misc How do writers go about researching material to flesh out their characters?

When I start writing a screenplay or story in general, I usually jump right in by outlining the story plot without much thought around character development; I usually add that in later. I am fast realizing this is like putting the proverbial cart before the horse.

Seems to me I should first THOROUGHLY create my character profiles and backstories, BEFORE placing them into my high level story. Making genuine and relatable characters requires their actions be directed by motivation and life experience -- not by the writer's desire to propel a pre-planned plot forward.

By focusing on the complex interrelationships between well understood and fleshed out characters, the scenes will almost write themselves (again, provided we are true to our characters makeup). In other words, we allow the characters to shape the story to some degree or create scenarios that would compel our characters to do what we need them to do to propel the story forward.

For example...

I am writing a story about a rebellious teenager who is bullied at school and neglected at home by his father and brother. He is abducted by a Satanic cult whose members include all sorts of sordid characters including the front man of a death metal rock band who deceives him. The story requires that the boy enter into a deal with the devil by sacrificing himself in exchange for taking revenge on those who wronged him. As a twist, there's a guilt-ridden guitarist within the band who tries to save the boy before the captured teen is ritually sacrificed, but the troubled teen exposes him to the cult leader and the guitarist becomes the one sacrificed.

It's a nice little plot but the way I scripted the original characters didn't seem to fit in with their actions. It was only after I totally re-created the characters and the scenes that the story started to make sense. I started to study the interviews of David Berkowitz and soon found a template from where I can draw some inspiration for my young protagonist. Berkowitz felt from a young age that he was bad because he believed the lie that his biological mother died at child birth. He felt somehow responsible for this and it led him to a dark place.

I thought this was a great angle I could use to explain the behavior of my character -- he would be self destructive and allow himself to be victimized by those around him as a form of punishment for the torment he himself wrought upon his poor mother who, despite it all, never gave up on her troubled son. And those who he decides will die as part of his bargain with the cult are those who added to his mother's grief -- NOT those who treated the boy badly. This fits in with the boy's reluctance to be saved by the guitarist who would only serve to add to his mother's grief when she realizes her connection to the murders and her son. The boy felt it was better if she believed he simply ran away.

He offers up the guitarist to spare his mother additional anguish. Right or wrong, that would be his thought process in explaining his actions within the story. It goes without saying the story now has morphed into more of a psychological drama or horror than the simple plot heavy horror I originally conceived.

As writers, how do we dig deep and discover the very nature of our characters? Indeed, once we are inside the skin of our characters, it becomes much easier to script their dialogue and actions, but do we invent such characters in our head or turn to other sources for inspiration such as I have with Berkowitz interviews?

I am curious about where other writers get source material for the characters of their stories...
 

mlesemann

Staff Member
Moderator
Most of my characters develop from people I know. They're not the same people, of course, but I start with the essence of people who I know and who I think (rightly or wrongly) that I understand.

I find that I get to know the character(s) better as I write about them and add detail to their personalities. And yes, I sometimes get to the end of a script and realize that the planned ending doesn't work because (s)he simply wouldn't do that. I actually like that part, because it's when I really feel like I've developed a "real" person and I need an ending that better fits their character.
 
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Most of my characters develop from people I know. They're not the same people, of course, but I start with the essence of people who I know and who I think (rightly or wrongly) that I understand.

I find that I get to know the character(s) better as I write about them and add detail to their personalities. And yes, I sometimes get to the end of a script and realize that the planned ending doesn't work because (s)he simply wouldn't do that. I actually like that part, because it's when I really feel like I've developed a "real" person and I need an ending that better fits their character.

Using people we know personally is preferable, but how many do we really know capable of the sorts of acts described in our fantastic stories? Be they acts of horror or heroism -- This is why interviews such as those by Berkowitz are truly fascinating and useful to me. You see him today and you can tell he has done a lot of soul searching looking for his own answers as to why he was the way he was.

For me the most interesting personality trait of Berkowitz (which I have incorporated into my own protagonist) is one where he accepts all guilt and was self-loathing as a younger man. He didn't rat out others who committed those terrible crimes along with him.

His reasons are interesting. He stated, "I was responsible for the deaths of a couple of people, what difference does it make if I end up the fall guy for the others"

I think there's a deeper reason.

I believe he has sympathy for the "victims" of ritual abuse be they those who were killed as well as those who, like Berkowitz, were deceived into buying into the Satanism cult. He didn't want to add to others dying or suffering because of his confessions.

When his throat was slashed in prison, he never ratted out the guy who did it. Again, for the same reason -- he felt he deserved it --AND-- he didn't want to punish the tormented soul who felt the need to hurt him.
 

mlesemann

Staff Member
Moderator
I take the core personality and then blow it up to the extremes of the story

he felt he deserved it
This is something that you find in many troubled people on a smaller scale. It's especially reflected in stories of domestic abuse and knowing that person allows me to do the "what it?" that leads to the more extreme situations that you describe.

But of course, everyone approaches these things differently.
 
I approach characters a little differently... I don't do bios or personality profiles or anything like that... Not that you can't... Everybody's different. Whatever works for YOU -- WORKS.

Having said that? I give all my characters a THEME. I break that theme down into one best word that describes that character. If that character is all about revenge? Then every piece of dialogue and every behavior that comes OUT of them COMES from within the context of his or her theme.

I find that when I personally approach characters this way? I get to know them much faster... It puts my mind in the right FRAME to keep creating and pushing that character EVEN if that character ultimately experiences an arc. It's much easier to see the contrast and create the arc... At least in my humble opinion.
 
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I approach characters a little differently... I don't do bios or personality profiles or anything like that... Not that you can't... Everybody's different. Whatever works for YOU -- WORKS.

Having said that? I give all my characters a THEME. I break that theme down into one best word that describes that character. If that character is all about revenge? Then every piece of dialogue and every behavior that comes OUT of them COMES from within the context of his or her theme.

I find that when I personally approach characters this way? I get to know them much faster... It puts my mind in the right FRAME to keep creating and pushing that character EVEN if that character ultimately experiences an arc. It's much easier to see the contrast and create the arc... At least in my humble opinion.

That's quite a minimalist approach. I know you do prefer to be terse in your scripts -- (less is more) -- that's something I agree with more or less however I just picked up a book from Jim Mercurio who has a somewhat different take on this. (Haven't read it yet so I cannot comment) -- But your approach on character development, to be honest, really surprised me.

I mean can we really encapsulate complex characters by reducing them to a THEME? Perhaps I am misunderstanding your approach but I just can't see how this is enough...
 
That's quite a minimalist approach. I know you do prefer to be terse in your scripts -- (less is more) -- that's something I agree with more or less however I just picked up a book from Jim Mercurio who has a somewhat different take on this. (Haven't read it yet so I cannot comment) -- But your approach on character development, to be honest, really surprised me.

I mean can we really encapsulate complex characters by reducing them to a THEME? Perhaps I am misunderstanding your approach but I just can't see how this is enough...
I don't know about WE... I know I can. I know I do. Even writing novels.
 

indietalk

IndieTalk Founder
Staff Member
Admin
Some people are able to step into the character's skin without a reference character. Probably people who have had many experiences in life and are strong empathetically. They can conjur the character up. Perhaps an amalgamation. I have found myself writing this way many times. It's very "alter-egoish" instead of influenced.
 

indietalk

IndieTalk Founder
Staff Member
Admin
Probably means you are a good actor too. 😉
 
I will say that over the years -- decades actually -- every time I meet someone or continue to know someone... I'm always listening. I'm always LOOKING for SOMETHING I can implement into a character in a scene be it a screenplay or novel. And? You never know when this is going to occur so you are simply ALWAYS ON THE LOOKOUT FOR IT. That's one of the reasons I love writing in a coffee shop. The SHIT I've overheard has been implemented into some great characters.
 

indietalk

IndieTalk Founder
Staff Member
Admin
You become a sponge and when you go to write you squeeze the sponge. It's not unusual at all.
 
By the same token? I was in the Navy for 21 years... LOL. I've tapped that well MANY MANY TIMES. And? Interestingly enough, over the years, I've had opportunities to hang out with other professional screenwriters... Barbeques... Parties. You name it. I still talk like I'm in the Navy. The restroom is the HEAD. When somebody's wasting my time? They're burning my clock. I could go on and on. But interestingly? I've met more than a handful of professional screenwriters you've certainly heard of throughout the years who've heard me use some of my Navy slang a time or two only to come right up to me and tell me, THEY WERE STEALING THAT. LOL.

And? They did.

And? You have to be careful sometimes... Even being yourself.
 

Alcove Audio

Business Member
indieBIZ
Well, I'll toss in my two ducats...

For my first (and only) WIP I have a few ideas I want to explore. So, I became a 'god' and created my own universe. When populating my universe, I based the characters on people I know or have met, and on real people/historical figures.

That's not to say I just transport one of those people into my universe. All of my characters are Frankenstein's Monster, bits and pieces of different people put together. As an example, one character is partly my father and partly a boss I had, a healthy dollop of Spruance and a touch of Schwarzkopf, plus a few of my own conceits. He highly respects his opponent in my notional interstellar war, so I loosely based their 'relationship' on Patton and Rommel.

Some characters are fully thought out - well, mostly - when I begin to write them, others just appear as they are needed. The more important the character, the more developed they are. Much of it may not ever appear in my story, but I feel that, for me, it is important to know the characters thoroughly so they come across as real people. I even try to "walk a mile in their moccasins" once I have their character profile settled in my mind (if nowhere else) and try to live the scenes through their perspective.

I will say that over the years -- decades actually -- every time I meet someone or continue to know someone... I'm always listening. I'm always LOOKING for SOMETHING I can implement into a character in a scene be it a screenplay or novel. And? You never know when this is going to occur so you are simply ALWAYS ON THE LOOKOUT FOR IT. That's one of the reasons I love writing in a coffee shop. The SHIT I've overheard has been implemented into some great characters.

That's what writers do. My character well is fairly deep, too. It's amazing what living a long, active (and, unfortunately tumultuous) life will reveal.
 
Being more of a consumer than a producer, I do often wish more writers would get properly under the skin of their characters. Even though I understand the importance of dramatic incidents and equally dramatic responses to same, I find it incredibly distracting when supposedly professional and/or highly experienced characters do/miss/are amazed by ridiculously stupid things - the kind of stuff they should have learnt during their first week on the job. The character's subsequent behaviour is frequently conditional on having acted like an imbecile a few moments beforehand, which (for me) turns a lot of "drama" into "farce" ... :grumpy:
 
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I find it incredibly distracting when supposedly professional and/or highly experienced characters do/miss/are amazed by ridiculously stupid things - the kind of stuff they should have learnt during their first week on the job.
Horror movie characters usually have this flaw. How many times do we see victim after victim die the most ridiculous ways just to add tension. One that really comes to mind is Silence of the Lambs and the basement scene. Here we have this brilliant FBI agent and by rights, she should be dead by following this serial killer into his turf -- a dark trap laden place of certain death. And then, the idiot serial killer cocks his gun instead of just killing her.

Yeah yeah, the audience needs to get their tense moments (I get it) but when it goes contrary to how you would expect the professional and intelligent characters to behave, it ends up being farcical. It is such a shame because the rest of the movie was really good in terms of characters. I never read the original book so I am not sure if this was how it happened in the original story or how Ted Tally adapted it into his screenplay. Either way that scene seemed out of place to an otherwise flawless film.

That's why I love the characters in Cohen Brother films. Great character consistency. Fargo was amazing...
 

sfoster

Staff Member
Moderator
Horror movie characters usually have this flaw. How many times do we see victim after victim die the most ridiculous ways just to add tension. One that really comes to mind is Silence of the Lambs and the basement scene. Here we have this brilliant FBI agent and by rights, she should be dead by following this serial killer into his turf -- a dark trap laden place of certain death. And then, the idiot serial killer cocks his gun instead of just killing her.

Yeah yeah, the audience needs to get their tense moments (I get it) but when it goes contrary to how you would expect the professional and intelligent characters to behave, it ends up being farcical. It is such a shame because the rest of the movie was really good in terms of characters. I never read the original book so I am not sure if this was how it happened in the original story or how Ted Tally adapted it into his screenplay. Either way that scene seemed out of place to an otherwise flawless film.

That's why I love the characters in Cohen Brother films. Great character consistency. Fargo was amazing...
not like the serial killer was some genius. even his dog ends up down the well at one point.
 
not like the serial killer was some genius. even his dog ends up down the well at one point.
Yeah, he was no Ted Kaczynski. But I would imagine for those that don't get caught, they have to be pretty damn smart to elude capture.

The cops, generally speaking, were not that smart in the Silence of the Lambs, especially those two guards that get killed by Hannibal Lecter in his escape scene. Where was the protocol in managing such a high risk prisoner? Video monitors? I mean they knew what he did to a nurse in a prior incident. But I guess suspension of disbelief is in order when watching such Hollywood movies :)
 

sfoster

Staff Member
Moderator
Yeah, he was no Ted Kaczynski. But I would imagine for those that don't get caught, they have to be pretty damn smart to elude capture.

These days yes.. but back in the 70s and 80s.. not really. All you had to do was be random.
Police solve murders by looking at people that knew the victim and evaluating motives, etc... if you are random, killing strangers with no link to you in the 70s-80s you can get away with it just being normal level of intelligence.
 
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Don't get me wrong... Loved the movie but the book was BETTER.

It pretty much happens the same way in the book but what you do NOT get in the movie are all the things going through Jame Gumb's MIND as he observes Clarice stumbling around in the dark. In that instant, he's obsessed with Starling. Loves her hair -- wants to skin it off her as soon as he kills her and put it on his own head to surprise Catherine Martin in the hole.

These fleeting thoughts and obsession are his downfall... He cocks his Python and that's it. He falls backward staring up at the ceiling.

All he can think of at that very moment before dying is to say, "How... does... it feel... to be... so beautiful?" LOL.
 
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Don't get me wrong... Loved the movie but the book was BETTER.

It pretty much happens the same way in the book but what you do NOT get in the movie are all the things going through Jame Gumb's MIND as he observes Clarice stumbling around in the dark. In that instant, he's obsessed with Starling. Loves her hair -- wants to skin it off her as soon as he kills her and put it on his own head to surprise Catherine Martin in the hole.

These fleeting thoughts and obsession are his downfall... He cocks his Python and that's it. He falls backward staring up at the ceiling.

All he can think of at that very moment before dying is, "How... does... it feel... to be... so beautiful?" LOL.
Let's also not forget that although brilliant as an agent-in-training? Clarice Starling is no super-agent. LOL. They show you that in the beginning in one of her training exercises where she fails to check a corner of the room and the instructor tells her she's DEAD.

Out on her own? Out in the real world? She was extremely lucky Gumb became so obsessed with her watching her stumble around in the dark through his night vision goggles. Had it NOT been for that mistake? She wouldn't have made it.

But that's what movies are usually all about, right? LOL.

As for the two cops in the movie Lecter kills? Back in those days? There were no killers like Lecter. Plus? Let's state the obvious... Police, FBI, and other law enforcement don't usually play nice together... They certainly didn't back then. Better now but still no cigars for working together. LOL. Unfortunately, these two cops were not properly briefed the way Starling was when she visited Lecter in prison. They just figured he was another inmate they had to deal with and Lecter certainly KNEW that would happen and also knew that this would be his opportunity to escape.
 
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