Monday, May 31, 2010

Who do I base my characters on?

So, writers group tomorrow night. The topic for this meeting (suggested by my lovely wife - thanks hon!) is:

"Who do you base your characters on?"

A deliberately provocative question I know, because maybe you don't base your characters on anyone. Well that's fine, but I sure do.

I've figured out four different approaches that I take to creating characters.

1. I base them on other people

I find other people to be an interesting and ready source of character traits and motivations. They're everywhere! The plus side of this approach is that I'll never run out of characters.

The down sides are that I tend to feel guilty about 'stealing' from real people; or otherwise I feel afraid of offending friends/acquaintances/enemies when they realise that a character is based on them. The latter issue is not something I should worry about too much... I know that Hix based characters in Hopeless on some mutual friends, but I co-wrote the script with him and even I didn't realise that. And those people who did see themselves in the characters in Hopeless tended to be wrong. People are complex, so really as a writer you're unlikely to nail anyone so neatly and completely as to cause a blow.

2. I base them on me

In some ways, I know myself better than I know anyone else. And taking my own concerns and injecting them into characters is a good way to ensure that I'll be interested in them, even if no one else is. It gives the characters and the script a bit more dynamism if they're working out my issues. So the plus side of this approach is that it's personal. The down side is that it's personal.

3. I base them on other characters

Ideas are often not as fresh as they first seem, and characters can suffer from this problem along with other ideas. I often find that my first iterations of a character are not that original, and that I've probably snatched the idea of the character from some other story. So the plus side of this approach is that it's easy. The down side is it's lazy.

4. A mixture of all of the above.

This is actually what I do in reality, until I can't remember where the character came from. Once you fall in love with them, it doesn't matter anymore. That's when they feel real and as if they didn't come out of you at all!

Monday, May 3, 2010

Why do I write for film?

I co-ordinate a Wellington writers group, and tomorrow night the topic is:

"Why have you decided to be a screenwriter/playwright/whatever you are? What makes that particular medium special to you?"

Why this topic? Well, longer time readers of this blog will know that I am narcissistically fascinated in my own desire to write. This blog began as ‘Why I Write?’ and many of the older posts are explorations of answers to that question.

So getting a bit deeper than that, I think I’m interested in why we choose the mediums that we do. I see our choices as a complex mix of contemporary forces and personal expression. Screenwriting in particular is a modern phenomenon, and in that respect a desire to be a screenwriter strikes me as almost faddish. If we were in the 18th century, none of us would be screenwriters. Screenwriting appears to me to be the young popular medium that has overshadowed all others, at least in the circles I move in (novelists/playwrights/poets/comic book artists/graffiti artists/Hallmark card writers feel free to blow me out of the water...) So I look at my own embrace of screenwriting with a certain degree of distrust; do I do it just because it’s the popular choice, or for more intrinsic reasons?

Well, there’s certainly some things I enjoy about film as a medium (I’ll talk about film, rather than TV, which I have also written for, but I’ll try to keep this post under control by dealing just with film.)

Film is fast – stories tend to be less than two hours long. That encourages brevity, which actually plays to a key strength of mine; I’m too lazy to write long. And I admire brevity – I like condensing material to its essence. I’ve never forgotten Hix telling me about what he did with the earlier drafts of Hopeless before I came on board as a co-writer; he talked about how he combined multiple characters into single characters, giving the single characters the strengths of the multiple ones. I like that kind of work - boiling things down to create a headier brew. Film demands you do that because you don’t have time.

Film is a collaborative medium, and I like others to read my work and get behind it. Film requires that I get a team around me; and if I can get a team around me, that feels validating for the work I’ve created. One of the reasons I started writing screenplays was because others were doing it, and that meant that I could do it with them.

I do love watching films, though I don’t think a great film stands above reading a great novel for me in terms of enjoyment. There are plenty of films that are etched in my brain though; and so I do feel a debt of love for the medium. I want to excel within it because I know how great it can be.

And finally film is something I’ve had some success in, and I know something about how to write screenplays. That doesn’t answer why I started screenwriting, but it does go some way to answer why I continue in it.

There are downsides to screenwriting too: most commercially minded cinema no longer especially interests me so I have trouble picturing a place for myself in the industry; the collaborative nature of film-making has the downside (as well as advantage) of being dependent on others for success; film is expensive and the competition for funding is tough.

Other mediums interest me too: theatre and novel writing are both starting to whisper to me. But I’ll stick with screenwriting in the medium term at least; I know it and love it, and want to consolidate the lessons that I’ve learnt.

Plus I need to finish something – so it might as well be that screenplay I’m in the middle of (Run), and then that other screenplay I’m in the middle of (The Gap)… That should keep me going for a while.