Monday, July 5, 2010

CHARACTER BIOGRAPHY - Knowing the Past. Finding the Present.

It’s Christmas. Supper is almost ready. Everyone has been waiting to open presents. But your brother John hasn’t arrived, yet. You always wait for him. It is so irritating.

Your mother finds some puttering to do in the kitchen, even though she already knows that she has done absolutely everything. She watches the clock, concerned that the turkey will dry out if she lets it cook much longer.

You get short-tempered – John has always been the favorite child. If you ever came late, there would be hell to pay. But not him. He is Mr. Perfect.

Your spouse pours another drink, which can only mean that his/her playful drunkenness will give way to a loud and pointless argument later.

Everyone is miserable. But no one says a word.

The door opens, John strides in, wide grin on his face and arms full of gifts. The children crowd around their favorite uncle. The room comes to life with laughter. The party can start, now.

Is your brother oblivious to the misery he causes, or does he do this precisely so that he can bask in this joyous glow? Will he ever change? Will you?

Comedic or dramatic, our individual histories affect the way we go about our daily lives. The same is true for your characters. They each see the world from a different point of view.

Do you need to know everything about your characters’ biographies? It depends. Yes, you need to know enough to be able to effectively convey your characters motivations, emotions and actions. They need to feel real in each situation.

Is it important that your main character always wakes up before his alarm goes off but continues to lie in bed, watching his clock, waiting for it to ring?

Is it important that, no matter how vigilant he is, he can never toast his bread to perfection and always burns it, only to scrape off the char into the kitchen sink?

These things might be very important. Or not. It all depends on what your story is.

These are called “moments.” And, in a movie, moments are magic. They make your characters feel alive and draw the audience into the world you’re creating.

The only way your characters will help you find these moments is if you know their histories.

What do you need to know?

Basic facts: Name? Age? Where was he born? Where did he grow up? Does he have siblings? If so, what was the birth order? Was his family rich? Poor? Educated? Religious? Secular? Conservative? Liberal?

Current living situation: Where does your character live? Why does she live there? Does she get along with her family? Is she social? Anti-social? Shy? Emotionally stunted? Gregarious? Narcissistic? Approval-seeking? Do people find her difficult to get along with? Does she enjoy meeting people? Does she enjoy her life? How does she feel about her own body? Does she tend to criticize others? Does she lack the ability to discern when people are allies or enemies?

Emotional life: What is missing from his life? What is he most afraid of? What brings him the most joy? What does he want right now, in this moment? What is keeping him from getting it? What will happen if he doesn’t get it? What is his secret dream? What does he most need to learn?

In answering these questions, you may find that you your characters take over the writing and begin telling you things you haven’t even asked. You may write things that you will never use in your script. Or you might find that nugget that shifts your story into a new direction.

Let it all happen. The more real your characters are for you, the more real they will feel to your audience.

Do you need to work up complete character biographies before you start writing your script? Not necessarily. Some writers must have full character sketches done before they feel comfortable starting their script; others need to know only the basics, discovering more things along the way.

Writers who draw up complete biographies may have an easier time completing their first drafts, since they feel more of a connection to who the characters are and what they’re about. The downside is that writers can sometimes feel “locked” into their characters being a certain way. You must always be ready to let go of what you think you know and let your characters tell you when you’ve gotten something wrong.

Those who start with biographies that are less worked out may encounter writers block from time to time, requiring them to think more about their characters until they find the way out of their problem. You may learn things about your characters that will require you to change what you have already written. It’s okay. That’s what the rewrite is for.

If you were to stand your characters in a single-file line, have each of them walk into your living room and take a seat, no two of them would do this in exactly the same way. When you know what this scene would look like, then you truly know your characters. Character biography is one of the essential tools you need to get you there.

Have a great writing day!