Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The character complexity sweet spot: a bunch of ugly charts

Everybody knows, at this point, that characters should be three-dimensional, but not everybody knows how to execute that.  Sometimes you read or see something where a character is SUPER BAD and then they do something SUPER GOOD, and that's supposed to tell us how complex they are.  It's often pretty clunky and awkward, though, and it can get really maudlin. 

So I thought I would try to explain how I think about character complexity, even though I'm about to use a visual aid.  I have no spatial perception and no business making charts, but this is the best way I can think of to demonstrate this.  So HERE WE GO.

Say a character has a defining characteristic -- let's go with Han Solo, archetypal bad boy.  And let's make an ugly chart:

Now, if we wanted to express that Han is a complex person with hidden depths, undergoing change, blah blah, our first instinct might be to give him this line:

But that line is the opposite of what we know about Han.  It's so different that it doesn't ring true, and that will sink a scene.  (A good actor can do a lot to disguise the falsity of a line like that, but it still won't grab the audience like you want it to.)

In my opinion, the character complexity sweet spot is somewhere in between those two points.  It's closer to Han's fundamental nature, but it's stretching toward something else.  And it's this:

So a great way to deepen a character is to give them something that falls in that middle space between Fundamental Characteristic and Thing Exactly Opposite That Characteristic.

(This is also why people care that Han shot first.)  

I'm calling this a sweet spot because it feels good to an audience; it reflects what they know to be true about real people.  It resonates so much, sometimes, that people will make satisfied noises.  It resonates so much that it can become iconic.

Sometimes, absolutely, you can have a character do the Opposite Thing, but Opposite Thinging is a seismic change.  Use it in a climactic moment.  Use it only when your character has changed enough that it's not quite Opposite anymore.

Friday, March 15, 2013


I got back from a campus visit a few days ago and am still shoveling through my big pile of things to catch up on, so this isn't the entry I've been working on -- sorry about that.  It's coming, though.

Some things going on with me:
- one grad school acceptance (yay!) from some people who seem awesome
- one rejection -- I was pretty disappointed initially but feel fine about it now, based on some recent changes in the program
- one Skype interview -- no idea how I did on this; possibly sounded like an idiot
- one campus visit with two interviews -- had an amazing time, but super nervous about the outcome
- very excited about a reading of my new play soon

Non-playwriting things:
- multi-week bad chest cold (doctor's appointment soon, fortunately)
- financial blech
- computer blech
- lots and lots of non-writing job obligations

Oh well.  More soon.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Lying: it's awesome

In writing, I mean.  And by "lying" I mean both outright denial ("I didn't kill him, fuck you!") and obfuscation ("I'm just a little old lady, what do I know?").  Both are lies; both are great.

What do they do? One or more of these things:

1. They create mystery.
When a character is lying, but we (the audience) don't know the truth, it's fascinating.  We make guesses, and we stay engaged; we focus intensely to find clues.  Memento is a great example of this, since the protagonist has no more information than the audience does.

2. They create tension/raise the stakes.
When a character is lying to another character, but the audience knows the truth, that can be a hell of a nailbiter.  There are a lot of terrible ways to do this, and my least favorite is OH NO I GOTTA GO ON TWO DATES AT THE SAME TIME, because shut up, Mrs. Doubtfire.  One place it's done extremely well is Reservoir Dogs, which is about an undercover cop in a group of thieves and therefore fundamentally about lies.  Once the movie reveals who the cop is, watching him deceive everybody -- even someone he really cares about -- is deliciously painful.  Is he going to be found out? What is he going to deny himself in order to maintain the lie? 

3. They reveal character.
What does a character lie about? Does he reveal that he came from an abusive home but not that he cheated his way through college? Does she tell people she's an alcoholic but not that she's obsessed with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? This is a great way to communicate what matters most to your character, and what he or she is ashamed of.  

And how does he lie? Does she do it well or badly? Does he guilt-trip the questioner in order to get the moral high ground? Does she use misdirection to derail the conversation? In the second episode of Skins, an anorexic character demonstrates to a friend how she deceives everyone she knows into thinking that she has eaten.  In that scene, we understand: 1) the extent to which she has perfected these destructive behaviors and how hard they must be to leave behind; 2) that she is determined to keep the extent of her illness a secret from multiple people; 3) that she feels comfortable enough to reveal the truth to the guy she's talking to.  A lot of heavy lifting gets done there.

4. They create an obstacle.
And you always want an obstacle.  The classic example here is the police interrogation, in which dismantling the lie is the entire plot.

5. They introduce threats and limits.
Why is this character lying? Will they get in trouble with their significant other, with the principal, with the police? Are they scared? Are they embarrassed? Are they doing it for fun? Are they unable to stop lying?

6. Telling the truth is explosive.
In two ways.  First, the character was probably lying because the truth came with terrible consequences, and telling the truth means she will now have to face those consequences.  Second, the character has probably deceived someone else, and that person will feel betrayed.  Fallout all over the place.  This is why truth-telling is so often done around the climax of a story -- there is a massive emotional consequence for the characters, and the world of the story is fundamentally changed now that the truth is out.

It's always good to check, I think, whether your characters are lying enough.  Very few people tell the truth all the time -- lying makes things easier, or it's more diplomatic, or it gets us what we want -- and putting more deception in your writing will make your dialogue more realistic in addition to adding all those fantastic complications to your story.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Cut it down: a regrettably long post on why brevity matters

When I was fifteen, I had a teacher whose name was Mr. Campanale, and he changed my writing forever.  This is how he did it:

1. We would sit and look at my sentences.
2. He would point to a word and say "Do you need this?"
3. The answer was always no.

There are many talented writers who use lots and lots of words, and there are also times where lots of words are necessary.  But I think most people use too many fucking words, and that lots of them mistakenly believe that that is what makes good writing.  If you ask me, you should not only use fewer words, you should use as few as possible.  Here are some reasons why:

1. Secrets.
Just as it's good for an actor to have a secret -- something that makes them a little inscrutable and excites the audience -- it's good for a writer to have at least one.  If you've got too many words on the page, you're probably giving things away when you don't need to be.  Let the secrets inform your choices, and don't feel like you need to always tip your hand.

2. Cleanliness.
If you've got too many words and you're not explaining too much, you're over-embellishing.  That quote attributed to Coco Chanel  -- "take one thing off before you leave the house" -- applies in every artistic discipline.  Because too much stuff creates clutter and noise, and the good parts lose their impact.

3. Style.
Supposedly, Dorothy Parker sat next to Calvin Coolidge at a dinner and said, "Mr. Coolidge, I've made a bet against a friend who said it was impossible to get more than two words out of you."

He said, "You lose."

I had to look up Dorothy Parker's half of the conversation; I've always remembered Coolidge's.

4. Collaboration.
All theatre is teamwork, including playwriting.  Even when writing alone, you are collaborating with your actors and director.  (Through time and space! You are magic.)  Leave everyone room to do their job.  I talked about that here, with respect to stage direction and design, but it's true in dialogue, too.  By explaining less, you leave your actors more room for secrets and your director with more questions to ask them.

Okay then, asshole, what's your point?
When you write your shit, look at it and say to yourself, If I take out this word, does the meaning change? If the answer's no, take it out.

And by "meaning" I don't necessarily mean intelligibility.  Maybe what you want to get across is "this guy's nervous and he's blabbing about nonsense," and that's a legitimate thing to communicate.  So I'm not saying you need to get rid of the blabbery; just make sure you're using the best parts of it.

This is something I still work at, and I think a good example is my 2008 play We Three.  There's a long monologue at the end of the first act, and I know, looking back, that it's too long.  I got too excited about what I could do with that monologue, and I overwrote.  Maybe this week I'll see how much I can cut, and give you a before-and-after.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

2013: a to-do list

I'm not much for New Year's resolutions, but I do need to continue to push myself this year.  If I don't get into grad school, I need to be a more competitive candidate for next time, and if I do, I want to acquit myself well when I get there.  So here are some things:

1. Write a new ten-minute play.
I have written one before, but it was just stupid, largely because it hinged on a joke didn't work.  I had an idea the other day, though, that I think fits the format really well: the situation has a natural time limit and high stakes that necessitate a weird level of intimacy between strangers.  I'll talk more about that when I get it written.

2. Work more with time.
Time is super interesting, and I haven't really engaged with it much in my writing.  The amount of time we spend on things says a lot about how much they matter to us, and that's a big vein of emotion to tap.

3. More female characters, especially protagonists.
My last two complete plays have had two male characters and one female character, and in both cases, the protagonist was male.  Time to tip the scale back toward the middle.  (This is an affecting and eloquent presentation of why that is so important.)

4. Apply for/enter more things.
Pretty self-explanatory.  You can't win if you don't play.

That's not an exhaustive list by any means, but I think that's a good start.  Meet me back here in June and we'll see how I did.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

What I think about when I've written too many Statements of Purpose

All my applications are in (woo!), although I still need to do some heavy lifting on the financial aid/scholarship front.  It's great to be done, but I'm kind of woogly on the question of whether I'm going to get in anywhere.

I thought I was pretty burned out on writing after spending so much time (about four months?! fuck) on applications, but my brain never stops sloshing around, and I've had a couple of new ideas.

1. An interactive game/puzzle theatrical experience, kind of like a haunted house.
- Audience members could go through in small groups and solve puzzles to progress.
- Actors would communicate in a non-English language with vocabulary that the audience members would start to pick up on.  I think a movement-based one would be best -- a clap means something, a stomp means something else -- because the vocabulary would be very clear and easy to improvise.
- So the story would drop audience members inside a foreign/alien/indecipherable culture?

2. It would be really fun to affect audience experience outside the theatrical space, ostensibly before the play has begun, and see how that could change response to a play.  If you see a couple in an ugly fight outside on the sidewalk, and then you go inside and watch a love story, do you still believe the love story?
- There could be multiple groups of actors at various points outside the theater -- in the parking lot, at the bus stop (ohh, or on the bus) working with a common theme or motif.
- You could change the theme up for different nights.
- It would be cool (theoretically) to stage a mugging or something, but crazy unsafe, so oh well.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Arbitrary list: good objects for magical realism

I like a nice mix of slightly-old-things-in-your-attic and odds-and-ends-of-nature.  That's what magical realism often feels like to me -- stuff we make and use, mashed up with stuff that exists independently of our actions.

- raw egg
- bowl of snow
- string/twine
- hand-crank flashlight
- bruise/s
- bottles (glass or plastic)
- tin cans
- telephone wire
- water stain
- old blanket
- marbles
- earwax
- car horn
- facepaint
- something burning in the oven