WEDNESDAY'S SCRIPT TIP:

CREATE YOUR OWN CHARACTERS


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A while back on the message boards, someone asked if they could "short hand" a character by saying they were like Uma Thurman's character in PULP FICTION. Though Marcellus Wallace's wife was a cool character, she was a character in some other movie and some other script. It's a cheat. Instead of doing the work (figuring out who the character is) I'd be using someone else's work (Tarantino's). He created that character... in fact, Uma's character is based on a girl Tarantino used to go out with: Cat Knell, a development executive from CineTel Films. She hired Tarantino to write a movie called PAST MIDNIGHT with Rutger Hauer. Since I never dated Cat Knell, and don't really know her, it probably wouldn't be a good idea for me to base a character on her. I'd have no idea what I was writing about.

Plus - is this Tarantino's character or MY character? Screenwriting is CREATIVE writing, so all of the characters in my screenplay better be MY creations - not characters stolen from some other writer. There are enough soul-less Tarantino rip-offs out there already, why would I want to write another one. The JOB is to create my own characters - characters that are like no other characters in any other writer's script. They are ORIGINAL. Why would a producer want to buy a script with "used characters"? They want FRESH, NEW, NO MILEAGE characters. The reason why Uma Thurman's character is so interesting in the first place is because she was original. Creating a bad Xerox copy of that character isn't going to have the same effect at all. I need to create an ORIGINAL cool character, someone we haven't seen before.

Add to that - I'm not really sure what constitutes a character like Uma Thurman in PULP FICTION. Does that mean she's tall and thin? Has short black hair? Snorts cocaine? Is married to a gangster? Likes to dance? What am I getting at with that description?

Even if I just mean that she *looks* like Uma Thurman, I think that's a bad idea. I never imagine an actors in my roles. Why? Because if I'm imagining an ACTOR I'm not imagining the CHARACTER am I? I CREATE the character - they are THEMSELVES until casting comes along and effs it up. My characters don't sound like Uma Thurman or Cary Grant or Robert Mitchum or Adam Sandler, they speak in THEIR OWN voice - not my voice, not some actor's voice. They are CHARACTERS (ie: their own person). If I imagine Tom Hanks playing the role, I won't be writing the character's dialogue and reactions, I'll be writing Tom Hanks' dialogue and reactions. Where's the creativity in that? Is my character really Tom Hanks? I don't think so - my characters are the product of their own backgrounds and situations. I imagine the CHARACTERS that I've created as the characters - they have their own voice, reactions, thought process, etc. They are *themselves*.

Instead of thinking "What would Tom Hanks do?" I think "What would my character do?" - in real life, Tom Hanks would probably hide in his trailer.

But most important - I believe that a story is the exploration of a character. That's the purpose for the story. Is my script really exploring Tom Hanks' character? What the heck do I really know about him? Sure, we were born in the same hospital in the same month... but I lost track of him soon after that. I know the SURFACE of Tom Hanks, but not the motivations - goals, fears, demons, the stuff he beats himself up over, etc. So my character would be nothing more than surface - a cardboard cut out. That's bad writing. Good writing is going to dig into that character and find out what makes them tick - and the surface of the character is based on what's inside.

The character doesn't play the actor, the actor plays the character.

I never think about a specific actor when I'm creating a character, because then I'm chimping some actor's personality instead of creating a character who exists on their own. I want my character to seem like a living breathing person. So I start with the inside - what makes the character tick - then figure out how that's exposed through actions and personality traits.

My Script

For my silly half-man / half-alligator script, one of my favorite characters was a gal who has learned the fine art of getting other people to do things for you. I had so much fun finding ways for her to manipulate others... and getting pissed off when people don't do what she wants. Another characer in the same script had this great defeatest attitude - since everything was going to go wrong, might as well enjoy things while we can (secretly my theory of life - and this was the character most like me). Another interesting guy was the fellow who believes everyone is trying to scam him (because *he* is scamming everyone) and always has a smart ass remark... to keep people at a distance. Every character trait tells us something about the person inside. About the *character*. Actions, speech patterns, quirks - everything is *motivated*. All of the externals of a character are ways of showing what is gong on inside.

Once I figure out what makes the character tick and how they interface with everyone else in the world (people usually wear a "mask" to cover their true selves - they have an attitude they use for protection), I can put them in a scene with another character and just let 'em rip.

The problem with using some existing actor - even a dead actor like Bogart or Mitchum or Lorre, is that you're using only mannerisms and externals, rather than *character*. You end up with a big bag of quirks, but may have no idea who the *person* underneath them really is. If you actually create a character - know what their motivations, needs, desires, secrets and fears are - you can create the mannerisms that give us an insight to who this person really is. You're creating a character from the inside out - and the character *has* an inside. The purpose of all of the external stuff is to *show us* the internal and emotional stuff. It's not just a big ol' bag of quirks - it's a window into the character.

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Characters are tied to story. You can't just thrust one character into another story. *Every* character is an integral part of that story. You want a recent example of how character and story are related? Let's take a look at Joan Allen and Brian Cox's characters in THE BOURNE SUPREMACY. These aren't the lead characters, they're antagonists (and not even that Russian dude who is trying to kill Bourne). Both are CIA Agents, but each is completely different. Allen is a digger - she'll do anything to uncover the truth behind the Treadstone operations (even if it puts her career in peril). Cox wants to cover everything up - bury the past (and Treadstone) and get on with CIA business. These are two very different approaches to the same job... and they are also the two choices facing Jason Bourne. These two supporting characters are there to support the story - and are different aspects of the big decision Bourne must make in the story. See - he and Marie were hiding out in India, he was covering up his past life as a Treadstone assassin. Trying to get on with his life by burying his past. When the two CIA Agents are killed and the Treadstone files stolen, Bourne can either hide (from his past) or dig (into his past) and discover some more frightening truths about who he was... maybe even who he is. So Allen and Cox *personalities* are part of the story itself, and part of the exploration of Bourne's character. The characters were created to service the story - they are part of the story.

In my vampire flick NIGHT HUNTER the protagonist is shy, quiet, keeps to himself and keeps to the shadows. Why? Because he's been betrayed by everyone he knows and doesn't WANT to interact with anyone else. He doesn't TRUST anyone else. He believes that no matter how kind someone may be to him - there's a price. He's gonna get screwed. He has completely lost his faith in mankind - and *that's* what the story is about! This guy is going to be FORCED to find his faith in mankind again - FORCED to trust others - FORCED to care about others - FORCED to step out of the shadows and interact with society again. All of the king fu fightin' and vampire bitin' is there as a means to explore his unique character. To put this guy in a place where he must deal with his demons.

Night Hunter, Cinemax World Premiere

If I'd imagined Tom Hanks in this role - there would be no movie. If I'd imagined Johnny Depp in this role, I might have the externals but I wouldn't have the CHARACTER and that's what the whole story is about - exploring this unique character.

Which is why I never describe the exterior of a character - that's casting. It's also a good way to *think* you've created the character when all you've really created is an empty suit of clothes. The CHARACTER of the character is what's important - not what he looks like. They'll hire an actor to portray that character based on your script - and the actor they hire may not look anything like the character as you may have envisioned them. Do you really think I imagined World Kick Boxing Champion Don "The Dragon" Wilson when I wrote NIGHT HUNTER? He's half Japanese and has a Southern accent. Actually, I never imagined any actor - I imagined the CHARACTER. If they'd cast Johnny Depp or Vince Vaughn or Selma Hayak that would still fit the character. It's what's INSIDE that's important - not what they look like (casting decides that).

Write YOUR OWN STORIES with YOUR OWN CHARACTERS. Characters that exist to tell your story (not someone else's story). You don't know if they'll cast Uma Thurman or Tom Hanks or someone else - you don't know what the character looks like, only how they act. The *character* of the character. So create your own individual characters that exist to tell the story *you* created. It's creative writing, so be creative.

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Expanded version with more ways to create interesting protagonists! A step-by-step guide to creating "take charge" protagonists. Screenplays are about characters in conflict... characters in emotional turmoil... Strong three dimensional protagonists who can find solutions to their problems in 110 pages. But how do you create characters like this? How do you turn words into flesh and blood? Character issues, Knowing Who Is The Boss, Tapping into YOUR fears, The Naked Character, Pulp Friction, Man With A Plan, Character Arcs, Avoiding Cliche People, Deep Characterization, Problem Protagonists, 12 Ways To Create Likable Protagonists (even if they are criminals), Active vs. Reactive, The Third Dimension In Character, Relationships, Ensemble Scripts, and much, much more. Print version is 48 pages, Kindle version is once again around 205 pages!

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