The Way of the Writer: Part Two – Character and Setting

Welcome back, thanks for continuing to read this series, today I’m gonna talk about my process as it relates to Character and Setting. Now you might wonder why I’m gonna talk about both, and not split this over two weeks, the simple answer is, they both go hand-in-hand, and I’m gonna be explaining that, over the course of this piece.

What is a character?

A character is a person, real or fake, that operates within a narrative. Simple, but what does that mean? Well, let’s start with the basics. This is a bare-bones character sheet, (by the way, stole this from a writing class), now it may look like an ‘Equality Questionnaire’ that you have to fill in when you apply for a job, but it will give you a necessary (but changeable) foundation on which to build your story. If you have an idea, and you’ve been thinking about your main character enough, this form will be easy to fill out, and if you don’t have a solid idea, and haven’t been thinking about the main character, this will hopefully accelerate the process. It took me five minutes to fill out this sheet, although I went very wild with the choices I’ve made, it’s still quite a simple character, someone who can blow shit up, that wants to rob a bank, doesn’t sound too farfetched, perfectly serviceable character for a serviceable heist film.

The above sheet is customisable, if you’re writing a fantasy story, you might add some additional categories, depending on what is important to the characters. As an exercise try filling in the form from the mindset of your characters, especially when it comes to the dream/fear categories. As I’ve been taught, the dreams and fears of a character are what make them a ‘well-written’ character, the dreams give characters drive to overcome their fear, and their fear impedes them fulfilling their dreams, this is the fire that fuels the character. For example, my middle-aged demolitions expert wants to rob a bank, which is obviously a crime, so she fears getting caught and going to prison, so if she gives up wanting to pull a heist her fear won’t be relevant, and it’ll be a different kind of story, not necessarily a bad one though, how many stories are there about a woman trying to give up a life of crime? Try and find something that is different but interesting about your character, yes I basically stole the dream/fear from Danny Ocean from ‘Ocean’s Eleven’ (2001), but it’s a starting point, don’t be precious about how you initially build your character, be flexible, if something doesn’t quite feel right, change it, then re-evaluate.

Setting the scene

Setting is as important to the characters, as the characters are important to the setting. If you think about yourself for a moment, try and think of the context in which you belong, you haven’t come from nothingness, you are who you are because of the world around you. For instance, I live in the scottish countryside, and to my friends who live in towns/cities they can’t believe that I normally have to travel for around three hours everyday that I worked in the city, but for me that’s normal, that’s just my commute. If you want to write about a character that kills people for a living, you have to take into consideration a) how that character deals with killing people and b) what environment has/is causing this character to continue killing people.

People don’t exist in vacuums, but they do exist in bubbles. The world that you surround your character with also informs that character, are they part of that world and breaking free or are they’re a disruptive element, causing that world to crumble, this is something to think about.

Building the setting is a lot more ethereal than creating a character, lazy writers tend to just set their characters in “the real world” and move on, this is a massive mistake. If I’m setting the story in present-day Scotland, what may seem like the real world to me, will be different to another Scottish person, so you’d do well to think of the implications on big and small levels, from political and societal implications, to the views of the world espoused by the immediate human environment around the main character. All characters which appear in your story build the setting alongside the location/time period/dimension, so it’s incredibly useful to build these two in tandem.

In an effort to not get too complicated, I’m gonna start talking about romantic comedies. ‘10 Things I Hate About You’ (1999) is arguably one of the finest high school romantic comedy films ever made, if you disagree, fight me. Now as someone who was never a teen in a late-nineties american high-school, I have no idea if the world shown to me is accurate to how it was at the time, but there’s a scene early in the film where the new guy is shown around the school, and we’re introduced to the cliques that occupy this school’s social environment, from the cowboys and rastafarians, to the wall street dorks and the popular good-looking kids, the movie then uses these groups and the interplay amongst them to drive the story forward. Even if your story is an existentialist drama, with only two characters, you still need to convey their backstory/world, the questions you need to ask yourself when building this world are: “how did the character end up here?”,”what position does the person occupy in this world?”, and “how do they interact with the world and the people occupying it?”.

Casting an obstacle

I’m kind of getting bored with using the terms hero/villain and protagonist/antagonist, as it quite often ends up getting confusing when the main character is morally dubious or ambivalent, and I write so that all my characters believe themselves to be the hero of their own story, so the rhetoric around heroes and villains gets confusing when diving deep into story, so I’ll simply refer to the main character as the main character, and the opposition to the main character as simply ‘the opposition’.

The character I made earlier needs opposition, as you can’t be a bank robber without someone to stand in your way, otherwise we’d all do it. I hear you thinking “make the opposition a cop”, but that’s easy, and the simplicity may serve you well, as even kids know that cops and robbers are by their nature, enemies. On the other hand, I still need someone to try and stop the main character from stealing, maybe a jilted ex-lover who believes the score is rightfully his, maybe the person who owns the bank, and hires a ruthless security team to protect their wealth, or simply just a bank employee, who wants to do the right thing. The role of the main character is to advance towards a certain goal, and the role of the main oppositional character is to prevent them from doing so, it’s simple.

When building characters to occupy the story, ask yourself how they serve the central conflict, Do they ally with or oppose the main character? Why? How is the world affected by them existing in it? How does the world affect the character? Also keep in mind that those on the side of the main character will not always be helpful, have them hinder the progress of the main character, and use that conflict to flesh out both characters, also the opposite can come in handy, have oppositional characters unwittingly (or not) help the main character, it’ll help people empathise with those on the other side, even if it is through fucking up.

Dynamic Setting

Once you have a more solid idea of your cast of characters, and the world which they inhabit, you now have to stress test the world and the characters. Now you will have to use your imagination for this, and some extra writing if required, even if you don’t intend your character to end up in a life or death situation, it’s helpful to know what they would do, would they kill, be killed, sacrifice themselves, run away, try and talk their way out of it, this is all up to you and them. Is your story world a heightened reality? You may have to come up with unwritten rules that you obey, for instance, does your story involve gun violence, is it over-the-top, ‘gritty and real’, are they using magical cinema guns that don’t need reloading, or does every bullet count in the story, these are just a few options that you can think about.

The Moral of the Story

It’s my storytelling belief that every story operates on what I like to call an “spectrum of morality”, in a simple form it can play as, simple farmhand (good) defeats dragon (evil) who terrorised the villagers (victims). Now this is very simplistic, and we now live in a world where Breaking Bad exists, where a well-intentioned main character becomes an almost unstoppable criminal mastermind, so it’s hard to break down the story as good/evil or hero/villain, but morality is still present. There is no black and white, only shades of grey, and if your main character exists closer to the centre of that grey, the oppositional force needs to exist on the opposite side to test the main character, take Robin Hood for example, he steals (bad) but does so to aid starving people (good), the oppositional character being The Sheriff of Nottingham, while legally being in power (good?), he lives a life of luxury, while people around him suffer (really bad).

The morality of a story isn’t confined to good and bad, in a bog standard romantic comedy, we see can see the interplay of one character being optimistic and believing in love, while the other is cynical and thinks love is made-up, you need to figure out what makes the story important, and build the characters and setting in service of your initial idea, and don’t worry if that idea changes as you explore, maybe the character I made would be better off not in a heist film, but a road movie, or a bizarre romantic comedy, the choice is all yours.

See ya next time for words on Theme.

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The Way of the Writer: Part One – Ideas

Hi, I’m Dusty Smith, someone you probably haven’t heard of, I like to write, therefore I like to call myself a writer. I haven’t been successful in being paid to write, so why should you listen to me? You shouldn’t. Recently, over the course of six months, I’ve written an eight-episode comedy/drama series to a first draft level (a.k.a. I’ve written it, but haven’t reread and rewritten any of it), considering it took me three years to complete the first draft of a feature-length screenplay (ended up being over a hundred pages), and it’s taken me a sixth of that time to write over three-hundred pages of material, I think I found the easy way to write. So in this series I’ll give you some tools that might make you a more ‘productive’ writer, but I won’t be able to make you a good writer, if I knew that, I wouldn’t be writing this.

I like to think of this as writing style, but sharing more in common with a style of kung fu, rather than an aesthetic style of writing, it’s my ‘Drunken Master’ but for writing, get it? Cool.

I owe this knowledge to spending a year studying film in uni (had to drop out ‘cause I couldn’t afford it), and to spending way too much money on books about filmmaking, so being a nice little socialist, I wanna share this info, for free (although I may start asking for donations/do a patreon). Before I get on with the job, I’m gonna be honest and tell you to buy ‘On Film-making’ by Alexander MacKendrick, I’ll be stealing heavily from this book, and I was told by a lecturer that it’s the only book about filmmaking that you need, so there’s that.

 

Let’s talk about Ideas

The start of any, and I mean any, creative process comes from an idea. In my personal opinion, all ideas are bad initially, only through patience and over-thinking can you make a bad idea good. For example, Star Wars went from this, to a billion dollar property, every idea has potential for greatness. For me, ideas are irritating, like a bad penny, these ideas keep showing up unprompted, bugging me in the middle of movies/work/relaxation, the more they keep coming up, the more I have to explore them. So even if you have a stupid idea for making a talking dog movie, think how to refine that idea, and make it the talking dog movie that YOU want to see.

Explore what you like, and ask yourself why you like it, the answer may be simple, it may be complex, but it’s a lot harder to make something for other people to enjoy, without enjoying it yourself. I’ve been exploring Japanese psychological horror, after enjoying the body horror elements of Akira, and it’s fascinating, but I’m not really jumping to write horror, so why explore it? Because it might be helpful one day, it’ll sit in my unconscious mind, until it hopefully inspires me.

Inspiration doesn’t come from one source, if you wanna write a screenplay, listen to music, read a book, take a long walk, play some games, go to the pub, talk to people who aren’t writers, but don’t worry there’ll be a time to watch movies later, just absorb every other kind of information first. Have a foundation for your idea to build upon.

Inspiration strikes

If you’re patient, and don’t think too hard about it, one day you’ll get a stupid idea, for example you think “what if there was a talking dog movie, where snoop dogg voices an actual dog?”, stupid idea right? So you’ll toss it aside, and move on with life, but it comes back, “what if the snoop dogg talking dog movie, was an allegory for the struggle of black people in american culture?” Then you think hard, and realise that just a cheap rip-off of Zootopia, and again toss it to the side. Once again, here’s that thought, “what if in the future, dogs gain tons of intelligence, and eventually live to co-exist with humanity? snoop dogg plays a cameo role though”, now you could do something with that, it might sound dumb, but so does Star Wars, “space farmer boy destroys evil empire’s greatest weapon, featuring laser swords”, dumb shit works.

If you want to be good, you should probably have a notebook, or an app for taking notes, and write everything down, and return to it if you’re struggling with coming up with something. My notes are mostly nonsense I’ve written down while intoxicated, but some of it has been helpful if I’ve needed to come up with something. The TV stuff I’ve been writing initially started out as a murder-mystery, with a focus on inter-generational conflict, but now it’s a comedy-drama, where I experiment with social/political/religious/philosophical concepts, the original concept may seem more interesting, but I suck at murder-mystery right now, and small-town murder-mystery is kinda cliche at this point, but I’ll probably explore it again, in the future.

 

Research

Now you’ve got the sci-fi dog idea, what do you do with it? Just consume everything that you feel will help you, that’s it in a nutshell, that’s research. It sounds daunting, and it is, you don’t have anyone to tell you if you’re researching the right thing, but that’s the beauty of it. Look up any fiction that has dogs gaining intelligence (yeah, that Rick and Morty episode counts), find stories where dogs are treated as a race of people and not pets, read dog training books, explore any philosophical concepts that might relate to a world where homo-sapiens and canine-sapiens live side-by-side.

I tend to approach research by building lists of media that I need to check out, for instance I wanna make a stoner-comedy, so I’ve added Half-Baked, Harold and Kumar, How High etc., to my watchlist, I watched a decent video essay on Harold and Kumar and how it relates to the American Dream, I bought a digital copy of Society of Spectacle by Guy Debord, because it could be helpful, I dunno if it will be, but learning is it’s own reward.

If you’re hardcore enough, you could even write essays in order to make sense of everything you come across. School/college/university may have made essay writing a turnoff for many, but it can help you articulate what you’ve discovered, thus making it more concrete in your own head, amazing isn’t it?

Also genre, if you wanna write in a specific genre, make sure to not limit yourself to exploring that one genre, but also you need to become an expert in it, academic texts on genre theory are a dime a dozen, so get to reading/watching essays.

That’s gonna be it for the first part of this (hopeful) series, the title is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, this and subsequent parts are just me telling you how I feel like writing, this is by no means the “correct” way of the writer, but hopefully I’ve given you something to try out, and maybe adopt as your own, then you can blame me when you’re unsuccessful, but I warned you about that.

See ya next time for words on character and setting.