The questions used in the last exercise are based on material from a book for actors, titled Audition, by Michael Shurtleff. It’s also an excellent source for writers on how to develop characters. Before we do the fleshing out of these scenes, there’s something worth remembering. Inexperienced writers are afraid they’re going to lose their audiences if they don’t hook them with the title and a gimmicky first line. Give your audience credit for more intelligence than this. Remember they’re not coming to this work critically, but with the hope that this is the story that will…go deeper in, take them further out… make them more of what they are. It’s why we go to plays expectantly, despite the fact that most performances are disappointing. Why we read the next novel, though left unsatisfied by so many before. We aren’t disappointed by tricks, but because a writer has squandered the opportunity to do much more.
As you write, picture a person lovingly reading over your shoulder who wants more. Who says, “I want to feel this with the intensity that you do, don’t rush through the details. What is the temperature? How does the light shine in through the window? When she makes that remark, does her expression change ever so subtly? What is the reason these characters are here? What are their relationships? The scene, the characters are a means to express your (and my) fullest feelings, deeply and importantly. Explore the richness of each possibility.” And how can you do this?
In everyday living we try to avoid or resolve conflict, but conflict is what creates drama. Under the control of the written page we explore ramifications beyond the ordinary. It’s not enough to capture reality on the page. We want heightened reality. The writer needs to find out what the characters in every scene are fighting for and tell what the consequences will be for them if they fail. Your job is to explore the opposites that exist within each character. When you write you have many creative choices in what to include and what to exclude. Make choices that intensify real life drama. Look for romance, the inexplicable, people’s secret fears and dreams. Whenever you have two conflicting personality traits that cancel each other out, do both. Michael Shurtleff says, ” One of the great results of using opposites is behavior that is unpredictable, therefore always more intriguing to an audience. It’s why people are forever astonishing us in life: we don’t know what they’re going to do next, they’re not consistent, we’re always being surprised by their doing something we didn’t expect. Interesting acting always has this risk element of the unpredictable in it. That’s why actors like Laurence Olivier and Marlon Brando and DeNiro and Pachino (at least in their early work) interest us so; we never quite know what they’re going to do next. They make us want to know. They make us keep watching them. They surprise us with their unpredictability.”
As a writer you need to supply these opposites, even if you don’t see them in your subject in real life. What’s there is obvious. It’s what is underneath the obvious that makes for interesting writing.
Character Development Exercise (Part B):
Pick three of the scenes you identified on the right-hand side of your list and use each as the basis for a scene that will last a page or two. If the same scene illuminates two of your answers, that’s fine. It means you have a rich scene. Likewise don’t be surprised if some of the elements from answers you have not chosen to work with find their way into your scenes. But make sure when you are done that each of the three scenes communicates through reactions of the characters rather than telling the audience the primary point. If you do your job well, a reader finishing the scenes should be able to identify which of the questions each is dramatizing and conclude from the material what your answer on the left side of the page would have been to the question. These are little mini-portraits or scenes from a life. They may or may not be seem connected. However, remember mere reality is never enough. Neither is truth. It must be heightened reality, selective truth, made dramatic by the choices of the writer.
OK stop reading and start to write.
HE SAID, SHE SAID
A question you may have had in doing this last exercise is: Should I write in first person, using myself as narrator; or should I use one of the variations of third person (“He said this. She did that”)? Here are examples done in class of parts of the last exercise. Example 8 is in first person; Example 9 is in third person. Look at them and compare the advantages and disadvantages of each.
I’m sitting at the kitchen table. I just got home from work. I’m eating tuna salad and some yogurt. Leigh comes in without Rich. They’ve been on a date. She has her hand behind her and a smile on her face.
I say, “Hi. What’s up?”
She holds out her hand. She has a tiny diamond engagement ring on her finger.
“Leigh Ann! No! You’re not even 18 yet. I won’t let you do this.
She says,”Mom, I’m going to stay engaged to Rich. I love you so much and I always try to do what you want. But, if I don’t stand up to you now, I may never be able to.”
I‘m shocked to silence.
The phone rings. It’s late on a weekday night. I pick it up and it’s Leigh speaking in a very low voice. We usually talk on Sunday evenings, around 9:00, after the kids are in bed. I call her so the call is on my bill, not hers. This has been our habit the whole four years I’ve been in St. Louis. So I know something is up.
Her voice is low. “Mom, I’m calling from the basement so Rich can’t hear me. I want to fill you in because I don’t know what’s going to happen next. I told him last night either he has to get into a treatment program or I’m getting a divorce. He refuses to get treatment and he got so mad and yelled so loud I got really scared. He yelled so loud he woke Kyle up and Kyle was crying. Mom, it’s getting worse. He’s taking money out of my purse. He even robbed Kyle’s piggy bank.”
I murmur some sympathetic thing.
She says, “I just wanted to warn you so you’ll know what to expect. Mom, when we came down at Thanksgiving he was drunk. He almost killed us. I think he fell asleep at the wheel. I said, ‘Rich! Stop! There’s a car ahead at the stop sign!’ He braked so hard, we almost crashed. The kids were screaming because I was crying. It was awful.”
Leigh is moving to Jack’s house. She’s having a garage sale. She and Matt (her dad) are big on garage sales. I hate them, but I’ve agreed to help. The boys are with Rich. Jack, his dad and two other guys are loading all Leigh’s stuff in a rental truck. Matt is there, too. It’s drizzling. We run back and forth between the house and garage. Matt has brought cheese Danish (his favorite sweet rolls, I remember). He’s also made his homemade chili for lunch. When we split up, he asked me for some recipes of his favorite foods that I used to cook. One of them was chili. He has improvised on my recipe until his no longer resembles mine. For example he uses small black beans instead of kidney beans. It even tastes spicy.
So there we sit in the garage on old chairs and a sofa, all of us who love Leigh, all of us building our whole Saturday around Leigh: me (her mom). Matt (her dad) Jack (her new husband); and now, I can tell even Jack’s dad loves her. And there she sits in her sweatshirt and jeans, surrounded with love and broken and mended families…eating Matt’s chili and my chocolate chip cookies. ―Jane Matthews
The first scene answers the question, “Who is the love in this person’s life?” The last gives us a characteristic place or location. The middle scene center’s on Leigh’s revelation that she has married the wrong man. The beginning of Example 8shows the disadvantages of first person point of view. It’s harder for me as a reader to get involved because I’m not sure whether I want to assume the personality and values of the narrator. With autobiography it is a little different. We are already drawn to the subject, predisposed to seeing things from his or her viewpoint. Here I’m not sure I want to commit, yet I’m not given the option of observing first. Secondly, as a reader I don’t have the physical details that place me in the scene. Certainly they could be added, but why would someone sitting in her kitchen, as she does day after day, suddenly be conscious of descriptive detail. The narrator would be straining to accommodate the reader. Finally, it’s more difficult to show physical reaction. The last line, “I’m shocked to silence.” is telling the reader she felt shock, rather than showing the reader reactions that communicate shock. The choice of first person point of view brings with it a whole set of challenges.
On the other hand, advantages start to appear with the second scene. We feel the tragedy of Leigh’s marriage heightened because we see it through the eyes of her mother who knew this was a mistake, yet is too caring to say, “I told you so.” I feel for both of them, and experience that anguish of having a child in trouble I am helpless to save. If this were third person, perhaps I would feel less directly involved. But, notice what makes this work is that the emphasis is on Leigh. We hear her voice, feel her panic, worry about what will happen to her in her next confrontation with Rich.
Even though all three scenes are first person, there seems to be a progression–from narrator in the first scene, to Leigh in the second, to an almost third person perspective with many characters in the third. Now we get location, description, and some authenticating detail missing up until now (e.g. black beans for kidney beans). We’re sitting with them on an old sofa, watching the drizzle through the open garage door, smelling the chili. The problem with first person is that the writer often takes for granted detail of both place and character that the reader needs. The third person point of view tends to keep the writer honest. When first person works, the writer has made a well-rounded character out of the narrator (Huck Finn, Holden Caulfield) and has figured out a way to present a setting with the same kind of detail as if the writer were using third person (as in Bright Lights, Big City).
Here are two scenes in third person by a different writer doing the same exercise.
It was Tuesday evening, eight o’clock, Rob and Jean were finally alone. Jean’s tiny second floor walk-up was warm and inviting.
“Where’s Marilyn tonight?” she asked him.
Rob was quiet. No answer. In fact, Marilyn was home with the kids, believing he was at the Bull’s game with Rick. At this time of night, Rob would usually be reading them a bedtime story. He missed that. He loved seeing them at the end of the day, and first thing in the morning. But being with Marilyn…that was a whole new deal these days.
Finally he replied, “Home.” The message was clear. He didn’t want to discuss it. No way. Not tonight. Not with Jean. Or with Marilyn, either, for that matter. Tonight, no arguments, no endless discussions about “this affair he appeared to be having”–no talk about “the next time.” Things were tough all over, and Rob was hoping that for at least a few hours, he could enjoy a respite from the pressures coming from too many directions. Maybe the Bull’s game with Rick would have been the right choice. Too bad Rick had given the extra ticket to Julie. He could hear Jean in the kitchen fixing drinks. Scotch for him, straight up; gin and tonic for her. God, she looked great tonight. Long legs, short skirt, one of his old flannel shirts and no make-up. She was always just Jean. That much he could count on.
It wasn’t quite five o’clock on a Friday evening when Don walked into Rob’s office. He sat down in the comfortable armchair facing the large, imposing work desk that Rob had recently acquired for his new corner office. The lights of the city played outside the windows that reflected the two men: one still hard at work; the other, hands folded, thoughtfully observing his friend. Though Rob was rushing to complete his project so it could be FedEx’ed by five, a thought flashed through his mind about where they planned to meet later on.
“Drake or the Knickerbocker?” Rob asked.
“The shortest walk from here to there wins my business,” Don answered. “And I’m planning on doing a lot of business over the next few hours. It could mean quite a piece of change for the bartender. I’ll meet you in the C’og D’or in the Drake at six.” Don was looking straight down at his shoes.
“Sounds good. I’ll be there. Don’t get too far ahead of me if I’m running late. You sound like a man with a beer in each hand already.” Rob spoke quickly. Much as his friend seemed to want to stay put in the easy chair, Rob was on deadline, and every minute mattered
“It’s over, Rob.” Don spoke quietly, deliberating on each word. Then, even slower, “Phil just fired me. I’m out.The air was thick and still. Rob looked into his buddy’s eyes, where despair was all he could see. He dropped the papers he had been frantically organizing and asked a one word question.
“I’m gone, Rob. You ask Phil about that. He gave me his reasons, but I didn’t get any answers. Maybe you will. And maybe after that you’ll get another promotion.”
Don was bitter. Before Rob could say a word–of support, of surprise, of anger–his friend abruptly got up.
“See you at six. The Drake. I’m going over there now.”
Don was gone. Outside the lights looked menacing. And in the reflection the office appeared hard, hard and cold. ―Kelan Putnam