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The International Writers Magazine
: Screenwriting: Characters - From Our Archives

Screenwriting 101

Sam North

Creating believable people is a whole lot more important that creating a watertight plot. Some people might disagree, but the thing about a plot is, that you can always work on it to shape it and quantify, but if you don't have credible, engaging, interesting characters with a great back-story, then, ultimately who cares?

Daniel Autiel &
Vanessa Paradis

To quote the Director of Squeeze Play and The Toxic Avenger 1,2 and 'When watching a Troma movie, you must not only suspend your disbelief, you must lock it up in a small iron crate and torture it.' I think that is the key for all filmmakers. Everyone is allowed to make a lousy film, write a terrible book, or screenplay, but as long as you love it, love the people in it and what they do, people will forgive you. Never disown what you do, one day someone will write or make something far worse than you did and you will feel a lot better for it.


A lot of students complain when I make them write back stories for every character, and I do mean every main character. But I truly believe that the back-story is the key to writing saleable scripts. Every story you see on screen begins at a certain point in the lives of these characters, but what happened up until that point? How you will you know, as a writer, why characters are motivated to do certain things if you don't know their past?

In Hal Hartley's work (Simple Men, Amateur) , it was as important for him to write a life story for the incidental character as it is for the lead.

Plotting: Imagine this. We are looking for ways to create a screenplay. Do we create characters first or plot?

Let's look at a plot.

You are late for a meeting with a woman who is giving you a lot of strife. A bridge. A narrow bridge. A car is stopped on it, the driver's door open. It is too narrow to drive past. It is late at night. A woman is poised on the railings, you think she is going to jump. What do you do? What is happening? Is this the beginning of a love-story or the end of one, or a remake of 'It's a wonderful life?' Or 'Girl on a Bridge.' If you shout, will she lose her step and fall? If you do nothing, will you be able to move her car after she has jumped, or have to dive into the icy water below to find her keys? How inconvenient will all this be?

This woman on the bridge informs you that she is a photographer taking pictures of badgers at night. She is on the bridge because the badgers are crossing the narrow stream below. You are on the bridge because you are late for a meeting with a woman you don't want to have. You cannot save this woman's life. She is not in need of rescue. She says, 'move the car yourself. I'm busy'. You move her car. Inside the car is a man, drunk, passed out on the back seat. You walk back across the narrow bridge to discover your car and the woman are gone. Simultaneously, the car behind you with the drunk in it suddenly drives off.

You are now alone on a bridge, ten miles from your destination with the woman you didn't want to have to tell that you no longer love. You have no car. You look over the railings to see if their really are any badgers. The railing gives way, you fall.

You are dying.

From the shallow water and the rocks below you look up to see the woman you were going to meet looking back at you from the bridge. Standing with her is the female photographer. They are embracing, you now know they are lovers. You are dead. Your dying thought is, if only I had known the backstory.

The story with the bridge is true - only none of it happened in that order. There was a meeting, there was a photographer, there was an accidental death, there was a lesbian relationship. But the accidental death happened last year, the lesbian lovers twenty years ago, the badgers are probably gassed, the location is real.

What story is worth developing? Which one can you mine for the richest characters? Only you can decide. You must build characters worth caring about. The stranger who stopped to help a woman he thought was in distress. Only by creating the backstory can you assess which of these stories has market potential. If either of them does. Classic example of a character movie? Heist starring Gene Hackman written and directed by David Mamet. Check it out.
The Plot: Joe Moore (Gene Hackman) has a job he loves. He's a thief. His job goes sour when he gets caught on security camera tape. His fence, Bergman (Danny DeVito) reneges on the money he's owed, and his wife (Rebecca Pidgeon) may be betraying him with the fence's young lieutenant (Sam Rockwell). Moore and his partner, Bobby Blane (Delroy Lindo) and their utility man, Pinky Pincus (Ricky Jay) find themselves broke, betrayed, and blackmailed. Moore is forced to commit his crew to do one last big job.

Dying GirlHeist

It is only with rich characters in a natural setting that you can make low budget film work and find an audience. That is the appeal of Indie movies. Hal Hartley is out of fashion now but indie films are still made. They are movies about ideas, not fast paced gun-toting, people slaying, body-splatter fodder. Every frame, every gesture must count and yet, without the backstory, without the rich interchange of people swapping ideas, making mistakes, feeling genuine pain and remorse, you could spend $100 million dollars and end up with 'The Postman'. In the end, the feudal play acting of that story couldn't disguise that fact that Kevin Costner had given no one a past worth caring about and because of that, no one bothered about their future.

In screenwriting you have the right to alter the facts to suit the story. You have the right to embellish or strip away, you have the right to take strands from a story and attach it to another. But all the time, remember, where do these characters come from, why do they wear these clothes, what qualifications do they have, or do they lack? To what degree are they relying on chance in life, to what degree is what they do planned. What mistakes and surprises can you throw in to deflect them from achieving their purpose, what secrets can you reveal that will destroy their chances of happiness. None of it without the backstory.

Question: Do characters who plan their lives make more interesting characters than those who don't? What happens when you put them together? Is it enough just to have characters - what about plot?

Characters drive plot.
If you do not have a story, just invent characters you like and give them history. It's likely some common elements will turn up.

For example: Two men with a liking for toffee ice-cream and chat-lines on the Internet. Two women with a passion for craft fairs and husbands they hate. A child who believes he can fly and walks on crutches. A dog that is afraid of cats. You don't need a bank robbery, you don't need a man to come through the door with a gun in his hand. In this scenario all you would need is a man coming through a door with the wrong flavored ice-cream that sets off the two men on some crazed revenge spree and reveals their real destructive characters.


Why is it someone asks that the guy blocking the film section in the bookshop is always some overweight, overgrown man-child with Big Mac stains on his anorak? Why is that person in the wheelchair always angry? Maybe because life in a wheelchair is bloody difficult once you leave the safety of your home. It is sometimes better to use anger or obesity or anorexia than write about 'normal ' people because these people, people with problems are a lot more interesting. Think 'Punch Drunk Love' or 'Stuck On Me'.

Never be PC. Never forget that your characters live and die by what they believe, stupid as those thoughts might be. Never forget that you might develop characters who believe in things you don't and act accordingly. That is why American Beauty won 5 Oscars. It didn't shy away from confrontation, the fact that we laughed at what we found uncomfortable is more perhaps down to the brilliant acting of Keven Spacey and others. It was not a gentle film, but nevertheless people talk about it as a comedy. The characters were real because we know them and young or old, they are us and as confused as us.

Don't be scared of goblins either or cancer. My Life Without Me is a perfect little film about a girl (and young mother) dying of cancer, but it is also an uplifting film. Likewise Me, Earl and the Dying Girl which uses humour in a difficult subject. The Triplets of Belleville is an extraordinary character led animation film and Oscar winning Spirited Away is just as amazing first turning a girl's parents into pigs so she can have an astonishing adventure. Girl With A Pearl Earing is an intense period film about a man who wants a girl and a girl who can't have him because of class, his marriage and yet this intensity is the very core of the film and why people respond to it. All of them about humans with emotions, needs and above all frustrations. Lost in Translation, (another with Scarlett Johansson) is a great film simply because a relationship isn't consumated. The alienation the two characters experience in Japan draws unlikely people together. Good stories are often about what you can't get or achieve. See also Code 46 a love story with a genitic taboo twist. Or take Midnight Special - a film that seems to be about Amber Alert, child abduction by a desperate father, but then turns out to be something else entirely - and it confounds are expections.


Amelie: real characters in unreal situations

Character Movies
Amelie, Lord of the Rings 1,2,3 , In the Bedroom, Iris, Bridget Jones, A Beautiful Mind, Something's Gotta Give, Swing (French Movie), Identity, High Fedelity, Grosse Point Blank, Spirited Away, Garden State - We Dont Live here anymore, The Delicate Art of Parking -
Snow Falling on Cedars, Romanzo Criminale, all these films are entirely character driven. Take a look at a small budget indie movie 'Pieces of April' 2003 starring Katie Holmes. Patricia Clakson got an Oscar nomination for her performance as the 42 year old women dying of cancer very reluctantly going to her black sheep daughters 'Thanksgiving' dinner in New York. This is an astonishingly accomplished film given that it was shot on digital format in sixteen days. It is also very funny and true to a character movie, hardly needs much a plot at all. Just Thanksgiving, the reluctance of a families to enjoy it, some very low expectations, throw in a terminal disease and let it play.

Character is why we go to the movies. Minor things cause major disruptions. It is the way we all live. You chose to come to England, in London you meet someone who changes your life, or you read a book that changes your opinions, or nothing happens at all and you spend the rest of your life in regret. No one else is availbable to do the right thing, you have to send for the people you least like to do the job. Armageddon and Space Cowboys. These are the foundations of great plots, but only if you have interesting characters. (Time Regained an exception) Your fight will be to create something that people want to see filmed from reading your script, then defending every last word and scene to the last. Which is' Fight to the Death 101' later.

© Sam North 2016
editor at
Girl on a bridge


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