Friday, January 7, 2011

How Characters are Not Like People

I've been working on a character roughly based on me about 15 years ago. Some of the same struggles and same situations, but amped and reworked a bit. I started work with a default assumption that I was working on a feature but I kept mining more and more, then finding more and more storylines. I'm thinking about it as a TV series now. Probably a hopeless, unproduceable project -- but it's caught my interest, so here we go.

I've written and rewritten numerous synopses and story ideas for about six weeks now. It's starting to move from the conceptualizing stage to the shitty first draft stage. The shitty first draft stage is usually all about finding out about the 42 things you neglected to conceptualize. This time it's about herding cats. My characters are off doing their own things, seemingly oblivious to the fact that they're in a TV series.

The one exception is my main character. As I mentioned, he's based off me in my twenties. And I based his journey on a journey I had at the time: a relationship that was intense, beautiful, and doomed the moment I evolved. I couldn't stay in it and I couldn't leave. Yup, I was in my twenties.

My problem is one a lot of writers encounter during the shitty first draft stage: you know where the character is supposed to end up, so you write to that. Everything feels a a little telescoped. There's no real development because all the development feels planned.

Put another way, I'm breaking the cardinal rule of drama. My character seems to already possess his end goal through much too much of the story. I'm starting him off on the 50-yard line instead of his own end zone. I know better than this, and I planned it all out. So how did I make this basic mistake?

If a character you're close to lacks important knowledge, then they will fail. They'll suffer. They'll suffer tragic defeat and humiliation. You don't want that for a friend. Of course, you do want this for a character.

This is one way in which characters are not like people. But there's another way: I think characters exist in some special dimension of constant flux and change in a way that people do not. Yes, the writer of course can and does experience each moment individually. But we also sense characters as a kind of range of potentialities. I remember a Sunday school teacher telling me once that god sees our whole lives at once. This makes sense to me now. It certainly explains why god would create the world. It's a beautiful way to see things.

Something about this allows me to go into my script with the right perspective. I can give my character all the suffering, humiliation, and defeat he needs to work as a character AND see his potential for growth. I think this is something like compassion or love. I may not shelter my characters from all the awful things of the world (as I shouldn't), but I make sure that those defeats mean something.