Screenwriting

Character Is…?

 

Photo by everywhereisimagined

The engines rev. That familiar guitar tune kicks up. Cars zoom past the screen, accompanied by silhouetted characters standing all cool-like. Because silhouettes are cool. Then, a non-descript American accent. Wait a sec. Then, three dudes on a stage. Still no accent. There’s no life. It’s just dudes and cars. Which is boring as hell except to the most devoted gear-heads.

The show and bitter disappointment I’m speaking of is the American version of Top Gear, which, simply put, is three guys talking about cars. The British version, hosted by Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond, and James May (also three guys talking about cars) takes that concept and makes it fun and appealing even to those who couldn’t care less about the difference between an alternator and horsepower. As a trio, Clarkson, Hammond, and May are characters in the truest sense of the word. Their chemistry is infectious. They’re fun. They’re memorable. They’re not the American version. That show’s just three guys and some cars, where the alternator has more personality.

Character is everything.

When we watch a piece of entertainment – it doesn’t matter if it’s Top Gear, reality television, Star Trek, Batman, The Apartment, City Lights, or the evening news – we welcome new people and their experiences into our lives. With television, it’s once a week (unless you count soap operas, then you’re looking at five times a week). With a film, it’s once on the big screen, then unlimited times on home viewing. A book is a personal experience, held by the reader alone, absorbing the experience of those on the page over a duration of their own choosing.

Character is action. Character is reaction. Character is counterpoint. Character is not a hamburger telephone. In the current rewrite of the Whiz!Bam!Pow! novella, I found that the action that set the story off wasn’t tied into character, but rather an “act of God.” This inciting incident needed to come from a character flaw in my protagonist (like Marty McFly and being called “chicken”), and the resultant rewrite excised three chapters and bore four new ones. It’s like Billy Wilder said (paraphrased, of course), “if you’re stuck in your third act, the problem’s in your first.”

When you rewrite, bear this in mind: Character is everything. The plot may hook people, but it’s the characters that your audience is welcoming into their lives. Story is born from character and their unique reaction to the situation in which your characters find themselves.

Character is everything. If it isn’t there, your story is just three dudes talking about cars. And when that happens, the alternator has more character.

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