How to write a character – Part 3

Before I try to describe the emotional life of the characters, we need to look at what we have again.  I’ll just post it again here to make it easy…


Nancy takes the glass of Prosecco that Paula just poured.


This Prosecco tastes like shit.

She downs it one gulp and pours herself another, while Paula takes a Heinekin from the fridge for herself.


My husband won’t spend more than 12 dollars on a bottle of wine.


When was the last time you got laid?


No comment.  What about you?


Jack went down on me last night.  I was trying to erase it from my memory.  Don’t ask.


I need a favor.  The alimony check from my asshole ex-husband bounced and I need to borrow ten thousand dollars.  Can you help me out?


Wow.  It’s times like these when you find out who your friends are.  Or aren’t.


You’re not going to help me?


I can lend you twenty.  Dollars.


Think of it as an investment.  I’ll pay you back double next week.


I don’t have it.  Don’t you have a credit card?


Maxed out.  I’m maxed out in every direction.  Charlie met some woman and he’s been stalling on the checks.  He knows I’m screwed.  I can’t even afford a lawyer.  The kids are going to kicked out of boarding school next month if I don’t cough up tuition.  I’m at the end of my rope.


Sounds like you really have “problems”.


I didn’t really expect the world from you, but I did think you would at least sympathize with my situation.


To be honest, Nancy, there’s a recession on.  People are suffering.


I know you always liked Charlie, but there were good reasons that we got divorced.


It was terrible what you put your kids through.


You really don’t know what you’re talking about.  You know what?  I’ll just borrow that twenty and I’ll be out of your way.



Paula looks in her wallet and sees that she doesn’t have it.


You don’t even have twenty?


Hold on.  I have it upstairs.

Paula goes upstairs.  She comes back a minute later holding a crisp twenty.

But she finds Nancy is gone.  She sees her purse on the table and looks in it.  Her credit card is gone.


She runs outside to see Nancy screeching away in her Mercedes.  She looks after her, puzzled.

Then she goes inside, grabs her keys, cell phone and purse.  She gets in her car and follows her.


Nancy obviously needs some cash for whatever her plan is. “But”, says the Development Girl in your studio meeting, “Why does Paula follow her instead of just calling the police?”

Now, you can make something up and write it in, I don’t know, something like: Paula had a bad experience with the police and never calls them, no matter what.  (That sounds silly, but that’s what Hollywood scripts are full of.)

Or, you could embrace it the same way you embrace the idea of Nancy stealing the credit card.  I had no idea when I started writing that scene that Nancy would steal the credit card, and I can only guess at the reasons why because I don’t even have a fully flushed out story.  But suddenly, by doing this, she became something more than she was before she did it. Nancy stole the credit card, which, while something I don’t think she’s ever done before, is now part of her character.   And Paula, by following her, did too.

I want to focus on Paula because what she’s doing, while impulsive, is a little more difficult to understand.  Like I said, she doesn’t really have a motivation.  So let me be clear: she follows Nancy because that is her character.  It doesn’t matter why she does it; she does it because it is her character.  It will make sense when we see the entire script, because as we get to know her, we will learn that that is exactly how this character would react in that situation.

Like I said, I had no idea Nancy would take that credit card.  She did it because of something going on in her emotional life reacting to the current situation.  Sure, Nancy needs the money, but ignore that for a minute.  What is Nancy’s relationship with Paula?  Nancy went through a divorce and Paula thinks that Nancy did something wrong during the divorce.  This clearly hurts Nancy and Paula probably doesn’t feel so good about offering her opinion into personal matters that aren’t any of her business, but she can’t help herself.  That’s a quick analysis of what I already wrote, but what guided that writing was a sort of connection between me and the hearts of those characters.  Sure, Nancy’s problems seem pretty trivial in this age of recession, but not to her.  To her, there is nothing more important than the emotional turmoil that’s going on inside of her.  It’s important to her, it’s important to me and, I trust, it will be important to whoever sees this movie: even starving people in Africa will feel for her because, as humans, they understand those emotions like anyone else.

This is life.  Emotional life.  This is the human condition, the collective unconscious, this is what connects us all.  To me, as the writer, I suddenly have a need to tell this story because these emotional lives suddenly have importance to me.

Try reading the scene again, this time, line by line, just looking at the emotional lives of the characters.  How do they feel about each other, or themselves?  Nancy, at the end of her rope, desperately reaching out to someone who used to be her friend.  Paula, who wants to help, but can’t get over herself, can’t get over her stupid opinions or her cheap husband, or her small bank account, to be able to help.  So maybe by following Nancy, she plans on helping her.  Or maybe her life is in a rut and this is some sort of opportunity for her to spice things up.  But what is driving her, ultimately, is that she is a nice person who has some love and sympathy in her.  Who could argue with that (except a Development Person.)

How did all that stuff get in there?  I had no plan for it when I set out to do it.  I set the scene and then put the characters there.  I didn’t even know these characters before I started.  How did that emotional life find its way in there?

The answer is imagination.

It sounds simple, and, in a way, it is.  I was sitting here, at my computer, trying to figure out what to write, I thought about it and then I wrote it.  That’s the work.  Your imagination is your way into the life of the characters.

It’s difficult to explain exactly how this works, and it’s even more difficult to do.  As I said, it took me years of writing to tap into this stuff.  It gets more instinctive as you get better at it, so you can sort of think of many things at once, while trying to figure things out in a script.

Reading the scene, you probably didn’t see much of this without me pointing it out.  Hopefully, you read it and thought it was a decent scene with the promise of more to come.  I’m curious to find out what happens.  It obviously needs some work, but that’s fine.  This is a beginning. We’re going to have to rewrite it a hundred times.  I already know these characters better, and could write the scene better next time.  Maybe I’ll take the small talk out and file it.  Sure, Paula had a nice, funny line, but let’s be confident enough to know that we will be writing many excellent lines in the months to come.  That’s what this job is, after all.  As I get to know the characters, I’ll trust them to get me through the entire writing process in the same way that you’ll trust them enough to follow them through the story.


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