Last week as we did here on GITS, the Quest writers focused on the subject of style. As the screenwriting principle we started with is Style = Voice, the Questers spent a lot of time thinking about the importance of determining what their voice is in relation to the stories they write. Today: Scott Reynolds does some thinking about the characters in his story and the improv work he’s doing:
I know this week the Quest was focused on style and narrative voice, but I found myself stuck in the land of my characters. They’re starting to take form and become more complete people, and that’s an exciting time for me.
I’ve always considered myself very character-centric in my writing, but in the last few weeks I’ve come to see that the truth is I don’t spend enough time on character, and I rely heavily on my ability to deliver situationally funny scenes that give the illusion of complete characters.
This is an area where I’m finding myself crossing the improv and screenwriting streams.
One of the things I’ve been focusing on more in my improv work is making character choices. Usually I go out there and rely on my ability to make a situation funny. Sound familiar? It should. That’s the thing I said like five lines up.
A lot of times in improv you’ll want to come into a scene with a character choice. Maybe it’s a whole character. Maybe it’s a point of view. Or an accent. Or an action. Or even a social status relative to your scene partner. The purpose of making a character choice, no mater how fully formed, is to give you a jumping off point from which to make decisions. If you step off the back line in some sort of character, then you start thinking in terms of “what would my character do next?” rather than “what funny thing can I say?”.
It works amazingly. In fact, if you have a pretty complete character coming into a scene, it almost feels like cheating. Like you don’t even have to try. The next move just comes easily. The reactions just come naturally. You barely have to think.
The same is true in…pretty much every form of fiction. The more complete your characters are as people, the easier it is to write their words and actions. You are less hung up on “can I say this?” and “should I write that?” and it just becomes “what would this character do and say in this situation?”
With fully-formed characters, the world seems natural. With less-well-formed characters, dialogue and action seem forced. It holds true for every genre. Even blockbuster action movies.
Think of Die Hard. Every single thing John McClane does and says comes off as exactly what it seems like he should say and do. And things that ONLY he would say and do. Never a question.
Contrast that to, say, the Expendables. Every line of dialogue, every action taken by any character in that movie, could have come from any other cookie-cutter action hero in any other cookie-cutter action flick. Doesn’t mean the movie isn’t fun to watch when you’re in the mood to see some shit blow up, but nobody would ever accuse the Expendables of having memorable characters. Well, nobody I hang out with, anyway.
So back to improv. Here’s what I’ve decided to start doing. It’s just an experiment to help me play with my characters and learn who they are. I’m going to start making an effort to put myself into one of my screenplay’s characters every time I step off the back line to do a scene. I’m going to play the scenes from their points of view. How would they react in this situation? What would they say?
This could be a really fun and interesting way to really get to know my characters AND step up my improv game at the same time.
Or it could totally suck and backfire.
I’ll keep you posted.
This is a great idea and in fact akin to writing exercises I put together as part of Prep: From Concept to Outline workshop: character monologues, interviews, spontaneous typing. In fact recently I encouraged one of my private Quest clients to go on a ‘date’ with one of her characters. Know what? It worked! Scott’s instinct to improv taking on the persona of his story’s characters is a terrific one. But if you can’t join an improv group, there’s no reason you can’t get ‘improvisational’ with your characters through writing exercises.
About Scott: Brooklyn based writer and comedian who bailed on software to focus on writing words that humans could read. Twitter: @scottadhoc.