We are what we are due to the shaping influence of a host of earlier events. Decisions we have made. Uninvited intrusions into our life. The influence of others. Successes, failures; ups and downs. We are also shaped by our genetic code, our psychological makeup, and physical features.
These molders of one’s character and station in life sometimes seem to work against us; other times for us. At the very least, our backstory makes us unique and interesting and dictate much of our future journey through life.
And so, I must buttress the characters in my screenplay with believable backstories. This is particularly true of our main characters. A character without a driving backstory is a figurative ship without a rudder, doomed to wander the sea without a port of call.
We should probably zero in on traumatic events like loss, betrayal, and wounds (physical, mental, and social). Elizabeth Lyon, in A Writer’s Guide to Fiction, outlines three outcomes of a wound that one should consider in character development:
1. The wound should leave the character with a need so intense that he or she will be driven to fulfill it.
2. The wound should leave the character with a weakness, a character flaw that seems out of control or beyond the full awareness of the character.
3. The wound may also gift the character with a heroic strength that increases his or her determination to fill the need and reach the plot goal.
Often the wound is self-inflicted. Sometimes the character won’t see the event as a wound at all, as when one commits a negativity formative act that seems perfectly logical at the time. A criminal commits a crime because he thinks it’s the right thing. But in so doing he self-inflicts a wound that sculpts his character from that day forward.
Now, I’m not saying one must go this far, but I have discovered that for me it is beneficial to begin writing the screenplay before the screenplay begins. In other words, before the FADE IN.
Prior to writing and bringing into preproduction, “Some Glad Morning,” AKA “When the Angels Sing,” I wrote a short play in which I introduced the main characters’ lives before the main story begins. The short play actually became an award-winning short film entitled, “The Last Pedestrian.”
Without boring you with the details, let me say that I created an event so momentous that it revealed the state of each character before, during, and after the short episode. We discover who they are, what they do, and how they behave when confronted with a given experience.
This was only about ten pages of manuscript, but those pages flowed smoothly into my feature-length screenplay, preventing me from getting bogged down with why characters behave as they do. Then, at opportune times, the story reaches back and draws a present conflict out of the past.
Well, you say, that’s awfully time-consuming. Yes, it is. But how much time do we waste trying to invent things as we go along that should have been firmly nailed down before we begin? Another advantage of beginning the screenplay before it begins is that, like any play, one must iron out the wrinkles. Another advantage of beginning the screenplay before it begins is that, like its big brother, one must iron out the wrinkles. So the inconsistencies one has to deal with are pretty well smoothed out in advance. Besides, it’s fun. You might even develop the stuff of a good short film. At the very least you might earn the “Happy Writer” merit badge.