Michael Bruce Adams is a screenwriter and a friend of mine. I interviewed Michael for my “Art and Craft of the Director Audio Seminar” and I have included a portion of that interview here. Part One (Monday) was about how to research; Part Two (Wednesday) was about the search for truth; and Part Three (today) is about how to write believable characters.
Peter – What’s the trick to writing believable characters?
Michael – The trick is to turn your senses inward. Trust that the bank of sensory memories you have stored away from all the experiences in your life can help you create accurate sensory impulses for your characters. Close your eyes and put your self in a still frame from your scene. Paint that frame until it is true and accurate. Now slip into the role of your character, become that character and live the scene as it plays out. React as that character, speak, feel and think as that character. Now do the same process with each character in the scene.
As you get good at this you will be able to jump from character to character and live out the scene in real time. You will also find that the responses and actions of your characters will be frighteningly truthful and unique. You will also find that, with practice, as in dreams, you will be able to control the spin of situations so that you can rewind and try a different reaction from a certain character that might take the scene to a new and more exciting direction.
You write with all six senses, the five usual ones and the sixth sense, which for writers is transcendence. Transcendence, or the ability to rise above and go beyond the limits of normal physical human experience, is both a tool and a goal. Eventually you will so adept at slipping into your characters’ psyches that you can take your characters into any situation and create a truthful, resonant story. So when a studio says to you, “We love your story but it’s an ensemble drama and what we really need is a single character driven action piece,” you can say, “No problem. I can do that.” That’s transcendence. That’s magic.
Peter – Do you use the same technique for building characters?
Michael – Building characters comes out of the research. Remember we talked about what a benefit it is to have your characters in mind when you going through your research process? Well, it’s almost like reverse engineering. When you have the seeds of a story and an idea of what your main characters look like, then you have a pretty good idea, simply from psychological dynamics, of what you expect your character to be capable of through their journey. Then you work back.
If your character has to accomplish a near impossible goal at the end of their journey then you might wonder where that strength would come from. Was it a positively reinforced trait or negatively reinforced? And how would they react at having to use that strength? Would they be liberated, or racked with guilt? What were their parents like, the home, their upbringing? What key events impacted their lives? Did they make key decisions or let life make decisions for them? Did they have room to breathe as a child or were they hemmed in by a Brooklyn brownstone neighborhood?
All these things have an impact on who your characters are and who they will become over the course of their journey through your story, and this is called their character arc. So, when you research, you build your characters, when you write, you become what you’ve built.
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