Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Quick tips #5 - Characterization

I'm going to level with you guys. I had a post all set to go for today about Glee's Sue Sylvester and the tricky thing of writing for one-dimensionally evil characters. Then the finale last night actually ended up feeding into some of what I said, so as I was rewriting to acknowledge that, I realized I was dipping a little too far into spoiler territory. Usually I'm of the mind of "Once it's aired on the West Coast, it's fair game" but since this is the finale and since I have a strong feeling that some of you might still be waiting to catch up on the DVR, I'm going to bump that post until Monday.

The problem is that for the first time in a long time I don't have any posts on standby, so today is going to have to be a "quick tip":

If you ever give your script to someone and they come back with the note that the character seems a little thin, odds are that problem isn't going to be fixed by one four-minute dialogue scene that has the character talking to a sounding board about their past and their deepest desires/fears.

Thin characterization isn't solved by a patch job. Nine times out of ten I can spot these scenes because the seams are more than obvious. Nothing in that scene affects anything in any other scene, which is a dead giveaway that the scene was wedged in later. Take pride in your work. Put in the extra effort and rewrite several scenes so that this new information can resonate throughout the film.


  1. I usually just start writing, then get about 30-40 pages in before I know who my character really is. Then I go back and rewrite with my knew feelings in mind.

  2. I'm curious, Bitter, if you think a script always needs to divulge a character's back story. You know the scene I'm talking about -- somewhere in Act 2 the protagonist and the love interest are holed up in a hotel having evaded the bay guys for the night and as they awkwardly brush past each other the protagonist lets slip he ran over the family cat which has turned him into the emotionless shell he is today.

    In other words, even if the back story sheds real light on the current situation, does it elicit a groan from the reader or is it considered fairly de rigeur?

  3. Jake - I'm pretty sure that somewhere in these archives I've touched on the exact problem you mention and I'll admit that it usually gets a groan from me. Like I said about the example above, it feels like a patch job unless there's been stuff building up to it.

    I always try to look at it like this - that "revelation" scene should play like an answer. The trick is making sure that the audience has had reason to ask the question before you feed it to them.

    Sometimes, good acting might be able to save a rote scene like that. An actor's performance might foreshadow certain revelations in that scene so that when this backstory is made plain, it feels like the final piece snapping into a puzzle.

    But yeah, 4 out of 5 times it ends up feeling like the writer knew they had to accomodate this exposition, but had no idea where to put it.

  4. Thanks for the answer, Bitter. That makes sense. I have one script where I do it, but it answers questions about certain actions on the part of the protagonist.

    In another script I feel all we need to know is unfolding on the page, but I started to worry that I'd have to throw in a cat-killing past.

    Good to hear only do backstory if it answers a present question.