13 Secrets to Building a Great Character
by David Santo
Join me now as we travel to a public library in Michigan, where an angry woman types on a computer then bangs on the screen when she sees her words. She’s writing her screenplay 30 minutes at a time because that’s all she’s allotted on the official library computer and she’s really frustrated because the computer is slow. She knows I’m a writer and when she spots me, she smiles, peels off her wrap around sunglasses and pins them onto her right thigh – each tattooed calf on display below her jorts. One tattoo is Urkel. The other Jim Rome.
Her current script is pure genius and I know this because she tells me. It’s about castrating male cats and is a metaphor for what she believes should happen to all men. So to be clear, she thinks chopping off my bitty parts will somehow end war, heal the sick, and advance our exploration of space. She’s making a pretty good case until her anger grows more out of control and triggers a weird quirk - every new sentence she speaks starts with her chirping in a high falsetto…
Dep. Dep. Purple!
I ask her why she’s so convinced her script is blockbuster material and she reveals her secret…
Dep. Dep. Purple! It’s filled with amazing characters - like the fine folks she calls her friends that get drunk and accidentally brush their teeth with scar removal cream then choke to death when their tongue swells up.
I tell her, I like amazing characters, too, and that’s what she is to me, but I don’t think she understands. I lean over and peek at the screen to catch a glimpse of her literary genius but she’s concerned I might steal her ideas so she maximizes another window and up pops a load of porn. At first, I’m embarrassed, but when I realize she’s not, I ask her if these are friends of hers. She chuckles…
Dep. Dep. Purple! I wish.
Then she finally tells me what’s really making her mad. As great as her characters are her script is running out of steam around page 40. I tell her that sounds like an outline problem but she assures me she has a good one. So I ask her to tell me more about these fascinating characters and she runs out of backstory after one idea. I probe deeper and ask her if she has a character checklist to help create depth and arc and by the rage my query encounters, I assume the answer’s no.
Dep. Dep. Purple! What, you want a freaking list?
MY HERO IS A BANANA
I tell her a list is exactly what I want. And it really comes in handy when you’re building a character. For instance…
Bo Banana is the star of my 3D animated script entitled FRUIT. Bo is the rootin’ tootin’ line dancing sheriff of Canino’s Fruit Market in Houston, Texas, and he’s facing the biggest problem fruits everywhere must deal with…
People like to eat you.
So he invents the “Fruit Replicator”, a machine that will manufacture real fruit in every way except one – it’s not alive. Humans will get to enjoy this tasty new fruit and leave Bo and his friends to enjoy life.
But when the evil tomato in charge cuts the power, Bo must move his machine across the fruit market to the main cooler that has a backup generator so they can make replacement fruit before the big produce sale in the morning.
Now when you read this it sounds like I’m describing a plot. And I am. But upon closer examination everything is happening because of my hero and my villain and who they are. So in a sense, it all starts with character. And I’m not interested in getting into some silly debate about which comes first or is more important – plot or character – Lajos Egri vs. Aristotle; they arise simultaneously and interdependently - like 2 different sides of the same coin. Just know this for sure: you’re gonna need great characters and also the knowledge on how to build them if your script is going to work. And if you answer the following questions your characters will spring to life in ways you never imagined.
13 STEPS TO CREATING MEMORABLE CHARACTERS
1. Has this person been successful in past relationships? Why?
2. What is their relationship to their co-workers like? Why?
3. What are the jobs they’ve held in the past? Why?
4. What kind of friend are they? Why?
5. Whom do they trust? Why?
6. What is their secret? Why?
7. What is their fear? Why?
8. What promise did they make to themselves or someone else?
9. Do they keep it?
10. What does this person want more than anything?
11. What is the physical object (twitch) that represents their internal struggle?
12. What is the big choice they have to make that illustrates their character arc?
13. The secret ingredient…
SECRET INGREDIENT #13
It’s all so easy when you first start writing screenplays. You write script number one on the guts and glory of your life, the people and places you know, vibrant, palpable, and the feeling is electric! You mine the crazy scene makers, shape shifters and carnival barkers in your life.
Then you write your second script in similar fashion. But soon, you realize, around your third or fourth or fifth, you’re rewriting the same exciting people and places you already wrote about. You need fresh blood – character blood - which leads me to secret ingredient #13.
Passion. The passion your character has to pursue something they desperately want more than anything and your personal passion as a writer to tell their story. Nothing else can replace this. No seminar or book will do.
So now you can whip out your checklist and write a character outline that will knock your socks off and right into the dryer because that’s what people want. Scripts full of great characters with passion.
You can catch up with David Santo and receive a free pdf. copy of his new eBook entitled “Screenwriting: a practical guide for writing a film” by going to…
Click on “Book”.
Finalists, August/September, 2012
#3linesorless || #august #september || #finalists || #loglines
The top seven prize-winning loglines are listed in order. The rest are listed randomly.
Logline: Sam and Chris are rookie cops with the worst records in their precinct. When the duo lose a drunken bet to a rival pair of cops, Sam and Chris must issue twice their usual number of monthly tickets in only three days by relying on some of the city’s most outrageous and out-of-date laws.
Screenplay title: Dollars to Donuts
Written by: Benjamin Adair Murphy
WGA Registration Number: 1242778
Logline: The true story of Richard Bong, a rookie WWII pilot who makes a brazen bet to beat the kill record of America’s top-scoring ace. But as the deadly competition spirals out of control, he is forced to confront the bitter realities of war and what it means to be a real hero.
Screenplay title: The Ace of Aces
First Place/World Fest
First Place/Indie Gathering Film Festival
First Place/Guild of Italian American Actors
Written by: Geoffrey Breuder
WGA Registration Number: 1138750
Logline: When a will leaves the heirs half of California, a lone wolf San Francisco private investigator finds the heirs are being killed by the same assassin that murdered his girlfriend, and must decide whether to save the remaining heir, or abandon him to hunt down the assassin.
Screenplay title: The Tortoise And The Heir
Winner - best action script - The Chicago Screenwriters Network Screenwriting Contest.
Semi-finalist - Writers On The Storm Contest.
Semi-finalist - The Fade In Awards Contest.
Written by: Russ Meyer
WGA Registration Number: 1450371
Logline: In the near future, a gifted but cold microbiology student begins a dangerous journey when she creates a protein to turn on the conscience gene in psychopaths.
Screenplay title: The Johnson Cure
Written by: Glenn Derrick
WGA Registration Number: 1540637
Genre: Supernatural Thriller
Logline: A young woman, dressed as a schoolgirl, baits killers and rapists to avenge their victims, only to become a suspect herself, on the run from a cop with a secret of his own.
Screenplay title: Unikorn
Written by: Mathieu saliva
WGA Registration Number: 1578662
Logline:A female detective with suicidal tendencies must slay her own demons to follow horrific clues that lead to torture, murder and The Catholic Church cover up in a monastic insane asylum.
Screenplay title: The Unspoken
Written by: M.E. Avila
WGA Registration Number: 1570074
Logline: Chuck fears his perfect life might bore him to death, Fred fears his furniture might bludgeon him to death, who’s got it worse? “The Inanimates” is a comedy about perception, reality, and the proper way to interrogate a footstool.
Screenplay title: The Inanimates
Written by: Steven Guggenheimer
WGA Registration Number: 1603187
Logline: The chase is on when a former stuntman turn mover unknowingly has money belonging to the mob and a alien artifact pursued by the military.
Screenplay title: The Mover
Written by: Michael Quintero
WGA Registration Number: 231509
Logline: A dark comedy about the perils of having either too much or too little faith, “Rubrics” follows a deeply religious Catholic woman whose world is turned sideways when her son’s new high school principal becomes enamored by her unique ability to stomach him.
Screenplay title: Rubrics
Written by: Steven Guggenheimer
WGA Registration Number: 1607712
Logline: In the near future a young woman named Evelyn works for a National Committee that forces radical parental exams on couples. After seeing the sinister nature of the committee she aids rebels in sabotaging the committee for good.
Screenplay title: Populous
Top 100/Emerging Screenwriters
Written by: Michael Quintero
WGA Registration Number: R15564
Logline: At the peak of it’s popularity, wanton alcoholic Eddie Valentine was America Online’s most notorious e-mail spammer. But when Eddie befriends a seven-year old boy, a series of comedic failures forces him to reevaluate his own life. Based on a true story.
Screenplay title: The Two Sides of Monsieur Valentine
Winner/Haag International Screenplay Competition
Finalist/Waterfront Film Festival
Second Rounder/Austin Film Festival (for These Freakin’ Robots)
Written by: Suneil Singh
WGA Registration Number:: 1609278
Genre: Supernatural Thriller
Logline: A planned hot tub party at an abandoned house by four married former buddies turns into a psychological nightmare when one of then is found murdered.
Screenplay title: The Harte Home
Best Fantasy/GIAA Film Fest 2010
Fantasy-Action-Finalist/The Writer’s Store 2012
Written by: Michael Pallotta
WGA Registration Number: WGC#: S11-03987 (Canada)
Logline: After a microbiologist shares her conscience gene formula with scientists in other countries, she discovers a gene bank that contains the DNA codes of American senators and representatives.
Screenplay title: The Johnson Cure Part 2: Exposure
Written by: Glenn Derrick
WGA Registration Number: 1609450
Genre: Coming of Age/Memoir
Logline: In 1980, a small farm girl moves to Chicago to jump start her career in animation. After two years studying and working in the city she becomes entrapped by the media and the FBI for having befriended a certain couple with a link to the Tylenol murders. She ultimately finds solace in her true friends and family.
Screenplay title: A Country Mouse
Written by: Wanda L. Brown
WGA Registration Number: 1601430
Logline:A scorned woman is chained to the inside of her house and haunted by an evil entity from another realm that is determined to kill her then destroy all of humanity.
Screenplay title: Angry Slut on a Chain
Writer’s Name: David Santo
WGA Registration Number: 1551608
Logline: After amassive robot invasion decimates humanity, a bumbling manchild must channel his reckless antics to dodge death, outwit killer machines, and win back the love of his life.
Screenplay title: These Freakin’ Robots
Finalist/Omaha Film Festival
Finalist/Gimmie Credit International Screenplay Competition
Finalist/L.A. Comedy Festival
Written by: Suneil Singh
WGA Registration Number: 1479967
Logline: A drugged out, self-proclaimed private investigator is mistaken for a double agent when he inadvertently snaps a Polaroid of a drug lord. Trance State Nation is a druggy, neo-noir comedy combining a Fight club and Fear and Loathing style unreliable narrator with a film-noir, hard-boiled narrator.
Screenplay title: Trance State Nation
Written by: Christian Chalklen
WGA Registration Number: 1604265
Writing Pictures- The Classic Screenwriters: Carl Mayer
by Robin Bailes
When The Artist was nominated for the Academy Award for best screenplay there were people (and I know some of them) who said it was ridiculous because the film had no dialogue, an attitude which shows a complete lack of understanding of how cinematic storytelling works. Cinema is a visual medium and the most essential ability for any screenwriter is to be able to tell a story with pictures. We all know however that large chunks of stage direction can be daunting to readers. So how do you make your visual storytelling come to life on the page? Well, you could do worse than to check out the work of one of the great screenwriters of the silent era; Carl Mayer.
Mayer is best remembered for his first film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and for his many collaborations with F. W. Murnau, and although Mayer did not write Murnau’s most famous work (Nosferatu), their films together include some of the best of the late silent era. Mayer wrote 7 of Murnau’s 21 films including Sunrise, voted by Cahier du Cinema as the single greatest masterwork in the history of cinema, and The Last Laugh, which has no dialogue titles at all so the visuals carry the entire narrative.
In Murnau, Mayer certainly found an ideal interpreter for his ideas, prior to The Last Laugh he had written other title-free films (notably Scherben and Sylvester for director Lupu Pick) but they did not work as well. The great achievement of The Last Laugh is not so much that you can follow it despite the absence of the titles, but that you barely notice the absence. Mayer’s work needed a great director to visualise it but it is taking nothing away from Murnau to say that Mayer was a huge factor in the success of their films. Indeed you can see how much Mayer influenced the director in the fact that Murnau made notes on the scripts of other writers in the distinctive Mayer style.
That style is the secret to Mayer’s success. He does not describe a scene per se, he tells you what you will see as a string of single images, which is of course what cinema is. To an extent he is in fact directing the scene. He wrote in brief staccato phrases, using punctuation descriptively rather than grammatically, making his scripts read like expressionist poetry, and yet their meaning is always clear. Take this excerpt from his script for the film Tartuffe;
But! Coming down the first stair:
like a shadow: almost indistinguishable.
Yes. There he stands.
Just a black shape.
Describing this in complete sentences would not only take more space but would lose much of the atmosphere. By using a question mark after ‘Tartuffe’, Mayer lets the reader know that the audience should not immediately recognise the character. The alternative would be to say ‘At first it’s just a shadowy figure but then we recognise Tartuffe’, an unwieldy and lengthy way of saying something Mayer coveys in one word. And it was not just visuals he painted, he used his unique style to express emotions in his characters as well, such as here in Schloss Vogelod;
She stays for a few more seconds. Then: She goes.
Silent. Calm. Heavy. Like lead. Now: The
Door: Then: the chatelaine. Alone.
The colons dictate the pace and thus the mood of the scene, while the description of the character’s movements says so much more than ‘sad’, ever could.
Though he wrote Murnau’s first two US films, Mayer did not move to the US with Murnau. After Murnau’s untimely death in 1931 Mayer made a successful transition into the sound era with a pair of films for director Paul Czinner. In 1932 the rise of the Nazi party forced him, as a Jew, to flee to England. He did mostly uncredited work on the scripts of others but seems never to have completed another script. He died of cancer in 1944 at the age of just 49, his contribution to film largely forgotten.
Mayer conveyed complex emotion and situations by use of image alone. I wouldn’t recommend emulating his style exactly, but there’s certainly a lesson in his ability to convey visual storytelling verbally. To my knowledge only two of Mayer’s scripts have been published, but they are worth tracking down for anyone with a serious interest in screenwriting.
Robin Bailes is a freelance writer with various credits on stage, page, screen and radio. He has 4 published stage shows, has written for 6 BBC radio shows, was a winner in the BBC’s Last Laugh sitcom writing competition and has a feature film in development with Andris Films. He is writer and presenter of the web-series ‘Dark Corners (of this sick world)’ and has written short stories for various publications both print and online. Robin is a passionate devotee of silent cinema has written a book on the subject called ‘Just As Good But Quieter’, for which he is currently seeking a publisher. Robin is currently available for paid writing work.
Over the past two months, our finalists received 14 requests from development execs to read their screenplays, after discovering them via our logline contest!
Submit your logline now to get in on the action:
Debunking Screenwriting Myths, Part 7: Requesting Feedback
by Geno Scala
Recently, I submitted one of my scripts to a blogger offering his free “ten-page review”… or so I thought. Apparently, I misunderstood the premise of his tweet and blog, and later learned that my submission was open to ALL of the blog followers to comment and critique. One of his more professional followers was chosen to “officially” review the script, which was apparently a new process coincidentally beginning with my first script submission.
After several days, I checked back with the blog with enthusiastic anticipation of reading a number of thoughtful, positive comments and, hopefully, some important, insightful suggestions offered up by writers with seemingly a wide range of professional screenwriting experience.
How wrong I was.
What I received as “feedback” was snarky, irrelevant and hate-filled responses, either borne out of envy or vitriol from possibly a long-past run-in. Hard to say, since all of the commenters were anonymous. While feedback of this nature is not helpful, it did drive home a very important point, one that I had forgotten in my expectation of adulation. After all, this screenplay had won several contests, and is continuing to fare well in several others. The screenplay is generating a lot of interest from producers and managers, and has been requested and reviewed by many of the top mid-level production companies out there, receiving tremendous accolades.
I hadn’t followed my first rule of feedbacks: be clear about what you expect. Usually, when asking for any writing feedbacks, I rely almost entirely on my “cheers”, “peers” and “rocketeers”. In this case, I went outside that sphere of influence; my own “circle of trust”.
This refers to the three groups of emotional and screenwriting support network you should have in place. Your “cheers” are friends and family and those not in the business of screenwriting, who generally will support (and donate to) just about anything you do. They are important for your spiritual well-being and self-esteem, but generally not as helpful to your overall writing goals.
The next group is your “peers”. These, generally, are fellow scribes who have somewhat the same level of writing experience as you. You might find them in writing groups, networking forums, chat rooms, or related alumni groups.
Your “rocketeers” are those handfuls of professionals who can take your writing — and your career — to the next level. This group may consist of professional script readers, producers, agents, managers, optioned or produced screenwriters, and/or screenwriting “gurus”.
When posting this screenplay to an unfamiliar blog, I failed to make my own expectations clear; to myself or to others. I hadn’t researched the purpose of the site, or the quality of the reviewers prior to diving into this literary shark tank with my eyes closed.
With any anonymous review, you are opening yourself up to comments and suggestions from anyone, regardless of their accomplishments or lack thereof. For all I know, the reviews could have come from a bunch of stoned high school kids cutting class that day (they certainly read as such, and made even less sense). Some of the comments ranged from “I don’t like the genre, and will never like a script like this”, to “Oh, no! I’ve read one with a similar opening last month!” neither one refreshingly insightful to the script being reviewed. Of the few “corrective suggestion(s)” the script did received included one that was based on the incorrect assertion that a particular formatting style is no longer “in vogue” (despite Dave Trottier’s assertion to the contrary). One reviewer felt that he/she didn’t like it because they “couldn’t see how it (the plot) could be pulled off.” Mind you, they’ve read only the first ten pages or so.
The result was a swift kick to my own butt, by me, reminding never to set myself up for failure so carelessly again in the future. I have certainly developed a thick-skin about my writing long before this posting every saw the light of day. You should ask for and receive any and all feedback; just make sure you know from whom it’s coming and what their personal motivations might be, if any.
When I provide feedback, it is for the purpose of helping the writer improve their writing or their overall project. I provide examples of what I’m talking about, and if they expect corrected examples, I provide those as well. If it’s formatting-related, I realize it may be about preferences or style, and advise the writer what technique or style I prefer, so as not to cloud my own judgment. I also try the “sandwich technique” to critiquing: a negative comment sandwiched between two positive comments.
It makes the criticism a bit easier to swallow that way.
Geno Scala has been writing for over twenty years, and was one of the Executive Directors for the 1999-2000 Academy Awards presentation. He is an optioned screenwriter with nine screenplays to his credit, and is an alumnus of ScreenwritingU. He maintains a business in Hollywood, and resides in beautiful Huntsville, Alabama with his rocket-scientist wife, a daughter in grad school, another daughter in college in CA, and two teen-aged sons.