Film and Theatre meet Writing: Part One, Characters

June 4, 2012

As I mentioned in last Monday’s post, today and on the 18th I will be taking a look at what writers can learn from film and theatre actors and directors in terms of crafting and presenting a story.

Today we’re mainly looking at characters and characterization. I had hoped to also cover setting – or scenic design to use a film term – but I haven’t had a chance as yet to delve into that aspect of the relation between film/theatre and writing.

What, then, can film and theatre say about characterization that can enhance the writing process?

Blake Edwards,  the great film director, often said, “Your characters make your story.” (I’m sure others have expressed the same idea, but it’s Mr. Edwards’ work that I’m most familiar with.)

There are many ways of building a character. At one point or another, all writers learn that characters cannot be one-dimensional and still be believable. They need backstory. They need flaws and foibles, likes and dislikes, all the things that go into making a person – and all the things that go into making a character in a film or a play believable to the audience.

Most writing teachers suggest some sort of questionnaire for a writer to use in order to get beyond the surface of a character, to get under the character’s skin, so to speak. It is essential that an actor get to know his or her character so well that it seems second nature to react the way that character would. The same is true for a writer.

So, as we approach our writing project, we need to delve into our characters in much the same way as an actor would. Dee Cannon can help us in this regard. In a 2009 article in the Guardian, she goes into great detail about “10 questions that must be addressed in order to create a fully-realised three-dimensional person” which is the actor’s and the writer’s task.

In my own writing, I have also found the key questions asked in Screenwriting for Dummies by Laura Schellhardt to be particularly helpful, and highly recommend that resource whether you are writing a screenplay or a kids’ book. In particular, I noted that the author stresses the importance of going through these character development exercises and questions for all your characters, the minor ones as well as the major ones. She points out that “just as villains don’t necessarily know they’re villains, your secondary characters don’t know they’re secondary. In fact, they probably assume that they’re the main characters, so it will help you to craft them that way.” (p. 138) I find that a very intriguing thought.

Of course, characters don’t operate in a vacuum, nor in an empty field. They need a setting, and so the writer next becomes a scenic designer. To get your mind working a bit on scenic design as it applies to writing, please see my posts entitled Setting the Stage  and Tony Walton: Wednesday Worthy. They may give you some ideas to take into your current or future writing projects.

I hope you found something of use to you in your writing journey in this brief look at character development, and I hope you’ll come back on Monday, the 18th of June, as I look at other ways film methods can enhance one’s writing.

Also, be sure to check in here on Wednesday, June 6th, for my interview with Emma Walton Hamilton, author, editor, educator, arts and literacy advocate. I assure you that you won’t want to miss it!

15 People reacted on this

  1. Thank you, Beth. Dee Cannon’s advice is very helpful. Loved the thought that your secondary characters don’t know they are secondary. I have certainly had friends who discovered who their villain was only part way into writing their novels!

    I will be sure to check in on Wednesday!

    1. Isn’t that thought about the secondary characters an interesting one? I keep going back to that when I’m crafting characters.

      I know you’ll love Wednesday!

  2. Very enlightening, Beth, and I was going to say the same thing Joanna said – I hadn’t ever thought about the fact that your villain may not know he’s a villain and that your secondary characters don’t know they’re secondary. Any book for dummies is one I should read…. perhaps I’ll wander over to B&N and “browse” with my notebook and pen 🙂

    1. This post and the one on the 18th aren’t where I expected to go when you asked for more about blocking and outlining, but it’s where my brain took me. Glad you found it interesting!

  3. Thanks for the news on the similarities in film and theatre and writing – each helping the other become better. I want to actually put on a “good” play with more than 3 people as the actors/actresses. I want at least 6 people! I will use your tips for writing!

  4. Interesting post! Have “Screenwriting for Dummies” and agree it is very good. I first heard about characters not knowing they are secondary characters at the LA SCBWI Conference.

  5. Found your post very thought provoking! Liked the Cannon comment about the characters don’t know they aren’t the main characters. I look forward to your future posts.

  6. Thanks for these great tips about making our characters believable. I’m reading a book on character right now, and believe me, I need all the help I can get!

    1. There are so many challenges in story-telling, and our characters play such a huge part in our stories being believable, and in having our readers care about what happens.

  7. At a recent writer’s conference, I found the screen writing workshops very helpful. It’s always interesting to see novel classes use films to break down novel writing techniques. It is interesting about the secondary characters. I’ll be interested to use these techniques for a novel one day. I’ve completed character sketches at different stages for my memoir. It’s always fun to make a sheet for yourself. 🙂

    1. Thanks, Stacy. I’m finding the book Save the Cat! about screenwriting to be very interesting in terms of using the techniques for my own writing. I’m hoping that there’ll be electives in screenwriting and directing that I can attend at the Stony Brook Southampton Children’s Literature Conference this summer, since there are other conferences going on at the same time, and afternoon electives are shared. Your experience cements my intentions in that regard.

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