Saturday, March 20, 2010

Character Study

Years ago, I had the opportunity to work with a very successful script doctor/screenwriting advisor, after completing a successful deal with my dad. Let me explain the deal scenario first. Growing up (and maybe many years beyond the growing-up phase), deals were the stock and trade in my family. If my parents wanted something from their (perhaps greedy and opportunistic) children, they instituted a deal to obtain whatever it was they sought. And likewise, if we children wanted something, we’d negotiate to see what we’d have to do to get it. Now, before you parents out there think my parents were pushovers, these deals didn’t involve basic chores and such; they were for the big things. And my parents weren’t above suckering us into becoming well-rounded, achieving types of kids. The truth is, they were experts in motivating us to push to complete goals by manipulating the inherent greed of teenagers (and beyond).

So, where does this fit with my opportunity to work with a professional script doctor? Well, my dad wanted me to learn his favorite hobby that involved some of the most boring, geeky, technical knowledge ever in the history of the world... I even had to take tests. But, I was greedy and have a lot of initiative, so I passed tests and triumphed (and then proceeded to hide said knowledge from as many people as I could). But that knowledge got me to a restaurant in LA, where I sat down with the script doctor to discuss my script.

Now, those looking for great inspiration should lower their expectations immediately, because I quit writing for three years after this meeting, but, hey, life is a winding road and all.

At this lunch meeting (which lasted about three hours and felt very much like an interrogation Jack Bauer style), the script doctor asked many questions, which included probing for details about characters and character motivations, what I thought of the characters’ actions, and which characters I equated with the most. By the end of lunch, I felt as though I should be able to bill my insurance for the therapy I hadn’t expected to receive and wasn’t all that certain I’d been looking for.

But none of this drove me from the writing process, it was the rewrite that did. At that time, I wasn’t ready to just start over, like I am now. I do complete rewrites without thinking anything of it. And this willingness to keep on putting words on the page is, to me, the real symbol of being a writer, regardless of where my books ultimately end up.

Now, back to characters and character studies. I now understand as I didn’t then that we writers are part of every character we write, from the sweetest and most huggable to the most sinister imaginable. There is some part of us that empathetically links with all of them. And anyone who looks around at the world knows that even the most devout people can be overwhelmed with an addiction to power that drives to great ugliness. Kind people can be intentionally nasty. And in order to be right, many people will step on even those who clearly can’t defend themselves. And that’s the darkness, but there is also light. People are heroes in the course of the common place. They dedicate their time to others, hold doors for each other, smile at strangers, and give because their hearts fill in doing so.

And all of this is not only why I love writing, reading, and characters, but also people in general. We are a fascinating, enigmatic bunch, to be sure. We have moments of great clarity and understanding one day and are blindsided by the commonplace the next. We are the reasons why the stereotypes never can tell the whole story. In our characters, we think to build the reasons why the characters believe as they do and act as they do, but we are the same. Our lives have made us who we are, and the amazing beauty of that is that we have the ability to change, to grow if we really want to, just as our characters do.

Certainly, our characters can wrap things up by the end after a stunning climax, but our journeys are much longer in scope and greater in detail. We sometimes don’t know where the climaxes are until after they are over, nor the people we connect with who are destined to become important to us.

It definitely makes me want to be a good friend to my core group of friends and keep them in my life, because it is with their help that I find the patterns underlying my life and have the ability to choose who I am and who I want to be. So, I thank the people who listen without judgment, suggest with a gentle hand, and care enough to understand even when they don’t. No character or character study could ever be complete without giving the friends their due.

Quote for the Day from Bernard Meltzer

"A true friend is someone who thinks that you are a good egg even though he knows that you are slightly cracked."


Jemi Fraser said...

Wow - that is lovely Julie! And so very true. You have a gentle touch with the language that draws the reader right in - love it.

Characters need to be complex to draw us in and keep us in the story. If they are plastic or flat, I know I'm not reading past the first couple of pages.

Debra L. Schubert said...

We are all, indeed, slightly cracked! Thank you for including me as one of your confidantes. I'm honored and privileged to be asked my opinions on things that matter greatly to you. You are an inspiration to all who know you. ;-)

Kasie West said...

You know, there is a general theme I have found of late in the blogging community, I don't know what prompted it, but it is very touching. And that is, we can't do this without friends. We need someone to bounce ideas off of, to help us through this hard process, to teach us more about people. We can't succeed alone. Great post.

Tawny said...

I love that quote!


Julie said...


Thanks for the comment. Yours always make me smile.

Julie said...


I think that slightly is a bit of an understatement in my case. Thanks for being one of the friends I'm thankful for.

Julie said...


Thanks for the comment and glad you are back from your Internet darkness. The web dimmed a bit while you were gone. :)

Julie said...


I can't imagine why you loved the quote, since there is nothing about you that is either slightly or mostly cracked. Right? Regardless, you are a good egg for sure.

Caroline Starr Rose said...

Thanks so much! It really means a lot.

Jessie Sams said...

Beautiful post, Julie. I couldn't agree with you more about the dichotomies of being human. I found that one character in my book was the hardest for me to work with because I shared some of her flaws. While I was writing, I despised her and her reactions to situations around her. Because writers have a little of themselves in their characters, I think writing can be incredibly soul-searching--and therapeutic. By the time I finished writing the book, I found that I felt sorry for the character. Her life was stunted because she couldn't get over her view of the world. I can only hope that I rise above those flaws and participate in the life around me (while remaining thankful that my friends can see past my imperfections).