Thursday, May 5, 2011

Stealing Characters

                   "My own little postage stamp of native soil"
                                                         - William Faulkner

Since last Thursday, I came out of my "writer's block" by following the rules I set down for my students when I taught screenwriting at UCLA extension (that's another blog, somewhere in the past).

If I would have followed it earlier I wouldn't have wasted 2 weeks in fumbling around looking for a story for the Christmas script. So what was my great discovery? 

I was making the mistake of making it up. Making up the characters and the situations. Very hard to do. At least for me. So I went back to the drawing board and realized what I had done in the past and what I had to do now.

I had to steal characters. 

And I don't mean from other movies. What I mean is that I have found, and this works great for me,  that using real people helps me create a story around them as well as subplots. It serves as a launching pad for a rich and 3-dimensional character.

Nice words to say, but doesn't every writer do that? I don't know, some writers are very secretive about their process. Not only do I not keep any secrets, I spelled out in my classes and in this blog how I write, what I write and why I write.

So what do I mean when I say I steal characters and real stories? I look around me and find real people, friends, strangers, anyone that might be interesting at that moment. Or someone from the past. Lots of people in the past. Way better than making them up.

Take Ghostkeeper 2, besides the characters from the first movie, I "created" two new characters, the Australian girl and a Metis  native Indian. The Australian girl was actually based on someone who worked at the hotel and was traveling the world. Although I never met her I had the beginning of a good character, even used the same name.

Then I added pieces of other mountain girls I have known when I lived in the Rockies. And in short time I had a great 3-dimensional character. 

The young Metis was actually based on a Native Indian I know in Canada, and it was a she not a he. I combined her personality with another Native Indian I knew who was a man and now had the makings of a real character.

Naturally the actors will hopefully add their own take but at least they are getting descriptions of parts of real live people, not pale made-up characters.

Ironically it took me years to learn this; I didn't know it when I made Ghostkeeper, that was my second ever screenplay. The first was awful. I have it but never show it to anyone.

It was all because of Syd Field. Most of you know who he is, arguably the first screenwriting guru who found a way to make tons of money by giving seminars. Syd always said you created a character by creating a map of interior and exterior forces including a biography and internal conflicts.

But doing all this I never really got a real character. I got a technical character. Boring as hell.

Who cares. Pretty lame stuff.

One of my first real screenplays was about a woman who was  a recovering druggie who goes back to her hometown to confront her father. I based the character on three real people. First was a development executive I knew who was an alcoholic but who gave me the best notes on a screenplay I ever had. And then I added a bit of another female film exec and her particular traits.

And the third person was me.

Yep. Me. My part was to provide the last bit of character to the other two, someone who wants to basically confront their father. I didn't have the baggage that the screenplay character had, just arguments with my dad. Father and son stuff.

And it worked.

The expression at the beginning from Faulkner, one of America's best novelists, refers to the fact that all  he wrote were stories based on the combinations of people in his little town of Oxford in Mississippi. In short, he didn't need to travel anywhere in order to find stories. He lived and died in the town.

And his books sold all over the world.

So much for Syd. Read Faulkner instead. Or even better, look around your town, or your block or your street. They're all there.

Every type of human being.