Sunday, October 24, 2010

Of Stereotypes and Men

Peter here.  Our guest blogger this Sunday is Janice Hally whose Wikipedia page says: Janice Hally is a Scottish playwright and television screenwriter who has written more than 300 broadcast hours of prime-time British television drama serials and individual screenplays.

(If you look closely it also mentions that she's my wife)

She has, additionally, written fiction and non-fiction books. Her latest book, is the psychological mystery, "Distant Echo"(June 2010, Hachette).

Of Stereotypes and Men...

Linked to the recent discussion about formula is the question of characters, and how three-dimensional or not they should be.

As a reader or viewer, I can't get involved, or "care" about a story where the characters are black and white, goodies and baddies, girlies and tough guys, but goodness knows an awful lot of books and movies are populated by people straight out of cartoons. No hold on, that does a disservice to cartoons! The Simpsons have failings and weaknesses, and battle with moral dilemmas and, in short, have much more humanity than some characters in books and movies.

To me, the most engaging stories have a sense that the characters existed before the story opened and will go on existing after it.

I've read book reviewers describing characters as "warts and all", as if to have a flaw is a bad thing, but I think it makes a character all the more human and sympathetic. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that if characters aren’t properly developed then it's just plain bad writing.

When I teach writing courses, I give students a character questionnaire - it starts with easy basic questions about the identity of the character, but includes some questions that with any luck the writers don't fill in with quick answers off the top of their heads: such as "what is the last thing the character thinks about when lying in bed, after the lights go out and before falling asleep". I think it's very important to get inside the characters' heads.

Of course as a scriptwriter, I have to get inside every character's head. I have to find the humanity and be sure of the motivation of each one of them. Drama is character-driven and conveyed through the dialogue and so each line has to "true" to the character's voice - there's no easy way out with an omniscient narrator talking the reader through the events.

Also, the characters have to be fully-rounded because each one of these people I create is going to be played by an actor who is going to take every line very seriously and question it if there is any apparent inconsistency.

As a writer I spend a lot of time before I start writing getting to know the people I'm going to be writing about. I think about who they are, what their daily life is like, what I like about them, what I don't like about them. When I start writing, they'll still have the chance to surprise me, just like real people do all the time. But I need to know as much as I can about them before I start writing.

Linked to discovering who these people are, is working out what happened before the story opens. Developing the "backstory" thoroughly informs and improves the drama of the story I'm about to tell.

Although some writers believe in "starting at page one" and discovering where the story takes them, I find the time that I spend thinking about the backstory makes it much easier to "discover" what the plot is. Backstory is a well to draw upon for story material. By thinking through the past, I ensure that my well never runs dry. It makes the process of writing easier. It also decreases the chance of inconsistencies and errors of continuity. It makes the characters more believable as there are always throwaways you can toss in that give a character a sense of individuality protecting them from stereotyping or cliche. It makes a story more believable, engaging and moving with less chance of the deus ex machina or "surprise" ending that no-one quite believes.

But still some readers or viewers don't notice or worry about 2-dimensional characters. Some actually complain if a character has too much individuality or history. I was at a crime writing conference where a writer on a panel declared, "I don't want to hear about the fact that a policewoman has to pick her kid up from school! A character's personal life has got nothing to do with the crime that they're investigating."

Well, it's true that if it isn't relevant to the plot, I don't want to know about the police woman picking her kid up from school, either. As Hemingway said, "never confuse movement with action". However, I can see many ways in which the complications of bringing up a child, while trying to solve a case as a policewoman CAN have plot implications.

Just once in seven series of 24, I would have liked to have seen Jack Bauer go for a pee, or have to stop to buy a bar of chocolate (goodness knows he must have needed the energy boost at times). I'm sure it would have led to a plot twist. And think about how much richer - or more ironic - that twist would have been to us, if it had come out of a believable human need that we could all identify with.

Another name for all this preparation and "thinking" time I give to character and backstory might be‚ procrastination! But I've successfully convinced myself that it's a constructive sort of procrastination! Real procrastination‚ well that would be deciding that I have to wash the curtains before I can get down to writing (especially as we don't use curtains here in France because there are shutters on the windows).

Janice Hally's website can be found here.


Vicki Delany said...

Lots of good tips, Janice, thank you. I can't believe that person who said he didn't want to know about the policewoman picking up her kid. Wow. I'd say that's a central component to her character.

hannah Dennison said...

What a great post! I completely agree with you. One of my favorite shows on TV at the moment is MAD MEN - every single character is "flawed" but also sympathetic. Very clever writing - especially when, as a viewer, I really don't want to like someone but find I can't help it - and vice-versa.
Great tips - especially as I am at the beginning of a new series and fleshing out all new characters. Wonderful!

Janice said...

Well, Vicki, what got to me most about that comment was that it came from a WRITER. Needless to say he put himself firmly on my "To Be Read NOT" list!

Yes, Hannah, I'm hearing great things about Mad Men. We must track it down to buy on download or DVD!