Friday, May 27, 2011

How to Make a Movie: Building a Character In Two Easy Steps

Recently, I found myself paging through the scripts my students wrote, cleaning out folders now that my school year is over.

And I realized that I had shared a fun idea with my kids that I forgot to share here.

So here we go:

My first batch of students wanted to create a sitcom (of sorts) based around a school. It would be, they said, a bunch of zany characters having zany things happen to them.

As a teacher, I kind of loved this idea. It took place in a school (we were in a school!) and used students (we had students, by cracky!) and we could make the format as long or as short as we wanted.

(Eventually, we decided to create very, very short episodes, which I started referring to as webisodes.)

At that point, we started brainstorming episode ideas. Each episode needed a clear, easy-to-state idea that we could hang a five-minute story on.

We all ended up staring at each other for a few minutes.

The problem was, I realized, that we hadn't set many parameters. All we had was "The Office in a School." This is a pretty great idea, and if I could pull it off I'd totally take all my kids to Hollywood and sell the show to The N, and have them write and star in it, because they're all very funny.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The problem was, we had no characters.

A story, for better or worse, doesn't happen to itself. It happens to a person, or to people. (That story definition again: A person fights their way through more and more difficult obstacles until they get to the end of the story, and win.)

We couldn't tell a story, because we had no people in the story.

Since the kids wanted to star in the show (which worked well for us) we used their real first names.

And here's the part that can help you write.

What we did next was give each character two things:

A defining characteristic.

A goal.

In a lot of "how to write" kind of books, they'll tell you to write long back stories on your characters. I don't think that's a terrible idea, but it can take a long time, and at the end you have a bunch of writing that probably won't appear in your story.

But if you give your character a single thing to define them with, it makes them easier to track (oh, that's so-and-so - he's the angry one) and it helps you to answer the question, "What would this character do next?"

Since we had five people who were willing to act, we set them up with basic characteristics:

The Smart One Who Is Angry No One Notices They're Smart

The Dumb, Loyal One

The Girl Who Shoots Guns - and Has Anger Issues

The One That's Forgetful and Easily Freaked

The Girl Who's Mexican - And A Little Oblivious

Now, I won't argue that those are brilliant characters, but it always gave us something to work from.

Over time, some of the characters evolved a bit. The Smart Angry One also developed a bit of confusion about their orientation. Not in real life, but on the show. And we ran with it, referencing it from episode to episode.

The Girl With the Guns evolved from kind of angry into a sort of wise-cracking cruelty.

But these baseline personalities served us well, even into shooting the last episode. At one point, we realized that we had a funny line, but it wasn't something the character would say - it was too mean. So we gave it to the mean character.

At one point, there was even some discussion of taking the "dumb" character and basing an episode around the character admitting it was all an act - she was doing it so people would like her.

It would have been one of the saddest episodes of anything, ever.

Okay, so now we had characters, and we could put them into a situation.

For the pilot, the characters all had a paper due... and only one of them had it finished.

Why did only one of them finish it? Well... let's go back to personality.

The angry girl tore hers up talking about a blind date gone wrong.

The dumb girl was still writing her paper... about an improper topic.

The smart girl finished her paper, and lorded it over other people.

The girl who tends to freak out realized she forgot her paper, and ran out of the room to get it. Eventually, she was hit by a car.

And the Mexican girl's paper got chewed up... by her pet Chihuahua.

Now, I'm not going to argue that any of this is genius. As sitcom tropes go, it's all pretty standard.

But the thing is, it's all standard for a reason. "Modern Family" did an episode a few weeks ago that was, basically, about how watching people fall down is funny.

Which brings me to the second idea I shared with my students: Goals.

In each episode, every character needed a goal. Sometimes, it was the same goal. Sometimes, the goals were different. Sometimes the goals put the characters at odds, and sometimes they all just spun through their own universe.

But, everyone had a goal. And in each scene, they did something in an attempt to further (or discuss) that goal.

And honestly, those two little ideas (defined characters, strong goals) gave all of our episodes a motor to run them.

Again, I won't argue that the motors were brilliant, but I don't know how many motors really are. When you think about something like "Star Wars," what's the goal? Rescue the princess and get some blueprints to the rebels.

It's been done, is what I'm saying.

But as a writing tool, having those two things on hand always kept us on track. If someone said something funny that didn't work for character A, we'd move it to character C.

And if a scene was wandering along, not going anywhere, we'd go back and look at the character goals... and once we had a goal in mind, it made it a lot easier to send the scene in a direction.

In the end, I won't argue that we made brilliant movies worthy of dissection as great art, but our webisodes were never boring, because they were all moving forward, towards something the audience could follow.

In conclusion: Defined characters, strong goals.

And if you know someone at The N looking for the next great show, shoot me an email. I've got a couple of DVDs they should see.

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