Posts Tagged 'character'

Writing a Short Film: Characters

First of all, i hope you all recovered from the New Year’s hangover and i hope you had a great party and most important, that your 2013 turns out outstanding. But it is time to get back to work and i’ll be discussing my method to create characters.

Often people underestimate character development since they’re working on a shorter format. But your characters are always greater than your story and you must build this person. Your length doesn’t matter, it won’t stop being a person. This overall means that the process to create characters for short films is identical to creating for feature films. But why should we develop characters?


This is the story of a God.

A while ago we were discussing this subject on #scriptchat, someone agreed with me, “i know, you must be the God of your writing”, but i replied as it wasn’t like that. Being almighty towards your script means that anything is appropriate, and if anything is possible, then everything makes sense. Which is not the case. If you place yourself as the God of your story, it’ll end up as a platypus.

To avoid this we must place some boundaries and developing our characters is one of those things. I won’t come up with an example of a character that shouldn’t so something because it has certain personality, you’ll think of something as you read. But mostly because we develop our characters to stay out of these situations.

You should know your characters as a best friend. You may be able to predict their reactions, but they may still surprise you. You must know what ticks them and their flaws.

We should begin drawing our characters now. There are applications specialized on character development, as Persona, and a mere google search should lead you to several character sheets and questionnaires. I sincerely can’t work like that. The reason is that i few trapped in these forms and questions and i like to work freehand on my characters. I create by brainstorming.

Open up a text document and just type. Sometimes you’ll already have plot twists and a fate for this character, you must keep that in mind when you’re writing its biography as the decisions that lead to these twists must make sense. If you don’t have much more than an inciting incident, then developing a character properly will help you to come up with events to improve your stories. It’s like throwing mice in a maze.

I do most of my writing on iA Writer, but for character development i work on Scrivener directly. That’s because the smaller font makes me visualize the entire block of text. As i write on a single paragraph, it’s important to be aware of everything. I usually begin with tags which i’ll attain for the entire biography. “Isabella: Intellectual, stubborn, objective, overconfident“. These are my guidelines. I use the rest of the page to describe the past, reactions and justifications. Creating a background is to solidify the reason why pursuing your story’s goal actually matters for this character. “If John achieves his goal, he’ll be promoted” is a motive, “In his childhood, John was constantly bullied in school for achieving nothing” is what justifies the motive and humanizes our character, improving his empathy. My main character, Isabella, as i described, became an intellectual because she couldn’t settle down with her mother, drowned herself in books to run away into a decent university.


But my method is all about brainstorming, so it includes snippets of text that wouldn’t interfere in the story. Isabela remains quiet in the elevator, says there, but i won’t have any scene with Isabela meeting a stranger and having a chat in the elevator, but what motivates me into these sentences is that they bring clean images of the character, because a person that refuses to chat in elevators is reasonable and it takes our impressions someplace else. It’s what lies beneath. In my previous script (which will soon be posted in the blog), i wrote this on a character: has several books in the shelf, never read any of them. This is a person who cares for the visual impression he presents to others. These little things, images, that pop up in your head while you think about your character say more about they than the typical relevant information you would conventionally include in their description. And this is the main reason why i avoid all those techniques, i miss most of this when i get into forms and questions. I lose the imagery.

Developing your characters is not solely about raising limits, but also narrowing your path, drawing some guidelines when it comes to dialogue and reactions. In what situation would your character lie? How would he do it? Is he a natural liar? How does he react when someone finds out his flaw? These are not arbitrary questions, they don’t need an input in your development, however if you live with your character, sooner or later you’ll be able to answer these and many others. My brainstorming experience focuses on that: living among your characters, and that’s why i recommend it to you.

Quick notes on this subject:

1. Create a great character: Your job is not to ‘create a great character for a film’, forget about the media. Just create a great character.

2. Would this character pursue the goal of your story? Not an arbitrary question, but a reminder that your story must fit the character.

3. If you feel it is wrong, then it is wrong. This is a great advice when it comes to editing your story, but you could also put it in practice right now. If you write your character doing something that doesn’t seem right, then he probably wouldn’t do it. Stop thinking and let your character talk to you.

4. Use your imagery well. Your job is to create and induce images. How deep this image goes depends only on the dedication you apply to its layers. Start right now. Think in images.

5. Have a conversation. When you manage to have a fictional conversation with your character, then you’re ready.

6. Respect your boundaries. Don’t distort your characters because it would turn your story easier. Put some thought, otherwise we won’t bite it.


Concerns on the second act

Oh, the second act, the place to distinguish good writers from the bad. When talking about feature films, second act is the journey, it starts when your main character steps up to face the outcome caused by the INCITING INCIDENT, at the end of the first act. The second act is the place where stakes rise and obstacles pop up out of everywhere in order to make our hero’s path more challenging. Yet, the principle for a second act is CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT. The problem is: how to apply these necessities into a short film?

You’ll find attempts to squeeze a second act in short films, but honestly, how many complications can you get? How much can you develop something in the midpoint of these 10 minutes? You can’t. As in the feature films, most screenwriters fail to present a honest second act to their short films, mostly because they apply the 101 suggested for feature films.

I Love Sarah Jane, by Spencer Susser is one of those. Apparently it is a character-driven film, which relies on a strong second act, and that is nearly impossible in a short film, as i aforementioned, you need to place your character into complicated situations and you can’t include many in your available time. Boy likes Sarah Jane, but she’s a wall of a girl and the rest of the boys are alpha, beta and gama, respectively. Our boyscout is the loser, obviously. You shouldn’t develop your characters without moving the action, if you stop your film for a character’s speech, metaphorically speaking, it will be an AA meeting instead. And loose those chains a bit, a zombie is no tormentor chained. A bad development, like this one, makes you ponder. If that’s her dad, how didn’t she make a move before? There’s no strength in our loser’s lines to make we believe he changed her mind.

Turns out, the second act is not about randomly throwing traps at your main character, all the events must build a logical crescendo of character development and obstacle arduousness. Tougher and deeper, as good sex should be.

Previously, i’ve commented how films based on a magical amulet tend to succesfully create a satisfactory second act. The main reason for that is that those aren’t character-driven films, films like The Black Hole, by Phil and Olly, use human beings as mere tools for storytelling, meanwhile the main character are the amulets themselves. In this case, a portable blackhole in a paper sheet. See yourself, as a human being, you do several things, even simultaneously, like scrolling down this article and filling your hand with Doritos. But an object is a tool, it has a proper designated function, doesn’t matter if you bought that screwdriver with 64 different functions. Keep it simple so your reader can recognize it easier. As these amulets have a single function, the second act is straightforward. Repeat, repeat and repeat. Still, the stakes must increase everytime. Even in films like Spider, the toy spider does what it is supposed to: prank people.

The other reason is that as the object has a single function, you only need to show it once for the sake of introduction, so you set a fast rhythm to your narrative, afterwards is all about repeating until the consequences of its unceasing use lead the narrative to a point of no return, from which the human guide must find a way to clean up the mess. This closes the second act.

Besides being a power point presentation as i strongly criticized in the last article, it is still a decent illustration of a structure absent of a second act. What? No second act? This is against the law of physics!  Calm down, my friends, it is completely plausible. That’s what i call as a ‘punch-line short film’; as you may see, this film is all about the change of the sign, there’s no depth, besides learning that the beggar is blind there’s no character development. It’s the chicken crossing the road. But it doesn’t mean that your short film must be as bad as the example or the joke. In my article about the first act, i’ve commented how character-driven plots rely on longer first acts, due to that sometimes the best choice is to send your main character to the point of no return forthright, as the example of the daughter whom must find out what to do with her recently deceased mother’s body.

Still, don’t lose your faith in the old style, as you may realize by watching The Ghosts, sometimes you can create a great second act without squeezing or using the other resources i listed. Just keep it classic if it improves your story. Remember, that you’re the one working for it, not the opposite, the story is your boss and you should grab the best of it.


Short Formats: Narrative Film

Hey, sorry for taking so long to come back and write down the last part of the Short Formats series. I await for this article to be a really special one, hopefully it won’t burst your expectations, nor confirm your disappointments. This is the moment of truth: does your idea fit into a narrative short film? If you have simply ignored that your concept might be a better music video or interactive film than a classical short story until now, you must remember that the story gonna pick its format. Ignoring the evidence right in front of you would be your first mistake, even before developing your idea. Open your eyes and don’t insist into making your idea a different film than it applies.

In my article, Allowing the idea to talk, i’ve said that a story needs a LIFE CHANGING EVENT, a OBSTACLE and a GOAL, yet you obviously will also need a CHARACTER and a LOCATION.

LIFE CHANGING EVENT doesn’t mean you should bring all the catastrophic hollywoodian crap to your story. People can change on simple things. This is more of a STARTING POINT. Why your story begins now? Something must have changed and from that point your story cracks open. A good short will often open in a break of routine.

This leads us to CHARACTER, the target for the LIFE CHANGING EVENT, and two sub-divisions of short film scripts: SITUATION-DRIVEN and CHARACTER-DRIVEN. I shall repeat myself, but it is really hard to make a character-driven short film due to the insufficient time to develop the inner-changes in our characters, still, some people try. For a character-driven story to work out, you must introduce a character and he is required to come along a adjective attached, since the most important is that you develop your character enough under the life changing incident that they’ll present a VALUE CHANGE. In the length of your story, the LIFE CHANGING EVENT will force your CHARACTER to change in order to bypass the OBSTACLEs hindering him to reach his GOALs.

APRICOT, by Ben Briand, is the closest i can remember on a purely character-driven short film. Besides being wonderfully well shot, it is confusing. Is it Marcel her first love trying to connect the memories he has left in order to find out if she was the one? That’s never clear. Even if he convinces her that he’s the boy she gave her first kiss, why should she kiss he in return? It’s poetic and cute, yet Marcel could be only a psycho driving her into his seduction game. What lacks in this film is the confirmation that Marcel IS the one. Possibly if we started in the same place, however with the man telling her his torn pieces of memory after her reluctance to answer to his questions, she would low her guard and fill his incomplete puzzle. Still not convinced, she would refuse to stick in the game, then Marcel would show her one of the SEVERAL elements for a possible ellipsis the film introduces, like an apricot or even one of the pictures he’d have taken of her. Then she would kiss him. This character change from negation to affirmation is the core of a character. Negative to positive, this is a common sort of VALUE CHANGE. The character whom must overcome their fears to attain the award.

Even with the changes i suggested, the film would possibly be still too hasty and the third act, the twist, could feel precipitous. Here lies the huge red river between short films and feature films, the latter are always character driven, even a movie like TRANSFORMERS has a main character whom must overcome his cowardice to save the world and get the girl. Meanwhile, situation-driven stories seem to have a cozy spot at short films.

SITUATION-DRIVEN short films explore an event and the finests will squeeze the situation until the story gets the last drop. One of the first shorts i shared in this blog is a great example for a 100% situation-driven short film:

LUCKY, by Nash Edgerton, has a tool-character, which is the typical main character through which the story simply pass by without any inner change, since he has no interior value or depth. The tool character is just an action figure. In LUCKY you get the full package. A guy frees himself from a trunk only to find out that he’s in a high speed car, with a rock in the accelerator pedal, rushing in the desert with an uncertain destiny (LIFE CHANGING EVENT). Now the guy must fight his way into the pilot seat (OBSTACLE) in order to stop the car (GOAL) before it hits something and kills him (URGENCY and STAKES, two things we’re going to check more carefully in another article). Actually, the narrative cinema began in full-situation-driven films in the silent era. Life of an American Fireman, by Edwin S. Porter, is an example from 1903 of how a short film can be well done. You’ll sooner or later find out that most of our tool-characters are still mute :)

Still, not all situation-driven short films are so explicit into their natures and with that i mean that you don’t actually need a tool-character to develop this kind of narrative. Sometimes characters have some sort of interior value, but its change is irrelevant in comparison to the possibilities of the situation. These characters are not complex, they just follow up a very straightforward characterization, like the goofy boyfriend and the pissed off girlfriend from our next example, another one by Nash Edgerton: Spider.

We begin the film with that quite ordinary situation of the girlfriend angry with the boyfriend, it’s easily identifiable. Yet this is good, we start the film with a conflict and if you need to show your cards only later in the film, you should always put some conflict in the beginning to keep us tied to the story. They stop by a gas station and the guy seeks for reconciliation. We see the spider for the first time around the 3-minute mark. She disdains, but gaves in at the chocolate. Even though there’s a change in the conflict here, it is as shallow as plate, we know that he placed the spider in the car and that she’ll find it and that’s what keep us waiting by this point. She finds it right before the 6-minute mark. They desperatelly stop the car. She leaves, scared as fuck. The guy explains and throws the spider at her, she instinctively jumps back and is hit by a car. The movie could have ended here. But the paramedics arrive and while preparing an injection one of them finds the spider and in the fright stick the syringe into the goofy boyfriend’s eye. That’s squeezing a situation into all prospects. It doesn’t have a clear GOAL, neither the other elements a story often requires, its just the LIFE CHANGING EVENT and its consequences explored.

This means that if you only have a strong event you may still create a good short film and that’s the reason why everyone should initiate in the short film world with a movie of this kind. Spider is not the story about a couple trying to reconcile, however of a toy-spider and its repercussion into the couple’s quotidian. OBJECTS are the best friends of a short film screenwriter and i’ll soon dedicate an entire article for them.

To close this article, is worth noticing that sometimes the LOCATION is the elements that domains the idea and whenever your WORLD is too complex to fit only as background from a plot, you have the alternative to create a WORLD-DRIVEN short film. Or a WHAT IF? film, as i illustrated before using Neill Blomkamp’s Alive in Joburg. This kind of film is going to show an excerpt of a fictional world and it doesn’t necessarily requires a LIFE CHANGING EVENT because it is normally already included into the LOCATION. There you have a less serious approach in PIXELS, by Patrick Jean.

Now that we have the formats cleared from our driveway, we may proceed exclusively in the narrative short film and all its possibilities.

This is the sixth and last article of the Short Formats series. You may check the others by clicking here.

Hope to see you next time (not taking that long to write my next post, by the way).

A Slice of Lifetime

So you have that blank page starting at you and you’re think that it would be a good idea to fill it with some fine touch of story. But wait, did you make THE QUESTION? No? Then you just can’t keep going.

Before writing the header of your scene you should ask yourself: “Why now?“. Yes, this gets more complex. You’re possibly dealing with a character which has born, grown and lived quite a bit of his life and you’re not stupid enough to follow him since he was a fetus, so when you’re writing a story you’re taking a slice of his lifetime. That is what all movies are.

Why this slice of life begins in the particular moment you thought of? See, the first scene is possibly the most important scene with a number tag on it.

“When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.”

That’s from Franz Kafka’s METAMORPHOSIS. First paragraph. Well-known as one of the best beginnings ever written. After that paragraph we get to know the two most important things to introduce in the beginning of a movie:

  • Who our character is?
  • What’s the problem?

If all movies are slices of lives, then all movies are ABOUT changes. And the PROBLEM is exactly that: what is problematic enough to change my character’s life? Because your movie begins there.

In SUNSET BOULEVARD (Billy Wilder, 1960), the movie starts with our main character shot dead in the pool, so you have our problem (DEATH) and the story is about the events which led to his murderer.

in THE SEARCHERS (John Ford, 1956), the movie begins with Ethan’s family slaughtered and so he rides through the desert in the seek for revenge. That’s problem. Ethan is a racist and wouldn’t look out for Debbie since she’s turned into another indian, but when he catches the fleeing teen in the middle of a full battle, he catches and holds her. That’s change.

in THE DESCENDANTS (Alexander Payne, 2011) our main character’s wife suffers a boating accident and he finds out she had an affair. The movie proceeds with his search for answers about her lover and about himself.

Eventually all feature films plots go down to this: problem & change and they’re connected: the problem must cause a change and the change must be caused by a problem. Nothing comes from nowhere.

The problem is that working on short films we don’t have enough runtime to expose our characters enough for a change to be substantial. This is the reason why there’s no decent short film about characters (unless it is a documentary like Sunshine) and that’s the spot where most beginners stumble, since they want to write about their lives, their loves, their changes.

Short films are about a single situation, two at most. They’re exclusively about the problem. We’ve seen that last week with the 2 short films i used as example: The Black Hole & Lucky. The first is about a guy whom finds a paper with a black circle that works just like in the cartoons, the character takes advantage of this tool and the film is over when he can’t do that any longer. The latter is about a guy whom must escape from a car in movement, it ends when he escapes, quite ironically somehow. Check ALL PIXAR shorts, they’re all about a situation and its outcomes.

Now we know the biggest difference between short films and feature films, one is situation driven while the other is character driven. You can start separating the wheat from the chaff now.

AND a pixar movie just for the record:

Until next time.

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