Monday, March 3, 2008

How to let your characters go

One of the most useful and yet most difficult life skills I know of, is Letting Go. Letting go of debilitating habits, old resentments, dogma, defunct rules, and so on.

For screenwriters, one of the most difficult things is letting go of their characters.

By that I don’t mean writing them out of the script by means of a freak accident. No, the opposite. I mean literally letting go of their hand and allowing them to act independently.

You often hear writers talking about their characters surprising them. As if the characters are actually autonomous, living beings with a will of their own. However, it’s not “as if,” at all.

Once you let your characters loose in the story world, they will surprise you. And they’ll become totally irreverent and unscrupulous too. Without batting an eyelid they will upset a carefully plotted outline, destroy a meticulously crafted logline and undermine a perfectly good premise, damn them!

Joking aside, though, when your characters start to walk on their own, you have to follow them. At least for a while.

Here’s a quote from writer-director of Definitely, Maybe, Adam Brooks, in an interview on Billy Mernit’s excellent blog:

Usually I write about 150 pages to get to a 120 page draft. With Definitely, Maybe I wrote well over 200 pages. I wrote sections in prose and then adapted them. I wrote in diary form. And for the first time ever I allowed myself to write badly. By which I mean I didn’t put the pressure on myself to write a good scene, just to write the scene - long, rough, and bad as it might be.

The trick here is not to judge your characters’ autonomous actions too soon. The critical work happens during re-writing.

Turn off your critical, analytical faculties for a while and just let the characters take over. Let the scene ramble. No one has to read what your characters get up to if in retrospect it doesn’t work.

Left to their own devices, your characters might just lead you to a few story nuggets you wouldn’t have thought of any other way.


R. Brady Frost said...

Bravo! I love it! A few of my characters in short stories have taken me far beyond where I had thought the story was going. It's alarming and yet satisfying at the same time.

Great post!

Raving Dave Herman said...

Thanks Brady!

Seeing your characters do things you would never have expected is definitely one of the weirdest and most wonderful buzzes you can get as a writer.