Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The penny drops about characters

I'm changing the way I write. More accurately, I'm changing the way I put stories together. Back when I was hacking out novels, I would concentrate on plot and structure. There was less need to focus on characters as I was writing pre-created characters for the most part. It might only be one or two core cast members, but they usually the most important characters.

Writing for Doctors is pushing me to focus more and more on characters ahead of plot. At its core, Doctors is a show about healing. All the medical stuff, that's a vehicle for telling stories about ordinary people facing a crisis point. Doesn't have to be the end of the world, often times the stories are quite small in scale - but that can all the more powerful because of that.

As part of the story development process, you have to create character profiles for each of your proposed guest characters. When I writing the scene by scene breakdown for my episode, some foolish part of me initially resented having to do this. I don't have a lot of patience for lengthy questionnaires detailing your character's favourite sock colour or worst meal ever eaten.

But the profiles for Doctors force you to explore your characters' backstory, why they're behaving the way they do as the episode begins. This proved invaluable when I came to write the first draft, adding an extra depth and meaning to their actions. Just as discovering what your story's really about is crucial, so is finding out what motivates your characters.

Proof positive of this came on two recent story pitches. Both of them had strong central plot hooks, but felt a bit flat on a character level. So I pushed myself to dig deeper into my cast, find the truth lurking behind their behaviour. Once I'd done that, writing the proposals proved so much easier. I knew both the how and the why of my stories, and that helps a lot.

Now all that's no guarantee either of these pitches will be accepted, that's not in my control. But I'm not unhappy with my efforts. And I feel like I've made a little breakthrough in my writing. Digging deeper into characters takes a lot longer, but if people care about your characters, I believe they'll care much more about the story you're telling. Onwards!

1 comment:

Brian Robinson said...

The same thing has dawned on me - I say dawned even though I ws taught this ages ago. I think I share the same kind of resentment about writing character back stories or bios. The eagerness to just get on with writing the story can actually get in the way of achieving the script's full potential. But I feel I can't get anywhere in an honest capacity with the structure of what I doing right how unless I really have these characters fully rounded. It's a pain but i have to do it and I know my script will definitely benefit from it.