There is no truth about fiction and drama greater than “What happens is less important than to whom it happens.” The task of the writer is to get readers, viewers, to care. There is no better example of this than the program, “Coronation Street”. People care so passionately about the characters that they make seeing every episode a priority. There are even books written about the fictional characters.
What happens to someone uninteresting or someone an audience does not care about is of no consequence. The task of the writer is to create characters that readers or viewers care about. Long after what happened is forgotten, plot has faded away, it is the characters who stay with an audience.
The creation of character in fiction is often done, in large part, by internalization. The reader hears the character thinking. The character’s feelings, reactions, hopes, dreams, suffering, are all explained either by the character’s thoughts or by exposition. “Jake was a homeless boy of seven when he arrived at the farm gate of the Sutherlands. He was hungry, thirsty, tired, afraid.” Or “I was seven years and homeless when I arrived at the farm gate of the Sutherlands.” Third person or first person but internalized.
You don’t want a film to begin with a scene of Jake sitting on a stump thinking “I was….” The film writer has to show, that is the critical word, show, a scene of seven year old Jake arriving at the Sutherland’s farm gate. As a matter of fact, the scene should probably start with Jake coming up a dusty road, dirty, his clothes in poor condition, his tiredness showing on his face and in h is actions, his fear showing in his actions as he approaches the farm. His hunger can be shown by his digging in an old potato patch, rubbing dirt off a potato and biting into it. But, hunger, thirst, aloneness, fear, all have to be shown.
If the story is going to be about Jake, we want the audience to start building empathy with him right away. We don’t need to pluck the viewer’s heart strings to the point of creating melodrama along the lines of the “Poor little match girl”. However, we need the audience to start caring. The caring can be built up about some of the most improbable characters. The major device for that is point of view so point of view is critical.
From what point will we see the events? In True Grit we see the world through the eyes of Mattie. We share her experience. As an exercise in adapting a piece of fiction read over the story and write down where the point of view is established, whose point of view it will be, is there more than one point of view. Ask yourself what point of view you would use in a script as opposed to the pv in the fiction. This is the work of writing.
The success of a character in a novel is entirely up to the writer. However, when a narrative is moved to drama, that success depends in large part on the ability of the director and the actor to bring the character to life. That does not absolve the writer of the need to give the both the director and the actor the lines and information with which to work. Even the best actors cannot overcome a badly thought out script. For this reason, it is important to watch and analyze films that don’t work and to figure out why they don’t work. There are lots of disastrous films out there. Take your pick.
A character reveals who he is, that is, he shares himself with his audience, by what he says, what he does, and given the choices available in any given scene, what he chooses not to do. People are highly complex. Any novel or film can only provide a small part of a character. The writer has to choose what it is that will be shown about the character(s). What elements of their personalities are important to the story being told. In fiction, the question of the beginning writer, often is, why did you choose to dramatize that piece instead of using narrative or exposition. Frequently, the writer can’t answer the question because he doesn’t know the difference among dramatization, narration and exposition.
In adapting material to film, the question morphs into, why, given all the potential scenes, why did you choose to include this scene? What happens in it that moves the plot forward, contributes to back story (exposition), OR develops and reveals essential qualities of the character? On the right hand side of a working manuscript, I always write down notes to myself that say what is revealed about a character in a scene. “Shows generosity, or greed, or ambition, or cowardliness, etc. Remember, in fiction, the narrator could say, “He was acting out of generosity caused by his religious belief.” In film, “Show.” Of course, another character could say that about someone else. In that case, the motivation of the speaker needs to be clear, the tone, the attitude.
I always assume with a character, that I need to know ten times more about a character than goes into the story. Only then will I have him act in a way that is consistent with who he is. Only then can I answer an actor who says, “Why does my character do this? How am I supposed to say these lines?”
I’ve had actors ask me these questions. The fact that they had to be asked meant that the script wasn’t clear enough. It needed rewriting. Rewriting. Rewriting. And rewriting. Getting it right. That means knowing your characters inside and out. Knowing more about them than will ever appear in the novel or on the screen.