What Comes First, Character or Story?

Yes. On to the next blog post.

Okay, I’ll expand. This is a question that keeps being asked of writers over and over again. There is no easy answer. I think it depends on the writer and the inspiration. Art Holcome, in a GLAWS Special Speaker Event, approached the question this way: For every story, there is a best character to tell it. That character is the one that bests answers the central question to the story. Sometimes it may not be the obvious choice.

Say you are writing a detective story. The obvious choice would be the detective in charge. But maybe he isn’t the best choice, maybe it’s his quirky sidekick. Let’s say the theme of the story is horrors humans can inflict on other humans. The detective is a seasoned professional. He’s seen it all. He’s learned to keep his personal feelings and job separated. He’s not moved so much by what he sees on the job. The sidekick, however, is not so seasoned. Things he sees on the job upset him on a personal level. He has nightmares. He can’t sleep. He can’t believe people can be so cruel to each other. He is the character that is going to grow from this experience. Maybe he will learn to separate his feeling from his job. He might finally get that promotion he’s been wanting. Maybe he’ll just stop having nightmares. Or maybe he’ll find he’s really in the wrong line of work and find some other way to help others. One way or another, he will change. To the detective, it’s just another case.

Another way Art Holcome puts it is, who is the character you can torture the most? Who is the character who will suffer the most from the events in the story and will therefore have to change the most? The satisfaction in a story is in watching a character grow and learn.

But sometimes, you come up with a character first. Writer Christine Conradt spoke about that approach. She said if you start with the plot, there is only one way it can go. But if you start with a character, you can think of dozens of different situations to put that character in. If you start with a unique, original character, then it’s your job to find the best story to show off their uniqueness.

Sound familiar? It’s the way TV shows are created. You start out with a cast of characters that are going to be there throughout the season, but the plot is going to be different every week. You need the audience to fall in love with the characters. If they don’t, they won’t care what next week’s plot is.

Finally, there is the view that plot and character are two sides of the same coin. What you character experiences and what decisions they make drive the direction of the plot. And the plot drives your character to different experiences and decisions they have to make. In the end, no matter which you start with, the two will become intertwined. And the journey of your character will determine the destination of the plot.

Log Lines

What is a log line? Put simply, it is your elevator pitch. It is your story in three or four sentences. This is not an easy thing to do. You spend months, maybe even years, on your screenplay, then you have to compress it into three or four lines. It may not seem fair, but when you start sending out query letters to try to get representation, that’s all you get to represent your work.

Writing a query letter is an art in itself – but that’s for another time. But it all comes down to the log line. In as few words as possible, you have to catch the interest of your reader. You have to make your main character interesting, say what his goal is, and what are the obstacles in his way.

During my time in GLAWS, I have come across many methods of writing a log line. But the best exercise I have found so far is by writer Christine Conradt, the subject of my last blog post. She wrote this article for www.screeplayhowto.comm . In it, she gives the six elements that need to be in a good log line, then uses examples from her own screenplays. The direct link to this article is www.screenplayhowto.com/screenplay-blog/how-to-write-a-logline It’s short, but then again, so is a log line.

You can also see Ms. Conradt’s page at www.christineconradt.com

Writing Scenes That don’t Exist


So after I wrote my last blog on Christine Conradt’s GLAWS presentation, I thought I’d check out her two articles in the two “Now Write” books.  In, “Now Write!  Screenwriting” she has an exercise called “The Scene That Doesn’t Exist”.  It is an exercise to help overcome writer’s block.  Basically, you take your two main characters and just put them in a scene you know won’t be in your screenplay.  She uses the example of a pizza parlor.  Then just see what happens, what they talk about, etc.  The idea is to get to know your characters better.  Sometimes they surprise you.

The thing is I often do this inadvertently.  I’m a nonlinear writer.  I jump around from scene to scene.  If I get stuck on one scene, I’ll jump to another scene further down the road.  When I started on my current steampunk script, I started at the beginning.  But there was a chase scene on a moving train that I really wanted to write.  So I wrote it, then I went back and built up to it.   I have a friend and fellow writer, Kristen Roach Harris ( Fireplace Girl on Krypton Radio’s “The Corsair’s Closet”) who cannot wrap her head around this style of writing.  She is a romance writer and she has to write from start to finish.  I have only ever written one script like that.

Actually, I had a professor at USC Cinema/Television who had us write the first twenty pages of our scripts first, then the last twenty pages.  Those are usually the easiest to write.  Most people know how their story is going to start and they know what the climactic scene is going to be.  It’s the stuff in the middle that gets hard.  At USC they would have us outline our stories, use index cards and other devices like that.  That never worked for me.  Now I think about a story I want to write – maybe for a couple of months.  I imagine scenes I want and develop characters and conflicts.  Then, when I have about 80% plotted out, I start writing.

But sometimes you do end up with a scene that will never be in the final script.  I wrote a scene where one of my protagonist’s brothers fancies my protagonist’s best friend.  He thinks no one has noticed, but everyone knows.  And when it comes out, he is embarrassed and tries to deny it.  I liked the scene because I wrote it with a very Monty Pythonish flavor.  But as I developed the story, I changed their relationship.  They fancy each other and everyone knows it.  No big deal.  So that scene can never be in the script.

So was that a waste of time?  No, I don’t think so.  It helped me develop his character and gave me practice in a particular style of comedy writing, a style which I intend to use with my protagonist’s love interest in the second part of the steampunk trilogy.  He is the straight-laced business type who’s brain flies out the window when he sees her.  This style of comedy is better suited for his character.  In the end, it’s all practicing your art.

How do you practice your art?

On a side note, in “Now Write!  Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror”, Christine Conradt has a chapter on The Eleven Tenets of Fear.  But what caught my attention was the very first chapter of the book, “Where Does He Got Those Wonderful Ideas?  Making Speculative Fiction Speculative”.  Finally, about thirty five years later, my offence to that horribly titled film strip, “Where the Weird Ideas Cone From” is vindicated.

GLAWS Special Speaker Event:  Christine Conradt

Less than twenty-four hours ago as I write this, I was attending Christine Conradt’s presentation on Creating Strong Female Characters.  Going into this, my thought was, “how is creating a strong female character different than creating a strong male character?”  The answer is that it is not.  This lecture was more about gender biases and how to overcome them.

Every culture has its gender biases, and as writer’s we have them too.  A bias is a generalization we have about gender roles.  What is a male role and what is a female role.  If we create characters that fit into these generalizations, we aren’t creating anything  new or different.  As writer’s, it is our job to create characters (male and female) that go beyond these roles.  That’s how you create interesting characters.

There has been criticism lately that there is a lack of strong women characters is film.  Ms. Conradt mentioned that there is actually a test to determine if a film has strong female characters:  The Bechdel Test.  The test goes as follows:  1)  Are there two named female characters? 2) Do they talk to each other?  3) Do they talk about something other than men?  Wikipeda has a comprehensive article about this test http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bechdel_test .  But for now, think about it.  If two women in a film don’t talk about anything other than men, how deep can their characters be?  You may think that is obvious.  If two character only talk about one subject throughout a whole story, how believable can those characters be?  How three dimensional?  Yet most films, according to Conradt and the Wikipeda article fail this test.  And in failing, these films make less money than those that pass the test.

So why do these films keep being made?  Partly because of the bias producers have.  Some feel that the female character can’t save the male character.  It makes the male look weak.  But that’s the wrong attitude.   If you have to make the male character weak to make the female character look strong, then you’re doing it wrong.

Conradt covered a myriad of other topics.  Some of them were obstacles writers have to overcome, history of gender roles, helpful and harmful generalizations, and overcoming the feminism trap.  Conradt’s powerpoint  presentation is available at www.writersstore.com .  I would also suggest you look up her website www.christineconradt.com .  She has published articles she has written, movie reviews from a story structure standpoint and offers small group seminars and script consulting.  You can also check out her Facebook page.

As for the lack of strong women characters in films, I’m not so sure.  America Ferrera, Astrid of “How to Train Your Dragon”, has expressed similar concerns.  But there is her character in “How to Train Your Dragon 2”.  And while her character is not as central as it was in the first movie, Hiccup’s mother, Valka, is.  Then there is Anna and Elsa from “Frozen”, and Katniss from “The Hunger Games” movies.

Maybe it’s just the movies I see.  What do you think?