Tag Archives: character development

Falling Flat

My husband and I are fans of an interesting TV show called Project Greenlight which is a behind the scenes series about getting a movie made from executive producers Ben Affleck and Matt Damon. We watched several seasons of the show years ago, but then there was a long hiatus between the previous seasons and this season. This season’s show on HBO ended earlier this month.

In addition to the seasons of Project Greenlight, we have seen a few of the movies that were made during the show. We have never really been overwhelmed with the results. It’s not unusual to have a more enjoyable behind the scenes adventure to watch on the TV show than a good movie as the result.

While this season of Project Greenlight, with the contest winning first time director Jason Mann assisted by Project Greenlight producer Effie Brown, had a lot of drama over the direction of the film that made the show a lot of fun to follow, the movie never really seemed like it would turn out well.

HBO premiered the movie, The Leisure Class, earlier this month to pretty poor reviews. Despite the bad reviews, we watched it On Demand just to see the end result. Unsurprisingly we found out it just was not good.

What was good about watching it, for me, though was finding lessons in what not to do when developing my own stories and characters.

The Leisure Class was Mann’s own script developed out from a 3 minute short film. The story takes place over the course of about 24 hours and is supposed to be a comedy. I think. Or a dark comedy perhaps.  Perhaps it is meant as satire? The issue is that it hits none of those marks. There is little that is funny and a lot that just falls flat because you just don’t get who the characters are or why we should care about them. Who are these people? Why are they doing the things they do? Why would anyone possibly say some of the things they say or respond the way they respond?

Ed Weeks plays Charles, a supposedly charming Englishman (who just comes off as a bit of a slimeball honestly, not at all charming) who is supposed to marry Fiona (Bridget Regan), a stiff upper class daughter of a wealthy Senator who is running for some sort of office apparently herself. They have an engagement dinner where Charles’s brother unexpectedly drops in causing the scheming Charles some difficulty. Tom Bell plays the screwball brother, Leonard, that shakes the family up.

It could be funny. Instead it’s just awkward. He doesn’t really cause that much trouble. The trouble is rather unbelievable. The aftermath is really unbelievable. The characters’ reactions are frequently the most unbelievable. Several scenes are just painfully bad with characters saying the most awful things to each other and for what purpose? Big meltdowns and confrontations should serve the story somehow but these seem to be confrontation for confrontations sake. Shock for shock value only.

Tell me a story! Not a rushed compilation of stilted scenes pieced together that can almost be blended together into a chunky mess of a story.

Make me care about the characters! If the character’s actions don’t make sense the story doesn’t make sense. If what the characters say doesn’t fit who that character is supposed to be, the story doesn’t make sense. The characters have to make sense for the story to make sense.

Ultimately it doesn’t matter how fine the details are if the overall story doesn’t work. The biggest lesson seems to be to just make sure there is actually a good story there. If there isn’t a solid story, no one is going to care how pretty it all turns out. Tell me a solid story and make me care about the characters or there’s just no point.

Remember when…

I wrote this post following a big ol’ gathering of extended family at my house this weekend. I have an aunt visiting from out of state who is always good at getting us all together even when our busy lives seem to keep us from doing otherwise. We had brothers, sisters, parents, kids, aunts, uncles, and cousins (plus my little over-stimulated dog) filling up our house for a very pleasant summer afternoon. Since this is Texas and it was a large family gathering, there was a big buffet of food, a whole lot of sweet iced tea,  a mess of noisy kids running and playing everywhere, quite a few loud bursts of laughter and then, of course, lots and lots of stories.

You know the stories I am talking about, the ones that start with “Remember when…” and end with smiles and nods and laughs, then inevitably lead to another story which adds on to the previous one.  Even the normally quiet ones in the group can’t resist chiming in with a “Remember that old place in such and such a town”, which some will remember with an “Oh yeah, I do” and others might not remember as clearly. Some stories are new, tales of recent adventures or something never shared, but for the most part there’s a lot of shared memories brought back up amid laughter and occasionally some tears.

As a writer, I love listening to all the little details, not just to learn more about a history within my family I might not know about, but also because I can always tuck it away for a potential story idea later.

One story this weekend talked about an old ice house in the town they grew up in where some family members would go to get blocks of ice. Blocks of ice? Not nice bags of crushed ice from the local convenience store? Well, I’ll tell ya, that that’s about as foreign to me as having to get up off the couch to go change the TV station without a remote control would seem to my young kids.  Whose to say that doesn’t somehow work its way into a story of mine someday?

Quite a lot of those “Remember when” stories are just chock full of potential details for a scene or interesting character development possibilities. The grandmother who sold war bonds could work her way into a story or the great grandfather who was such an imposing figure could be the basis for supporting character in my novel.

But even beyond the possible story ideas, the idea of exploring a character’s own possible collection of stories as a way to develop some depth to the definition of a character seems intriguing to me also.  What would my lead character talk about at a family gathering? Would her stories be ones she would share and laugh over, or would her family be one that never spoke of their stories for being too painful. Does my character have core stories that help establish who she is and where she comes from? Probably very little of those stories would make it into the novel but knowing that about her might help make a weaker character a little stronger.

Do you have a lot of ‘Remember when’ stories in your family, too? Do you use them for your writing? Or do you find yourself rolling your eyes or dozing off as you hear the one about that time in the place with the people for the zillionth time? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

Thanks for stopping in and have a great week! 🙂

~CJS

Creating Characters from Personal Experience

Although I have had limited time lately to engage in any long term writing, I have been playing around with character profiles for a story I am planning to rewrite. I say this because I want to refer back to a couple of my previous posts where I discussed writing from personal experience. In this case, however, I want to focus more on using that personal experience toward developing characters.

Instead of creating outline sketches for character development, as well as as for the plot and general storyline, I prefer to construct my characters from real people whom I know or have known and, there have been quite a few. It also means I don’t need to overtax my limited imagination – just my memory as I go along – plus, reality truly can be more interesting than fiction.

It is usually not just one person from whom I construct any single character, but usually two or three. For example, and without ratting out names, I know several people I draw on for ego-centric personalities, ranging from occasional selfishness to flat out narcissism. By the way, one of my red-line narcissistic “acquaintances” (code for meaning unnamed friend or family member) is at least somewhat aware and surprisingly unapologetic for their deep-seeded self-centered attitude. This particular “acquaintance” is actually rather proud that they use other people as if we were placed on this planet to serve them and only them.

Profiles like that, at least to me, are so rad and off-the-chart that they make it easy to create interesting story characters. Frankly, some of the people I know are so intriguing that it is nearly impossible for me not to apply at least some of their of traits to my characters. In fact, I enjoy character development so much that sometimes I prefer to wrap a plot around the characters or selection of characters, rather than creating a character to fit the plot.

Another “acquaintance” has influenced my character development positively and negatively. This acquaintance, having never driven, used a computer or spoken on a cell phone, pretty much has refused to leave the past and, perhaps not so coincidentally, is a bit conceited. They will never read this or any other blog and lives in their own stagnant comfort zone, actively rejecting any notion of expanding their horizons past 1950.

In this case, I applied their mature age and physical features to the character in the story, but flipped their personality to someone who, through drive and determination, adjusts to new cultures and an evolving world.

I could list several people, individually or in combination, I know that I have used for character development in my stories, but I won’t, because my life wouldn’t be worth the price of a milkshake. A couple of them, and they know who they are, suspect it anyway.