I have been fretting this week about questions and comments I’ve gotten, publicly and privately, which I guess go along with the territory of teaching and blogging and writing a workbook about writing as if I really know anything at all about what I’m talking about.
(But I have to say there have been a few questions that I should never have gotten at all - it’s mystifying. For the record, if you have a grammar question, DO NOT write to an author to get the answer. That is not our job, you will have burned a valuable opportunity to ask something actually worth asking, and it will make us crazier than we already are, and you don’t want to do that.)
All these questions, aside from the grammar ones, have made me want to say this again, and repeat it often:
While in this blog, and in the Screenwriting Tricks workbook, I lay out a formula for film structure that is widely used in Hollywood, the MAIN POINT of what I suggest here is that you study the specific structures of movies and books in your genre and that specifically appeal to you, so that you can discover the specific tricks that great storytellers use to create the stories you love.
And whatever it is you think they’re doing, you might try doing it yourself.
That is the bottom line of every single thing I have ever written here.
It’s the same with creating character.
As much as I get asked to teach, I never teach workshops on character. Not solely on character, anyway. I just don’t. It’s not that I couldn’t figure out something to say. It’s just that - as I’ve said before - I think writers live with characters in our heads on a daily and nightly basis. I could be totally wrong, but I suspect people don’t become writers if they don’t have characters living in their heads. We don’t live with structure quite so intimately, and therefore it seems more teachable.
And honestly, I very, very rarely hear anyone say anything about creating character that makes me think – WOW, that’s it, I get it now.
I see workshop instructors at conferences handing out character charts, breaking down movies or stories I know pretty well myself, and will occasionally swipe one of those charts to see what the secret might be, and am sometimes absolutely horrified at what I see.
Case in point… people love to break down The Wizard of Oz. God knows I understand that. I’ve used tons of examples from Wizard myself, here. We all KNOW Wizard, so it makes sense to reference it. But The Wizard of Oz is such a special case. It is an iconic movie for reasons that I wouldn’t possibly want to have to explain – it’s like explaining sunlight, or – a rainbow. You can break it down into its elements, but that will never give you the experience. There was a special magic looking over that movie through all its harrowing changes of writers, directors, actors, etc. - and let's not forget that it was based on a classic SERIES of books - and, oh, yeah - it's a friggin' MUSICAL. And all that terrifying mess somehow combined to make a classic. It is not something anyone could ever duplicate.
It’s confusing even to break the movie conveniently into sequences, because it is a musical, and musical numbers were cut and rearranged (and rightly so!) which would have made the timing of the sequence structure make more conventional sense. Just as an example - the studio wanted “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” cut because it made the first Kansas sequence too long, but the movie gods apparently intervened, the song remained, completely screwing with the sequence timing, and film students have been arguing about the Act One break ever since.
So when I see the characters of a movie like The Wizard of Oz dissected on a chart, I am wary and skeptical. I am hard–pressed to believe that you ever even come close to developing a story as rich and enduring as The Wizard of Oz based on the two-dimensional layout of a chart.
Just consider what The Wizard of Oz would have looked like had Shirley Temple (often named as the top choice for the role) been cast instead of Judy Garland, as Dorothy.
The casting of Judy Garland, and her lush, just blossoming, completely vulnerable sexuality, TOTALLY changed the dynamic of the character and every single interaction she had with the other characters in the movie. It changed the meaning of the journey. A young woman’s dream, or fantasy, or metaphorical journey – whatever you want to call that adventure to Oz – is completely different from a child’s. Teenagers yearn for significantly different things than children do.
When I was a preteen I became firmly convinced that the whole Wizard of Oz journey was Dorothy's dream letting her explore which one of the three farmhands she wanted to marry - as a young woman reaching marriageable age, those would be her obvious choices in such a farm town. In Oz, Hunk/the Scarecrow is the first one she meets, and over and over and over again the Scarecrow steps forward as the problem solver and her biggest defender. (She also dances with him in a musical number that was cut from the final film – The Jitterbug, and as any dancer or choreographer knows, when two characters dance in a musical, that means they've just had sex.). When she leaves Oz, she tells the Scarecrow she'll miss him most of all, and when she wakes up in bed, he kneels by the bed and she touches his face. She's chosen.
I would tell people this occasionally in college and they'd laugh - but years later I read much more about the elaborate history of the film and learned that the final scene of an earlier script really had concluded with Hunk going off to agricultural school and winning a promise from her to write to him – implying a romance that would continue (and marriage once “The Scarecrow” had his real-life diploma).
What I’m saying is, there was a structure built in to the script, as well as the magic of casting, that resonates in a way that is not capturable on a character chart.
Okay, I might be the only person who’s ever watched the Wizard of Oz and gotten that out of it. Quite possibly. But my analysis of the subtext is meaningful to me, just as my analysis of Ophelia’s role in Hamlet is, and my strong personal opinions on the movies I watch and the books I read, however obscure they may seem to other people, have been invaluable to my growth as a writer.
Plus, I have more to say about what makes Dorothy a great character.
Another level of my take on Dorothy - and I know I'm not alone in this one - is that she is going through an inner journey to internalize the qualities of braininess, heart, and courage - and her higher self, Glinda - so that as she grows into a woman, she will be able to use those qualities against enemies like Miss Gulch instead of running away as she does at the beginning of the movie.
And another big change that happens with Dorothy is that we see her in situation after situation go from a scared little girl who needs protecting to a woman who will step forward and protect her friends. It's a big character arc for a teenager, growing up like that.
I guess what I'm saying is that a LOT goes into creating a character, and even if some writer or teacher or workshop leader breaks it down brilliantly for you, it’s even more important to figure out what YOU think is going on with that character.
And I’m also saying - and this is very true of the Wizard of Oz film in particular - sometimes it is absolutely impossible to track how something was written. There were so many writers, directors, artists, producers who worked on this one - somehow certainly the movie gods were watching over it to create the alchemy that makes it the classic it is.
Some things are quantifiable, but some simply aren’t. And please don’t be satisfied with anyone else’s quantification.
You are the writer. Ultimately, it’s you and the page. You are God, baby. Make your own rules.
What Makes a Great Protagonist? Case Study: Jake Gittes
What Makes a Great Villain?
Creating Character – The Protagonist
Screenwriting Tricks For Authors - now available on Kindle and for PC!