this essay, consider this: if a character isn’t working, you might begin by checking the structure first before anything else.