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A Missing Trick from The Bag of Tricks: How Writers Can Meet Their Characters Before They Write Them

By Mark Travis

My recently released book, The Film Director’s Bag of Tricks: How to Get What You Want from Writers and Actors, was obviously designed for directors. But this book is only one leg of the triangle. How about: Actors getting what they need from directors and writers? Or how about: Writers getting what they need from directors and actors? Sounds like two more books. I could start a series like Chicken Soup for the Soul. I’m not about to do that but I do want to talk about something very important that is not in the book:

How writers can meet their characters before they write them.

Unfortunately too many writers see actors as those people who are cast in their movies or plays based on their ability to portray specific characters as written. In other words, they think actors are needed only when the script is finished and the project is about to go into production. But what about making use of the actors earlier in the process - while the script is being written? Or even earlier - while the story and characters are being conceived?

I am guessing that some of you reading this article are wondering why anyone would want to engage the participation of actors so early in the process. I know what it’s like to be struggling with the early stages of writing a play, screenplay or novel. It’s hard enough to face that blank page every day, hard enough to keep yourself in the seat when the creative juices seem to have dried up. 

Why would anybody in their right mind want to bring in other artists, especially actors, when it’s taking every ounce of your energy to just slog through the swamp? And what are the actors going to do? Just sit there and stare at all those blank pages? There is most likely nothing to read yet. There are no scenes for them to sink their teeth into. No real characters developed yet. You’re right. It’s way too early for actors. What am I thinking?

I’ll tell you what I’m thinking. One of the greatest untapped resources in this business is the creative imagination of the actors. 

What would happen if you engaged the creative talents of actors earlier in the process? You may be asking ‘how?’ and ‘why?’ Good questions, and here are some answers.

At the center of our stories is a constellation of characters. As writers we are content to let these characters exist only in our imaginations. We do our best to infuse them with a rich array of character traits, dreams, desires, fears, history, expectations, etc. But still they exist only in our imaginations. And our imaginations, rich as they are, are really a limitation. Our characters are built only out of our own projections, our own expectations, our own dreams and desires. The truth is, as writers, our imaginations can actually act as obstacles to the character development process precisely because they are so limited. 

Now imagine that you are suddenly given the opportunity to meet your characters, in person, face-to-face. That’s right, the characters you have created (or desire to create) will be sitting across from you, ready to talk to you, willing to share with you, willing to allow you inside the deepest, darkest corners of their psyches. Would you take this opportunity?

Here’s the technique. It’s not really a trick per se. This technique is one of the most valuable research tools available to us as writers. But you have to be willing to be surprised, to be contradicted, to discover that your characters are not really who you thought they were. You have to be open and available and willing to discover the truth of your characters.

This tool depends on your ability to work with actors, and your ability to communicate directly with your characters. Admittedly this is easily said and not easily done. It takes practice. Actually it takes acting ability (yours) as you engage the characters. It takes courage (yours) as you confront your characters and interrogate them. You want them to open up and become authentic and vulnerable. And it takes humility (yours), as you need to allow your characters to tell you who they are as opposed to who you think they are or who you want them to be.

Here is how it works.

Imagine that you are developing two characters, a husband, George and a wife, Mary. On the surface they are happy, content, and in love. They have two grown children, successful jobs, and a nice home. 

Only problem is that they have a dark and disturbing history. They were involved in a bloody crime when they were teenagers. George brutally murdered a man who Mary accused of raping her. 

And now you, as the writer, want to explore the psychology of these two complex characters. You want to understand how they have adjusted and adapted, how they exist. You want to know what impact this rape/murder has had on them, individually and as a couple. You want to expose the wounds, uncover the denial, the rage, the hurt, the love, and the devotion. 

I know what you’re thinking. You’re a writer and if you’re like me you’re thinking, “Hold on a minute. I can create these characters; I can design all the complex parts of their psychological make-up. That’s my job.” And of course you are right. You can do that. 

But stop for a minute and consider this: How likely is it that your own imagination, your own projections, your own knowledge of human behavior and the human psyche will actually limit the design of these characters? And again, if you are like me, you are thinking, “I can create any kind of character I want or need and my best thinking is not a limitation. My best thinking is the source of all of my creativity.” 

Okay. And now consider one more question: If you allowed a couple of actors to simply embody these characters and you gave them free rein to express themselves as the characters, isn’t it possible that they would come up with things that you could never have imagined? Isn’t it possible that they could take you into territories unknown? Isn’t it likely that they might unearth riches that could elevate or expand your characters beyond your wildest dreams? Of course the answer is ‘yes’. This is all possible. So why would any of us turn our backs on such possibilities, such opportunities?

Here’s what I suggest:

  1. Invite two actors to your home or some place relatively private. 
  2. Simply tell them that you are working on a project and would like their assistance in exploring a couple of characters. 
  3. When you meet, tell them everything you know about the characters. 
  4. Here’s the important step: Do not ask the actors what they think of the characters. Tell the actors that now you want to talk to the characters. Let them simply become George and Mary. 
  5. Your job now is to become the interrogator of George and Mary. Ask them anything you want. Become their therapist, their best friend, or their worst enemy. Investigate, probe, question, interrogate. Be supportive. Be critical. Take on any attitude or point of view that you like for the sole purpose of exposing the deep inner workings of these characters. 

I know how unconventional this sounds; how it flies in the face of everything you’ve been taught as a writer regarding character development. But really, what have you got to lose? Try it. 

It may be awkward at first. But soon you will find that the role of interrogator suits you, gives you access to these wonderful characters, and allows you to explore any aspect of George or Mary that you like. And, in a few minutes, you will realize that you are now sitting in the presence of George and Mary, your characters, in three dimensions, fully formed, fully realized, and totally available to you.

Let me know how it works out.

Meet the Author: Mark Travis

Mark is one of the best-known and most respected teachers of film directing in the world. Drawing from his impressive background in writing, acting and directing in theatre, film and television, Mark brings new insights and clarity to the complex task of directing a feature film. Mark is the author of the best-seller DIRECTING FEATURE FILMS: the Creative Collaboration Between Writers, Directors and Actors.