Character And Story, by Ben Marshall
I’m a full time scriptwriter for television which, stated baldly like that, sounds like I’m attending a Writers’ Anonymous meeting and am about to unload my tragic back-story. I’m not. But while I’m a pro with scripts – describing action, structuring scenes and writing dialogue – I’m an amateur when it comes to short story and novel writing.
Since moving off a property two years ago, I’ve had time to explore this other area of writing and pretend there was a chance I might one day be published. This admission will, to those aware of the current state of the publishing industry, indicate that I’m an optimist by nature, which will, to those familiar with contemporary psychology, indicate that I’m hopelessly unrealistic.
That said, my impressions of the writing game so far show that a level of blithe ignorance and dogged obsession are the most useful tools to advance one’s fantasies of becoming a ‘proper writer’. The motives for wishing such a pointless outcome range from a vague desire to attract admiration from others, similar to that which I gave certain authors during my youth, to a murkier desire to show off to those who never thought I’d amount to much. I’m talking about my parents, of course and, as mine are both dead, I feel my less murky motives are similar to geezers who fill their attics with model trains and miniature landscapes. I want to build a world where I, and others, can lose ourselves and re-find ourselves.
Writing soap opera, as I do, requires me to locate and reveal the emotional truth of a scene. Those who scoff at soap because of its shonky production values, hammy acting and stilted dialogue are welcome to do so but should also be aware that those who invest regular time to watch a soapie are emotionally engaged with it, just as you are with a serial drama you would choose not to scoff at like, say, The Wire, The Slap, The Straits or South Park. The fundamental difference between, say, Neighbours and The Wire is merely money and time. The similarity – that which we viewers draw sustenance from – is the emotional truths revealed in them. A good story well told is what all writers seek to achieve, but we often stumble when we mistake plot for story. Plot is a series of events occurring over time.
Story is what happens to the characters within that framing, and is the bit we really care about.
A feature film can take a year to write and make, often much longer, costs millions and lasts for a couple of hours. A week of soap opera takes a week to write and make, on a shoestring – hence the production values. But while a feature film might have a couple of plots to tell its story, a week of soap will contain up to a dozen storylines.
Television storyliners produce plot and story at a rate you can’t imagine, and they do it hour after hour, week after week, year after year. In this grinding of mental gears, brains get worn and sloppy, and one of the first things to go wrong is the creation of characters.
Characters begin to be written up as a physical description with a series of personality traits.
Here, I’ll make one up for you. ‘John is a good-looking twenty-something defense lawyer with a passion for criminal law. A risk-taker by nature, he often takes unwinnable cases, and loves to throw himself into extreme sports. His good looks and confidence endear him to women of every age, though John is yet to overcome the hurt of losing the great love of his life, Lucy, in a car crash six
months ago.’ That was an example of a typical character thumbnail in television, and it’s an example of absolute crap. It tells me nothing about what gets him out of bed in the morning or what his real drives are. Sloppy character creation will give a character motives like ‘he or she seeks fame, money, success or love’. We all aspire to some or all of those things so it doesn’t help understand the character in any significant way. It’s the ‘why’ the character aspires to any of those things that counts.
Let’s tackle John again. ‘John is a twenty-something defense lawyer.
His father is a High Court judge and was almost completely absent from John’s childhood. Often his only interaction with his son was to urge him to higher marks and put him down for anything less than an A+. He also secretly suspected John was not his biological son. John’s mother is a self-obsessed academic and trustee of several charities, who had John by accident late in life. Whenever she expressed love of her son, her husband found small, passive-aggressive ways to put her down. This distorted the mother-son relationship, turning it into paler version of what it might’ve been. Last year John was driving the car when he crashed and killed the girl he’d just proposed to.
While no-one says so, everyone blames him for her death.’
Okay, it’s not Tolstoy but it’s better – you can see where I’m coming from.
The crucial thing for me in telling stories is character. The crucial thing for me with character is knowing exactly what they’d do in any given situation because of who and what they are.
Bottom line? Character = story.