Have you ever noticed whom the actors thank when they win an Oscar? They profusely thank the director for “getting the performance out of them.” They thank their agent, their husbands, wives, extended family and distant ancestors, the crew, the studio, the associate producer, and of course, their 8th grade drama teacher. In short, everyone but the writer.
On those rare occasions when they do thank the writer, it’s always for the words the writer gave them to speak. What they should be thanking the writer for, on a never-ending loop, is the wonderful role they got to play in a great story. That’s why Orson Welles said that for the Oscars to be fair, each actor would have to play the same role. When an actor wins, 80% of their success is because of who they got to be. It’s all about the role.
My new book, The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller, is filled with techniques, over 300 by my count, including how to create great characters. As the word “Anatomy” implies, the book uses an organic approach to writing, instead of a mechanical one, and that makes all the difference.
For the last 30 years, screenwriting has been dominated by a mechanical approach to creating story. For example, the so-called “three-act structure” is really a mechanical imprint from the outside that is laid over the top of a story. Act breaks are completely arbitrary. They don’t actually exist in the story. The result, for the vast majority of writers, is a generic, hopelessly derivative story that has no chance of selling in a market with 100,000 sellers and 300 buyers.
Writing a script using the organic approach is the opposite of all that. It’s about starting with what is unique and original in you – what no one else can create – and then using techniques that allow you to expand and execute your idea into a professional script.
Organic storytelling has two major hallmarks. First, a story is a living body in which a hero (almost always) grows. When we talk about story structure, we’re talking about structure in time, the stages by which a character goes from some kind of life-destroying weakness at the beginning of the story to a life-changing self-revelation at the end.
The question is: how do you show this character change through the plot? This is the six billion dollar question (the entire entertainment business is based on it). That calls up the second hallmark of organic storytelling: a living story is made up of a number of individual parts that are interdependent with all the other parts. These major story parts are: premise, the seven major story structure steps, character, moral argument, plot, story world, symbol, scene weave, scene and dialogue (which just happen to be the chapters in The Anatomy of Story).
Screenwriters tend to look for a magic bullet, the one trick that only the big professional writers know and which they use to write and sell their million dollar scripts. This doesn’t exist. Instead screenwriters need to master all of the major story skills simultaneously, because each of these parts of the story connects with one another in literally hundreds of ways. Failure to master even one part causes the whole body to collapse and die.
The single biggest mistake writers make when creating characters is they think of the hero and all other characters as separate individuals. Their hero is alone, in a vacuum, unconnected to others. The result is not only a weak hero, but also cardboard opponents and minor characters who are even weaker.
This great mistake is exacerbated in scriptwriting because of the huge emphasis placed on the “high concept” premise. In these stories, the hero seems to be the only person who matters. But, ironically, this intense spotlight on the hero, instead of defining him more clearly, only makes him seem like a one-note marketing tool.
To create great characters, think of all your characters as part of a web, in which each helps define the others. To put it another way, a character is often defined by who he is not.
Key point: the most important step in creating your hero, as well as all other characters, is to connect and compare each to the others.
Each time you compare a character to your hero, you force yourself to distinguish the hero in new ways. You also start to see the secondary characters as complete human beings, as complex and as valuable as your hero.
Simply put, you have a hero (and sometimes heroes), opponents, and then characters who are some form of friend or enemy. Indeed one of the marks of a professional writer is the ability to fool the audience about whether a character is a friend or enemy of the hero. We see this in a master storyteller like J.K. Rowling, author of the most successful fiction of all time, the Harry Potter stories. An excellent example is the character of Snape, who appears to be Harry’s enemy, then his friend. But wait, he really is an enemy. No, he’s a friend. These sorts of reveals and twists are among the greatest pleasures people take from storytelling.
The character web sets up differently in each genre, which is one reason that mastering genre is so crucial to your success. In romantic comedies, for example, the male and female leads are set up as opposites in some way. Then each has a friend who gives them advice, usually wrong, having to do with the stereotypical flaws of the other sex.
The romantic comedy Knocked Up starts with this classic opposition of man and woman. In fact, the two leads are such an odd couple that writer Judd Apatow has to finesse the fact that Alison would never sleep with Neanderthal Ben even if she were blindingly drunk. But this opposition –- the mature woman and the man-child -- provides the basic line on which the story hangs. It also gives Apatow the essential comic opposition from which he can create a lot of the jokes.
But the really brilliant move in the character opposition -- indeed what makes the movie -- is how Apatow sets up the allies in the character web. Ben's ally is not a lone bachelor but a group of adolescent boys in men's bodies. Alison's ally is not a single woman bitter about love and men, but a couple whose marriage is worn to the breaking point.
This character opposition among the allies takes the story beyond men and women having trouble dating to the much broader and deeper set of issues about how men and women live the length of their lives. On one extreme is the permanently adolescent man who has complete freedom but no love and no children. On the other extreme is permanent life as a couple, with love and children but no freedom, no sense of self, and the constant realization that one is growing old. By placing pregnancy within this much larger web of character oppositions, the emotional and comical resonances ricochet and build to a breaking point within every person in the audience.
I mentioned that character web also has a big effect on all the other major story parts, such as plot. In action stories, the biggest mistake most writers make is they don’t know how to create action without killing the plot. There are a lot of reasons for this. But surely one of the key reasons has to do with how you set up the opposition in the character web. Most action opponents are all-powerful and evil. That makes them dull. But more importantly, everything about them is right on the surface. Result: no surprise and no plot.
In the highly successful Bourne films, the opposition is very powerful. But most of it is hidden under the surface. There are layers upon layers that Bourne must uncover. In The Bourne Ultimatum, the hero continues to dig into the corrupt CIA that made him the killing machine that he is. And he has both ongoing opponents, like the David Strathairn character, as well as a succession of new assassins trying to kill him.
This same approach to character web is used in a comic journey story like Little Miss Sunshine. In standard journey stories, each opponent is new and is thus a stranger to the hero and the audience. But in Little Miss Sunshine, writer Michael Arndt sends an entire family of six – each with his or her own unique need - on the road. That means that the main opposition is among people the audience knows, and it is an ongoing opposition. Instead of a succession of unconnected events, the story has a steadily building conflict. That makes the jokes funnier and it lets the writer build to the funniest gag of all when the family gets to the beauty pageant at the end of the journey.
In your script, start with a great character web and you’ll be amazed at how all the other parts of your story seem to magically get better.