Now you have resisted plotting too soon – it is time to meet your characters. YOU CANNOT SPEND TOO MUCH TIME DOING THIS. If you don’t know your characters you are lost.
The first thing I advise you to do is to spend some time in a room with them. A you are going to spend some time with your eyes closed, imagining they are sitting opposite you, and just look them over – get a feel for their presence, how do they smell (really!), are they fidgeting, do they meet your gaze – and so on – i.e. what would it be like to be in the room with them for real?
The trick here is to be as human as you can be – don’t let it descend into a analysis – this is about you listening to your own instincts about what it is to be a human being – this human being.
We have attached an audio character meditation exercise to his post – which I highly recommend – but here is a description of that exercise for those not ready to do that or who prefer to guide themselves.
Close your eyes, plant your feet on the ground a little apart and spend a little time concentrating on your breath – maybe a couple of minutes just counting in and out for 1o seconds each inhalation exhalation. The purpose of this is to clear your mind.
Once you have achieved a little stillness start to imagine your character is sitting opposite you – or, if it’s easier, that you are looking in a mirror, but instead of seeing yourself – you are seeing the character. Do this before you read on.
Now, let your eyes travel up from the feet –
- What shoes are they wearing, how do those shoes feel – tight, comfortable etc?
- Then allow your eyes to travel up their legs. Are they strong – are these legs used for anything other than just ambling around – do they run, do they feel ready for action or neglected.
- Then get to their groin. How much power and energy is there. Does your character feel confident there, aroused, or shy and unsure? Does your character lead from this area or try to ignore it? Is it fizzy or numb?
- Then let you mind travel further up still – to their belly – how does it feel? Nervous? Taught? Content? A source of embarrassment? Do they “trust their gut” or ignore its instincts?
- Then to their heart – does it move their actions, does it beat slow and steady or does it flutter with fear? Does it pound with passionate feeling?
- Then up to their throat – to the source of their communication. Does it feel constricted or is it a clear channel of confident expression?
- Then to their ears – are they open, receptive, or does the inner monologue play in their heads too loudly for that? Are they eager to receive the information that comes from outside – or do they seek to block it out as noise?
- Finally travel up to their heads. How does it feel in there? Noisy and busy or calm and serene? Is it s place of comprehension and order or a place of confusion and clutter?
Once you have done this – allow yourself to stand back a little to experience a sense of the totality of the character.
When you are ready, slowly allow your attention to return to the room, to the sounds and smells, to the air temperature, to the feeling of the floor beneath your feet etc.
When you are ready – you can open your eyes, and just spoend a few moments in the room before you get up.
Now – get a sheet of paper, and ask a bunch of questions about them. The really odd thing here is that you will almost certainly have answers to all these questions, and some of them may surprise you. My advice here is to roll with these surprises for now – don’t edit anything – don’t try and be right or funny or wacky or shocking – just answer with the first thing that pops into your head.
To be clear – these things which will almost certainly never come up in the script – which really help you walk in their shoes – and will, in ways you cannot predict, get you out of trouble is scenes where you need them to be doing something.
- Write down their backstory – where they grew up, how much money they had, siblings, their parents’ stories etc.
- Write down their friends, lovers and enemies – who do they love most, who do they desire most, who do their fear most, who do they miss most and why? How long ago was it that they last saw them?
- Write down their habits – What do they love eating, Where do they love hanging out, where do they love chilling out, where do they feel most oppressed, where frightenes them and why?
- Write down their secrets – what are they, why do they keep them and form who, how would it feel for them to be exposed? How long have they been secrets? Are they secrets to everyone?
- Write down the things that make them proud and ashamed and most importantly of all – afraid. Once you know what frightens a character, you know how badly they will react in various situations.
- Write down what they want and what stands in their way. What do they desire from the world, what do they desire from other people, what do they desire from themselves
- Write down the difference between who they want people to see them as being, how they actually appear and who they are deep down inside.
- Finally ask yourself why you have chosen this moment in their life to depict them – and if the answer isn’t that this is a moment where they change profoundly or make a life changing choice – then maybe ask yourself if you have got the right story ambitions.
Once you have done all this – and taken the time to really absorb it – then you are the position to start thinking about things that will show up in the story – i.e. character journey!
- What does the character want coming into the story?
- What are the six things that the character needs to fix in themselves?
- What stands in the characters way early on?
- What do they do, that they always do, to try to cope with this challenge?
- How does the situation confound these strategies forcing the character to look outside their comfort zone?
- How does the fear that this provokes drive the character into deeper trouble?
- What do they do under pressure – and how does this further complicate their situation?
- How, at their worst moment, do they appear and/or behave?
- What are they forced to confront, that lies at the heart of what they fear, which allows them to emerge with new insights and strategies?
- How do you want them to end up – triumphant and transformed or defeated and tragic?
Once you have done this for your lead character – you need to remember that this is the emotional spine of what you are doing – this is the story the audience will care about – and this is the journey which must become the guiding light as you venture into the world of the plot itself.