Scribbler’s Saga #9 – Character Driven and Other Myths

Posted: August 26, 2016 in Uncategorized

© 2016 G.N. Jacobs

In my on-off relationship to screenwriting as an adjunct to my novels and graphic novels, I keep hearing the same buzzwords that make me sick. Character-driven story is one. A myth and hoax like Donald Trump piously insisting “no racism here,” despite a lifetime of words and policies to the contrary.

Okay, let’s take a moment to let the dust settle from this attack by my moderate anti-Trump politics upon a non-political writing column. Then, I will feed character-driven to the same Great White Sharks of Metaphor that Der Donald-Führer deserves in this election cycle.

The buzzy studio suits that say this stupid and useless phrase in praise of good writing mean to say that they want to read scripts where the protagonist says and does dialogue and action that could only be committed by that individual protagonist. That only Jake Gittes would ever call Evelyn Mulray on her BS assertion that her husband’s affair is okay saying – “Mrs. Mulray, that runs contrary to my experience…”

Don’t get me wrong, great movies and books do have these characters. But, it’s also my contention that nothing about these characters drives the story in the sense of invent the character, let him or her drive around aimlessly and arrive at the story, which is what the unwary rookie writer might interpret the phrase to mean. Character and plot are so intertwined in the average writer’s mind that character-driven used in this sense defines an impossibility.

Yes, character can change the story. Chinatown requires the more beat down version of Phillip Marlowe represented by Jake Gittes. Make enough changes to Jake and the movie’s plot changes. A funny example and thought experiment, throw John McClane into the Great Los Angeles Water War brewing between Hollis Mulray and Noah Cross and see what happens.

John McClane has a closer relationship to the necessary violence of life than Jake Gittes. Thus, the squirmy thug played by director Roman Polanski that cut open Jake’s nose might have lasted exactly thirty seconds doing that to John McClane. And we can expect more verbal snark from John McClane doing this – “Yippee-Kai-Aaaaaay, Motherfucker!” Clearly two different movies sharing the same spine…Die Hard-Town?

But, the uniformed and ignorant studio suit that repeats character-driven somehow thinks that Jake Gittes woke up one day to take the meeting with the fake Mrs. Mulray and Robert Towne somehow followed Jake to the tragic ending. Based on my experiences as a writer, I would have no qualms making the absolutely hyperbolic bet of fingers and other important body parts that Mr. Towne knew the plot first and fit Jake Gittes into that plot later, using that plot as the crucible in which to shape Jake as an indelible character. Before we continue, all body part bets are high order hyperbole. Just sayin’.

In part, I feel confident asserting character-driven is a myth and a hoax because of how we’re trained as screenwriters and novelists. Nearly all of our instructional books involve structure, the outline that says A, B and C must happen because the story always relates to a classic story with a similar skeleton. If your manuals constantly say words like story beats, act turns, Three Act Structure and inciting incident, no one actually with his or her hands on the keyboard drives the story with their awesome character. And I come to this as someone getting the Cliffs Notes version of these books because writing manuals are hard to read more than a couple chapters at a time.

In Blake Snyder’s recently influential Save the Cat series, we receive the advice to start with the douche sounding Player pitch – “X meets Y with a twist” – before doing anything serious in the writing process. We should sit down to watch Movie X and Movie Y with a $4 note pad open across our knees. We generate an outline of all the beats in the story taking care to modify as needed for the requirements of the twist, setting, theme and/or the characters that quickly follow on after we do this beat sheet. It’s supposedly at this part of the process that questions like “is Jake Gittes gay?” or “how fun would an all-female Gostbusters lineup be?” should be asked.

The Cat books get talked about so much as a recent Bible for screenwriting by the same suits that say character-driven too much that I have to bust this syllogism of fundamental illogic. Beat sheet and character-driven become mutually exclusive concepts.

Similarly, we have Syd Field and his older works that Mr. Snyder acknowledged as inspiration. It was almost like Mr. Snyder emulated Shakespeare’s Marc Anthony – “I come not in praise of Caesar…” – just without the biting sarcasm in acknowledging Mr. Field’s work. So that means that a script with Snyder’s beats is not mutually exclusive with Field’s act turns, inciting incidents, Three Acts and the like. The point for this essay, many of our training manuals assume structure first, character second. And for people like me that write first and outline second, it doesn’t matter when you do this work.

At the moment, please take my understanding of these books with salt. Books on storytelling are hard for me to read. Snyder, Field, Robert McKee and Joseph Campbell are project reads and while I have easily grasped the Cliff Notes versions, I do at some point do have belly up and fully read the pig. My observation about these books is that they fail precisely at the level of teaching character. Too many platitudes about compelling characters get bandied about without instructing us what that means. Of course, compelling character is harder to come by than compelling plot. And character is more subjective than plot.

Plenty of bad stories follow the beats to the letter but nothing about the character leaps off the page. Character is important, but it never drives the story. At best, the creation of both is largely simultaneous. That you can’t think up a character without answering plot-based questions like “what story is this guy best for?” or “what one moment in this character’s arc most defines the story?” And the question for the structure-only people should be “what character is most likely to believable commit the acts and words contained in this plot?” A frustrating chicken and egg problem.

In my first novel, Blood & Ink, I needed a young woman because vampires hunt young women. But, I knew the easiest character to write would be me, a forty-year-old dude at the time. Anna Victor resulted from the push/pull of making me twenty years younger and a hot chick cut from the Diana Prince mold (Please save the dime store psychology. Been there, done that.). But, at nearly the same time I have this recurring mental image of Anna standing near her desk with the evil boss vampire about to force her to decide between Queen of the Undead or stabbing the assclown with a Dixon-Tico wooden pencil.

This moment in the book is a plot heavy moment, the climax. In fact, if I could draw it would’ve been my cover. But, it is also the character moment that defines Anna and the whole novel. Knowing ahead of time that everything must lead to this moment meant I then knew what I as the inspiration for Anna could and couldn’t do with all the earlier plot points that I didn’t know.

You see, while it might be true that real people proceed aimlessly through their life stories with only vague notions of what we want, fictional characters don’t. Anna has all of my bad qualities as well as my strengths (such as they are), such as the more dramatically convenient of ADHD or Executive Function Disorder (aka I Don’t Give a Damn Disease). Without knowing that I/She has to step back and stick a sex harassing vampire boss in the ribs, either a different book results or Anna Victor gains twenty pounds from spending too many nights underwear naked in front of the TV watching Babylon 5, yet again. No actual dead vampires in that case.

Writers, especially screenwriters, have zero control over buzzwords spoken by suits, especially non-writing suits. It matters that you understand that character-driven is a myth and a hoax.

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