Thursday, February 15, 2007

Creating Worlds, Creating Characters

I'm a huge fan of Farscape and Seaquest DSV, two TV series created by Rockne S. O'Bannon, so when I saw that Rockne was speaking at the 2006 Screenwriting Expo, I couldn't resist going... and I wasn't disappointed.

Rockne is a soft-spoken, easy-going guy—he said up front that he was kind of forced to coming up with a egocentric title like, "The Rockne O'Bannon Way" so he thought he'd do his best to provide some insight on how he writes so much material on Farscape and other shows he's worked on.

Because I was in the process of developing the epic storyline of Safe Harbors, Rockne's lecture was far and away the most useful to me; it's a sensible process that anyone can follow. Perhaps his biggest insight was using character relationships as a shorthand to flesh out a character, rather than filling out a disembodied 10 page biographical questionnaire.

Without further ado...


David Mamet has said: "Writing a feature film or a play is like running a marathon, but writing a TV series is running to death." We're entering the first generation where everyone is watching TV, so TV is the medium we all share. Working fast to produce quality content for TV is extremely valuable.

The point is not to become overwhelmed by the process. Ray Bradbury has said, "Write faster than you can think." By writing quickly, you should be turning off your ability to focus on what you're writing. You'll still be doing the traditional cleanup of what you write later, but the important thing is to produce a lot. Screenwriting is a disposable genre—you get notes from producers, from actors, from everyone—so you should get used to writing a lot of pages so you're not too committed to what you're writing. When David Mamet was asked why he wrote, he said, "It's easier than thinking."

The two most important things that lay a foundation for story are characters and landscape. Your characters should appear real and fit into the world you create, and the landscape is necessary to ground them. Manhattan, Tatooine, the island in Cast Away—each are unique settings that draw out your characters. The iceberg theory says that only 1% of what you see on screen is being shown about your world and its characters. To fully flesh out the other 99% isn't absolutely necessary, but it does inform the process. Most of the time, it's just painful to create stuff that you won't ever see, but it can be a good touchpoint to access other storylines.

The off-stage movie. Wordplayer has an article talking about the movie that happens outside of the actual movie. Like in Jaws, what would happen if you remove the shark from the story? What ELSE happens in the story that makes it interesting to watch?

Relationships. You can spend a lot of time doing a very detailed character biography, and these are very good, but they slow you down and aren't the most efficient way to access all the backstories of your characters. What is more important is the relationship between the characters. How do the characters relate to other characters in the story and all the people in their lives?



Quickly, write down anything about that reminds you of your story, whether it be books, music, movies, personal anecdotes, art... spew as much as you can onto the page to allow you to remember what made you want to tell this story. ANYTHING!

Some questions to ask in this process:

  1. What other film or TV show successes do you want to emulate? What kind of audience will see it?
  2. What is the marketplace? What's the studio for it? Is it obscene, does it push the boundaries? Then it's a piece for HBO or Showtime. If it's more mainstream, then ABC or NBC is more the market for it.
  3. Why is this my story to tell? The more personal the story is, the more I feel emotionally connected to the subject matter, and the better story I'm likely to tell.
  4. Draw out a rough beginning, middle, and end to the story—don't be committed to one particular beginning or ending, either. Make lists of many potential setups and outcomes. Lists are great because they allow you to not get bogged down in making a decision about something, but keep the brain juices cooking.

At the end of all this, you should be able to write a short two page document to register with the WGA that includes a beginning, a middle and an end.


It's always better to have too many characters than too few. If you're doing a simple story like "man kills man", you've got two main characters to flesh out.

  1. Populate the world. Get a huge piece of art paper (even as large as 27" x 40") and start by listing lots of interesting professions. Choose two professions that are in enough opposition to make for an interesting interaction. We chose a postman and a televangelist. Now we're going to "populate" the world of each character. You want to think of people who relate to that character in their world. You'll probably start with the most obvious person who'd come into contact with each character: family, friends, workers, acquaintances, alumni, etc. It's okay if they are cliché, just keep listing the relationships as they come to you and you'll find out more about that character's world, and have a map of character interactions from which to reap for storylines later. For the postman, we started with wife, family, people on his postal route, dogs who attack him, oncologist for some therapy he's enduring, professor at a school for continuing education. For the televangelist, we listed a media adviser, his "flock", his makeup artist, mistress, political connections. Eventually, you'll have so many people that you'll want to break them into subcategories to better organize them.
    This character chart naturally suggests conflict and story because of the relationships between the characters. If we were doing an episode of Law and Order, it would be a great list of red herrings and clues.
  2. Fears & loves. What do your lead characters fear the most? What do they love the most? These are the most extreme emotions that best define your character. Make lists—don't commit yet to one particular emotion because the pressure to have the perfect choice will slow you down. Just brainstorm about potentials.


This step will generate the most information. List all the places where each character would likely go. For the postman, it would be house, postal route, in laws' house, college (you can do sub-categories for larger places like college —> canteen), etc. The more places you list, the more characters will likely be generated for your Character Chart. Story ideas will naturally start to come off of this map. The televangelist's places could be a TV Studio, a smoke-filled back room, home, church, etc. Maybe the postman meets younger girls at the college canteen where he takes continuing education classes... maybe one of these women is the daughter of the evangelist, or the makeup person of the televangelist... the relationships will start to show themselves.

Mansions & sewers. After spewing out all these ideas, think about what extreme high end or low-end places the characters can go to in this story. Mansions are the ultimate wish fulfillment, and sewers are the darkest places one can go. This adds texture to your characters and gives them something interesting to react to.


The action climax is not as important as the emotional climax. How do you know what the emotional climax is? Ask yourself what would matter to you, and thus to the audience? Consider Joel Silver's films with big explosions—we don't really care too much what happens to the characters because there's too much action and not enough emotion. However, in Finding Nemo, you really care about the ending. In Aliens, you're so emotionally invested in the characters that you think the aliens will jump out at the last second even as Newt goes into her hypersleep pod. In Jaws, when the shark dies, we rejoice because justice has been served. In Lethal Weapon III, when the corrupt South African diplomat villain is killed, we're happy because we're experiencing the emotional climax of the story. The emotional climax is the ultimate moment of showdown.


Now it's good to take a big step back and gets a bird's eye view of story. What are the broad moves of story? At USC, they call this step identifying the "sequences":

  1. The televangelist is murdered and the police suspect mob connections,
  2. Police are wrong and suspect mistress,
  3. Police prosecute mistress, etc.

For The Godfather, the sequences would be:

  1. The Corleones are powerful, but don't traffic drugs
  2. The family is in danger, etc.


This is an extension of step 5—take the broad iconic moves and covert them into mini-movies that have a beginning, middle and end. For The Godfather's first broad move (The Corleones are powerful but don't traffic drugs), this would be:

  1. Wedding (beginning),
  2. The horse head scene (middle)
  3. They don't traffic drugs

For the second broad move (family in danger), this would be:

  1. Father gunned down (beginning)
  2. Michael protects father (middle),
  3. Michael shoots cop (end).


Rockne sees everything as a personal story set against an epic backdrop.

Eavesdropping on dialogue. Is your dialogue interesting enough to overhear if you were standing nearby?

Sol Stein on Writing. A good book—Stein once gave two actors radically different interpretations of their scene (without them knowing) and watched the magical conflict of their reading. One such scene had an actor playing a mother called into a principal's office about her son, the other actor was the principal. The actor playing the principal was told the son was a devil child and that he should be expelled as soon as possible. The actor playing the mother was told her son was angelic and could do no wrong. Both actors were playing off the same script, but their interpretations were diametrically opposed, which made watching their interaction fascinating to watch because the subjective subtext was feeding their lines.

If you have a card, play it. The tendency for most writers is to delay a powerful plot development until the end of the scene in order to make it the climax. Instead, play that "card" at the beginning of the scene—then the scene becomes about the reaction to this major plot development, which is much more interesting.

Put yourself in the editing room. If you had shot everything and were looking at the edited footage, what could you safely take out to make it shorter. Rockne said he would constantly get scripts at 61 pages and know that something would have to get cut to get it down to 54 pages.

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