Writer’s Digest Conference 2016: How to Write Compelling Characters

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Really great characters have motivations, tough choices and detailed backstories

A few more tips from the Writer’s Digest Conference, this event was a literal gold mine for myself and as I keep going through my notes and working on my stories I feel compelled to share what I’ve learned.

Jordan Rosenfeld gave a presentation called ‘Getting Intimate with your characters’ which I found very useful. Nothing mind-blowing, but common-sense tips that basically explain what is it that good authors do to make their characters come alive on the page.

  • Describe their breathing, their heart rate, any gastric distress
  • What’s the scent dominating the scene?
  • The temperature
  • Engage the senses with active verbs
  • Is the character nervous? Is their voice wavering? Stuttering? Hand-shaking, involuntary tics and twitching
  • Texture & Shape of visuals, Shadow and Light, use them to describe the mood of the scene and contribute to the emotional impact
  • Description of what the character is seeing and experience can set the tone for a scene or act as foreshadowing
  • Ground your character in the scene, 2 paragraphs of description without the character responding emotively is too much
  • Break up your dialogue with descriptions, use them to add input or to show us how the character is feeling in response to the conversation

Good descriptions can also inform us about the character, especially in those early chapters where you want to tell us everything about them. All of these work toward fixing a common novice error where the author tells us something instead of showing us. What that means is you’re telling your reader that Jimmy Joe Bob is a hick instead of describing his pickup truck decked out with a confederate flag and a gun rack. Let the reader draw their own conclusions.

You can further use descriptions to show us about their inner life, what their motivations are and the problems they’re facing. Different locations look different to different characters and that can highlight traits that may crop up later as your story progresses. It’s a great way to lay groundwork in order to advance your plot and make the characters choices more real and understandable.

An engineer, versus a medical professional or a high school student flipping burgers will see things and notice things differently. A characters backstory shapes their view of the world. What are their hobbies and interests? What a character does informs what they notice.

The last big tip from Jordan was to make scenes unique. Characters do repetitive behaviors and we have to find ways as authors to keep the plot moving. Find settings that are unique to the characters, if you’re starting a story or working on something just brainstorm three different settings in their life that inform us about the character’s life.

I’ll add in here a tip from FilmCritHulk, make a character sheet. Basically you chart out your character on one page. Everything from physical to psycho-spiritual traits, as well as their relationships, wants, and needs as a person. If you want a deeper explanation, I linked a blog post there which goes into the details.

 

 

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Independence Day: Resurgence, Good Film, Glaring Screenwriting Errors

Tindependence_day_resurgence_ver14_xlg-1200x558The new Independence Day film was actually a lot of fun, and I enjoyed watching it. However, that doesn’t excuse the glaringly obvious errors in their scripting process which stood out like sore thumbs, and no doubtedly, influence poor reception at the box office.
#IndependenceDayResurgence follows the traditional ID4 universe and is set 20 years later. Mankind is united as never before and reverse engineered alien tech has allowed us to grow and prosper beyond our wildest dreams. Yet, the shadow of the invasion still lingers as the potential for a resurgence of the alien threat looms large. 
 
The film had generally good dialogue. It was witty, entertaining, and it flowed naturally from the characters, which is a big plus. The problem with it was that it retained a bit of that 90s-esque humor which I found a bit dated. This was a big part of why it didn’t resonate with younger audiences.
 
The film was shot well – beautiful cinematography – but I found a lot of the action sequences a bit too obvious. For instance, we all knew their first assault was going to be a dismal failure because we saw the first one. This is also continuity issue, did the characters not recall the first invasion? 
Here lies the first major problem with the script – the writers seemingly followed a set pattern without making any major alterations. This is a large problem with sequels as your audience will know what’s coming and you want to keep them guessing. At the very least, the characters, like the audience, should have been informed by the first film and thus their choices should reflect that.
 
Continuity problems were abound, where the writers seemingly violated rules they have already established – a huge, glaring no-no – which should have been caught early and fixed in the finalized draft. One character lies in a coma for two decades, awakens suddenly and mysteriously and is totally fine thereafter. That’s a crazy proposition. Then another character undergoes the same event that triggered the first to go comatose and he’s only out for a few hours? Tisk, tisk. 
 
The characters were great, but I feel like they cramped one too many in there making individual arcs difficult to grasp. The whole thing felt rushed, considering the 2h 9m runtime that shouldn’t be the case. One character in particular, whom I took to be the comic relief, stood out among the rest as just not belonging in the film. It’s like he served no purpose other than to occasionally force a laugh. It felt artificial.
Another major problem, it was a sausage party! There were barely any females, with one or two having nearly-lead roles, but they never stood out and felt more like derivatives of their male counterparts. I mean, it’s 2016 and major greenlit scripts are having gender issues? Come’on…  
 
I enjoyed their ‘button’ setup for the next film in the franchise, but given the problems with this script and the resultant box office lull, it’ll likely be 20 more years until we get another one, if we get another one. I may take a stab at rewriting this one as well as penning the sequel, just for kicks.