Monday, January 18, 2010

Rules of Character? Don't Ask Me.

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.

- Alex


Related posts:

What Makes a Great Protagonist? Case Study: Jake Gittes

What Makes a Great Villain?

Creating Character – The Protagonist

Collecting Character

Screenwriting Tricks For Authors - now available on Kindle and for PC!


Gene said...

I agree. I do think there are certain things you can work out ahead of time and during revision in a quantifiable way that can be used to better reveal character and create reader sympathy and empathy. But perhaps it really is that mysterious unquantifiable something that overrules, that shapes and produces a character as endearing as Dorothy. And you either have it working for you or you don't, at any particular point. How do you know when it's there? On a certain level maybe you do know, though it seems impossible to say why, or how.

"I really love Melody."

"Why? Is it because of her personality, her kindness, her intelligence, the way she moves and smiles, any of those?"

"No...I don't love her for any particular reason. I just love her."

Ann Voss Peterson said...

Great post, Alex! I agree that character charts are useless. I've found the best tool for building characters to be a single word -- why -- and a whole load of pondering and intuition.

BTW, you aren't alone in your interpretation of the romance in Wizard of Oz. I always saw it that way, too.

Sarra Cannon said...

I definitely agree with you about never having had that aha moment when it comes to creating characters. No one workshop or book has ever really led me to some magical, definitive answer on how to do it. I think a huge part of writing - and of even breaking down structures of movies and seeing what you get out of it - has to do with learning self-trust.

For me, sometimes it is easier to look at a successful author and say, "They have the answers! I want them to figure it out for me!". Not because I'm lazy, but because I'm scared that I can't do it by myself. I don't trust that I'm really smart enough or creative enough to find my own way.

My best writing comes when I can take what I learn from other people and then trust in my own intuition and my own heart to apply it in a way that makes sense to me. I have to stop looking over my shoulder, in a way. Information and guidance is wonderful, but if you truly want to create magic, you have to trust yourself and your own unique ideas. As for me, I'm not there yet, but I'm learning :).

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Gene, that is so true. I can't fully define what I love about characters any more than I can define what I love about people. I can try, but it always woefully misses the mark.

I never thought about it that way, but you're completely right.

And it's SO PERSONAL. Always.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Ann, you are forever my homegirl. You are the first person I've EVER met who saw that in the Wizard of Oz.

And it doesn't surprise me a bit.

Hope I see you soon, soon, soon. LCC?

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Sarra, if you can define it as perfectly as you just did, you are on the threshold. All you have to do is step through.

The real beauty of characters is - they DO do it for you, if you let them in and let them take control.

It's psychotic and it's magic, and thank God for that.

ssas said...

I rarely get the aha moment on writing characters in general, but I always get the aha moment for each character I write, if that makes sense. It's usually about the time the plot comes together and I realize why this story can only happen to this character.

But putting words to it? Not really. And I'm a writer, ha!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

SSAS, I know. I swear, all of writing for me is just treading water until the REAL characters actually show up and take over.

How do you explain that? How do you teach it? You know what that is, or you don't.

Author Scott Nicholson said...

I always use The Wizard of Oz as a metaphor for sobriety...or any worthwhile journey, really. You don't go someplace and get granted as a boon intelligence, compassion, and courage. You get those things by taking the journey and facing the hazards and detours. But I guess that's the mythic journey in a nutshell, anyway.

owldreamer said...

If you need someone to tell you how to create a character, then you probably shouldn't be trying to write a book. I have an idea ,a what if story and suddenly the characters drop by one by one or in small groups to check things out and introduce themselves. After that I pretty much write what they tell me. Most of them I love dearly,they become my family or I want to be one of them or at least be in the book with them. Others,not so much. Some terrify me or I really Dislike them.Help creating them? No they do fine on their own.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Hey Scott! Couldn't agree more - it's the journey that gets you the qualities you think you're going to be given at the end of the journey, and in Wizard, we have the delight of seeing all the allies constantly practicing the very quality they think they are missing. It's such a pure truth.

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Anonymous said...


This was a brilliant post. Thank you for sharing your insights into the character of Dorthy.

I've never had much use with a character chart myself. A brief paragraph on who my character is, what motivates her, and her story goal is what I normally work from. I'll jot down notes as I write.

I do decide the appearance of the character, to keep from goofing up, but sometimes that even changes as I write. I'll just cross the feature out or/and add a new feature.

Again, great post. I enjoy your blog.

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G.R. Yeates said...

Hi Alex,

Great point for discussion as always.

I think creation of character is hard to pin down because they are usually bound up with aspects of ourselves and the emotive parts of story - 'what I want to say' etc.

I know that in manuscripts I've done to date, when revising, I've seen characteristics stand out and been able to see where I got them from and the logic behind them. When I was doing the job of writing itself, I didn't see it at all. It was just 'what that character did' or 'what that character was like'. Hindsight brings it all into focus and makes analysis possible but until then everything stays kinda fuzzy.


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