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It Builds Character Part II: Using your personal story to inform character

December 15, 2021
5 min read time

Martin Scorsese famously said, “The films that I constantly revisited or saw repeatedly held up longer for me over the years not because of plot, but because of character.” Character is the reason we get attached to stories. From Luke Skywalker to Shrek, we fall in love with inherently humanistic reflections of ourselves on screen. For this reason, drawing upon your personal story to help inform characters in order to make them multi-dimensional is not only recommended, but incredibly imperative. 

The personal story is often fraught with challenges, mostly due to our own internal resistance. So how do we deal with this resistance to being vulnerable on the page? And how do we connect in such a way that is more about authentically representing a fictional character and less about divulging our own demons?

Last week, we covered how to write a character-driven plot. This week, we'll delve into how to use what's available to us to write those memorable characters by answering the questions above and uncover four elements of screenwriting, each with its own set of reflective questions to help you connect, inspire, and infuse your characters with your personal story.

Go deep and remember the details

Have you ever heard the expression, “the days are long but the years are short”? This idiom alludes to how we process time. We can recall moments from our days, but long stretches of time, like years, get squished and compressed into small junctures. When we think back on our lives, it’s not the grand swath of events that we recall, but rather crisp details that punctuate our days. 

This is how your main character will recall their experiences as well. Unless your characters are like Leonard in Memento, they will also recall details with incredible color and vividness. Therefore, scripts should include details that bring “authenticity” to your character. 

Remember that pacing is critical to screenwriting, so you want to choose your moments of density wisely.

* PRO TIP: Rely not just on the physical or the visual, but think about the details that help your character’s emotional journey. What was it specifically about the core wound that led them to develop such rancid flaws?

Reflection Questions:

    1. What is specific about your biggest flaw? Specific doesn’t mean unique or distinct, but rather, memorable.
    2. How does this flaw manifest itself in ways that bruise others?
    3. What is your most vivid memory?
    4. What are your favorite moments?
    5. What are your least liked moments?
    6. What is your most painful memory?

Now, go over the guiding questions again and ask those questions of your characters. 

* PRO TIP: In order to infuse your characters with your personal story, be clear on the details. Synthesize the answers to your questions with the answers to your character’s questions. You don’t have to fuse them to make it an autobiography. Also, remember that not every writing project you take on will have inclinations of your biography in it. But you have to find ways to marry the journeys of your characters with the journey of you. And sometimes this means reconciling the details of their days with the details of yours.

Themes and the big picture

The most common way to infuse your personal story into a narrative is through themes. Themes allow us to “say something” heavyweight that provide connection points to which audiences can attach themselves. If your narrative’s big picture is about love, narrow down to connect your worldview on love to your character’s. Characters are engines of theme and they can carry themes just as much as plot. 

Reflection Questions:

    1. What are your characters’ worldviews about the themes of the story?
    2. What dimension of the themes can you connect your personal story to?
    3. What thematic elements can you identify in your personal story that your characters would be open to?
    4. What thematic elements can you identify in your personal story that your characters would be closed off to?

Dialogue is the key

Delivering personal details and connecting to the theme can be seamless in screenplays when they're infused in dialogue. Dialogue is a terrific opportunity to really characterize the people in your stories and hint at your personal experiences to enrich the narrative.

Reflection Questions:

    1. Think outwardly: Who do you know who speaks a certain way? How can you inform your characters by using that person’s voice?
    2. What keywords and phrases do characters with their backgrounds use?
    3. How can you explore strands and themes of your personal story and infuse them in the characters’ dialogue? 
    4. How is the emotional truth expressed in the scene and how does it allude to an emotional truth you’ve experienced?

Structure it accordingly

The structure that you select for your story will inform the mile markers of your character’s journey. A recent film that comes to mind that did this well is the French Dispatch. Wes Anderson chose a triptych structure to allow each character room to tell their own story: Each journalist was allotted time and space to recount their journeys.

A strong structure that also allows your character breathing room to make their own choices, react, act and explore helps you connect your character-led screenplay to your personal story in a seamless and cohesive way.

Reflection Questions:

    1. Think of a time in your life when something significant happened. If you were to impose a structure on it, which would you choose and why?
    2. If your character came to life as a real person, what would they say about the structure you’ve selected for them? Is it too restrictive? Is it too loose? Is it too formal? 
    3. Reflect on a time you experienced a climactic emotional moment. What were the structural needs of the arc surrounding that moment? How did you, as a “character”, express your emotional truth within the structure naturally derived from that arc?  

Theme, dialogue, and personal details can make your script pop. Envision a deeper connection to your characters and really hone in on why you wrote them in the first place. But remember to disburden your script of heavy autobiographical content. You want to allude to your reality, not completely detail it. Structure your story according to the needs of the character and consider how different structural choices can help or hinder your connection to your character. 

Using your personal story to inform character is the most common means of making a narrative multidimensional. Therefore, it’s no surprise that writers often make connections between themselves and the material they’re working on. Whether it’s a plot-driven genre piece or a meditative story on themes, every narrative can benefit from this multidimensionality.

Now get to writing!   

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