Over the years, I have interviewed over 40 Black List screenwriters. This month, I will run a series featuring one topic per week related to the craft of writing.
This week: How do you develop your characters?
Reading through all of the responses was a fascinating exercise. Once again, this group of writers demonstrates there is no one way to approach the craft. Their respective approaches to developing their story’s characters vary from highly intuitive, even instinctual to the conscious use of specific techniques and writing exercises. In all cases, the goal is the same: To make the characters come alive in the writer’s imagination and onto the printed page.
On Monday, we featured writers who start their character development process by focusing on real people. Tuesday writers zeroed in on brainstorming and the importance of asking questions about and to characters. Yesterday we checked in with writers who use biographies as a tool for character development. Today we see how some Black List writers use scene-writing to find a character’s voice:
Ashleigh Powell: “For me, how my characters speak informs a lot about who they are and how they see the world. Really nailing down that voice helps me shape their character traits from there.”
Spenser Cohen: “One thing that I do when I first start writing is to put the outline aside and just start trying to find the character’s voice. I’ll give myself space to explore, and I just let the characters go. No one’s going to see it. No one’s going to read it. There’s no pressure. It’s their story, and I let whatever happens, happen. I’ll often make up a scene that’s not in the outline and might not even make sense for the story… It’s almost like a rehearsal before you jump in and start doing the real work. Just exploring. Often in these rough passes the characters start to take shape.”
Julia Hart: “Just through writing the scenes of their dialogue. I write a ton and then I’ll cut a bunch of it out. I’ll write like seven lines where there needs to be one and just cut around that one right line and keep going. I find their voices by having them say too much, by writing down every thought that would be in their head and then cutting off the fat.”
No matter the writing, the goal is to get inside the character’s head:
Eric Heisserer: “If I need to develop the character further, typically that’s the harder work of trying to figure out what part of the story I’m not writing about. If I have to…and I hate it, but I’ve had to do this before…I will write act zero — what happens to a character before the story in my script begins — so I have a deeper understanding of where this character came from.”
James DiLapo: “Whenever I struggled with lines in “Devils At Play” I would stop and would run the whole story in my head from the character’s perspective, trying to feel what they are feeling and thinking how they would. It’s not always easy. I think that’s probably the hardest element of screenwriting. You have to find a way to stretch beyond your own understanding and become, for a moment, someone who is so foreign to the way you live your life. In my experience, however, the more you do it, the better you get at it.”
- Feel free to write free. Free-standing scenes. Free-standing monologues. Give yourself “space to explore”. Write down “every thought” the character has and see what sticks.
- For some writers, a character’s personality may shape their voice, however the inverse can work, too. Nailing down their voice can “shape” their character traits.
- Do what you need to do to get inside their head. Feel what “they are feeling.” Think how “they would.” Write “act zero,” exploring what happened to the character before FADE IN. To riff off the name of this blog… go into the characters.
How about you? Do you write free-standing scenes to explore your characters? How do you go about finding a character’s voice? What do you do to get inside their head?
For Part 1 of this week’s series on character development, go here.
Part 2, here.
Part 3, here.
Tomorrow we take up another angle on prep-writing as reflected on by Black List writers.
Black List writers on the craft: Characters (Part 4) was originally published in Go Into The Story on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.