Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Character vs. Story

Howdy bloggers,
I'm back again with my version of the cinematic experience. Today's topic is one that I hear bandied about everywhere: do you start with a story or with a character.

As usual there is no answer, only the way you are most comfortable. As a sw developer I come across a similar conundrum when designing software. Do you concentrate on the man page(character) or the interaction between all of the pages(story).

I myself usually come up with a story and then find a character that can cause as much conflict and drama in that situation as possible.

My first and most beloved spec is a good example. I wanted a dramatic story about a girl who wants to graduate college a virgin. So I said how can I make this character?

I decided she would be very sheltered, almost "clueless." She would also have a party spirit, so immediately we have two antagonists, one who tries the "turn your head" method and one who doesn't believe she could be so innocent when she dances like a stripper.

Another story involves a young kid who daydreams a lot. It's a comedy so I figured we'd give him a real "daydream."

A basic logline is usually enough to flesh out your protag and that's what I do. I brainstorm a bunch of story ideas and then start to research the topic to find the best protag, or perhaps I should say "personality-type."

I also tend to use the "high-concept" path where I think of a topic that would be exciting and interesting to most people. I have a few at this point and they are coming together. The story skeleton almost always give me the path to the best character type, though I admittedly don't do a full "what's in their refrigerator" character map.

I usually let my sequences guide me from the story skeleton and basic character actions to the widening of the personality. If you pick the right character, you will definitely have too much material with which to torture your protag.

Of course, every piece of writing has to be taken with "YOUR" particular grain of salt as what works for others may not work for you. For example, I "appropriated" the use of large index cards from Rossio\Elliott but probably use them totally differently.

I have looked at the sequence method but ended up making it more granular( up to 60 sequences rather than 8). It usually works out pretty good as I am zooming through several specs right now, with the hopes of an assignment that will give me my first credit, WGA-sig or not. But I digress...

So just like always your mileage may vary so you have to find the voice that suits you especially since different genres, though basically structured the same, have different necessities for advancing the story.

For example only a dark comedy can effectively use violence, just as there are not going to be many poignant speeches in an action movie or sex scenes are usually not acceptable in Rom Coms.

Someone in the BlogoSphere mentioned that comedy is all situations but I'd extend that to all genres as situations and reactions are what make a story move. Plot-driven stories usually involve actions by the antag while character-driven stories usually involve actions by the protag so looking at Die Hard, the bad guy always does something to sweep McClane into action, but in Shawshank Andy's actions are what caused the antags (especially the "sisters") to act.

I'm not really a firm believer in every "rule" but some are just a part of the cinematic experience and should be adhered to.

Well, my fantasy comedy awaits so I think we'll call it here and hope it's worth something to someone as I've obtained a wealth of useful info from folks here. I always say that screenwriters are the most helpful professionals followed closely by software developers.

So see ya in the movies and don't forget:

Keep Writing as Writing is the Revealing of the Soul


annabel said...

My natural tendency is to come up with a character first and then look for their story. This doesn't always work out well - lol.

Christian M. Howell said...

Yeah, the story is where you find the personality of the protag. Or rather where you develop it.

Like I said, my way isn't right, it's just how I do it.

I mean, a "James Bond" character can be intro'd as a character rather than a story, but Andy Dufresne needs to have a story.

annabel said...

I think my love of classic literature causes me to look for character. I don't read many plot driven books. Well, I am working on it. ;)

Christian M. Howell said...

I'm not saying that you should let plot drive the story. The "plot" is a loose term that means the points in the movie that bring new and more intense direction.

The character should always be in charge of the story.

Character-driven stories just lend to smaller scope. You can do character development in an action movie or thriller, but it has to be more reactive.

For example, John McClain wouldn't normally be crawling around air ducts to show character, but his wise-cracking cocky nature can be explored.

But a poignant drama that takes place in a small town will lean more towards character development like Hope Floats.

But that would play differently than a slasher movie on a farm; such as Texas Chainsaw, where the best you could do for character development was introduce some free-spirited kids in a van.