– . – Script Talk

Script Talk

Character Study


Screenwriting expert Julie Gray reveals her methods for ensuring that character remains the rightful focus of any screenplay.

Movies are arguably the most powerful, immersive and cathartic intersection of art and commerce that we humans have yet to produce. Even as film continues to evolve, entertain and delight us, as James Cameron demonstrates with Avatar, the possibilities are truly endless.

No matter how original, visually alluring or provocative a film might be, however, without compelling and organic characters it’s like staring at the pages of the Bon Appetit issue. The cakes, pies and tarts look tantalising but it’s all show and no full tummy. All sweet and no savoury. All cake and no supper. You can’t get no satisfaction. As audience members, we have become increasingly addicted to quick results, instant gratification and bigger and bigger spectacle. And it’s starving our souls.

Somewhere, right now, a screenwriter is getting an inspired idea while working out, sipping coffee or riding the subway. The inspired idea usually takes the form of an amazing scene or set piece that is neither the premise for, logical ending to, or substance of an entire story. There’s no reason to panic: the kid’s all right. Screenwriters, part of the tribe of dreamers, schemers, liars and thieves collectively known as ‘creatives’, should never be discouraged from brainstorming great moments for a film not yet produced.

But cakes must be pried from inky hands, and the screenwriters of today need to sit up straight and eat some vegetables. Writers have become plot obsessed and character deprived. Increasingly, they shove plots through prefab templates that dictate when and where things should happen, and write by number. They’ve lost the art of sculpting souls out of thin air. Story does not beget character; character begets story. Writers need to put down the cookie cutter and refocus on character as the heart and soul of story.

When we talk about character, we have to refer to our dear old friends The Rolling Stones, since they said it best: ‘You can’t get what you want til you get what you need’. A character has an external want at the beginning of the script, yes? Something they WANT.

Let’s look at some recent examples.