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What's More Important: Character or Story?

By Richard Walter

Doesn’t it seem as if a new screenwriting book is published every twenty minutes?

I bear no small portion of the blame, as my third such tome burdened bookstore shelves just last year. What’s left for me now to write except a book about writing screenwriting books?

My longtime pal, beautiful Viki King, author of the timeless How to Write a Movie in 21 Days (I asked her, ‘Why should it take so long?’) told me that the writers of such books do not actually compete with one another. Writers don’t buy one or the other but several such books.

In that regard screenwriting books are no different from cookbooks.

Perhaps all we story gurus are really doing is contributing to writer’s block. Writers, instead of writing their screenplays, read our books about writing screenplays.

The vast majority of these books, from Field to Ackerman, to Hunter, to McKee and beyond agree that the single most fundamental aspect of a screenplay is its story. Indeed, the oldest theoretical work treating dramatic narratives, Aristotle’s Poetics, asserts unmistakably that character is important too, of course, but first of all comes story.

Another friend, Andy Norton, has written a splendid book called Writing the Character-Centered Screenplay. With all due respect to Andy, I refer to the character-centered screenplay as simply "The Good Screenplay." Don’t all great dramatic narratives treat worthy characters inhabiting skillfully crafted stories? Even the very titles of so many theater and film classics are merely the name of the protagonist: Oedipus Rex, Medea, Julius Caesar, Macbeth, The Godfather, Patton, Bonnie and Clyde.

The mistake made by too many writers and pundits alike, it seems to me, is to treat character and story as if they were separate enterprises.

What is a character, after all, other than the sum total of actions she takes and the dialogue she speaks within the context of the story? As I’ve observed elsewhere, surely the richest, most examined character in all of English language dramatic literature has to be Hamlet. Do you remember how the playwright describes him in the dramatis personae at the front of the play? Three words: Prince of Denmark.

There’s no mention of ‘melancholy.’

So where does this guy Hamlet come from? Clearly, he emerges from the actions that he takes and the lines that he speaks; in other words, the story.

I have been at writing conferences where colleagues suggest writing exercises in which writers create character biographies prior to starting their script. They’re encouraged to ‘really get to know their characters.’ What kind of candy bar would she eat? What kind of tree would he be? Which among the Seven Wonders of the World would she be?

When I hear such commentary I politely nod in what might be taken for agreement.

I believe, however, quite to the contrary that creating character bios is not for real writers but for dilettantes. I believe that to do so is actually counterproductive. To create characters this way is to suggest that they have life and meaning outside the context of the story.

Rather than knowing your characters well before getting started, I believe that writers are well served by not creating their characters so much as discovering them, that is, dis-covering them, removing the cover that conceals characters who are, in a sense, already there. Surrender any preconceived notions as to your characters’ natures and stay open to the surprises as they emerge from the narrative. If they fail to surprise the writer himself, how will they surprise any audience?

A brilliant and underappreciated screenwriting book by the late Millard Kaufman is Plots and Characters. Note the word in the title that comes first. Kaufman preaches one of the most profound principles I have ever heard regarding not only dramatic but also life narratives: it is not character that defines action but the other way around.

This is why writers are, as I see it, best advised to give up earlier notions regarding their characters and allow them to take shape as the story moves forward. For, after all is said and done, character is story and story is character.

Meet the Author: Richard Walter

Richard Walter is a celebrated storytelling guru, movie industry expert, and longtime chairman of UCLA’s legendary graduate program in screenwriting. A screenwriter and published novelist, his latest book, Essentials of Screenwriting, is available July 2010. His previous published works include the novels Escape from Film School and Barry and the Persuasions and screenwriting books The Whole Picture: Strategies for Screenwriting Success in the New Hollywood and Screenwriting: The Art, Craft and Business of Film and Television Writing.

He has written numerous feature assignments for the major stu...