The Anatomy of Story - Episode 2

In this episode, Development Exec Angeli tackles character development: what should you be asking your character and how do they relate to other people, places and problems.

23 June 2016


Matimba: Big welcome! I’m Matimba from the BFI Network and this is the second episode from Development Exec Angeli MacFarlane’s talk at the BFI’s Story Day. The whole thing was 90 minutes long so we thought we’d cut it down for you.
During Story Day we invited 30 writers from across the UK to join us at Stephen Street in London - where they got to talk to each other and experienced script developers about how to get their stories from script to screen. 
In this episode Angeli tackles character development - what questions should you be asking your character and how do they relate to other people, places and problems (that’s the structure bit from episode one - just in can you’ve missed it).
There's a little bit of mild swearing, just letting you know incase you have a five year old filmmaker, niece or nephew or just anyone else around that knows how to use an iPhone.
Angeli: And so we've gotten to the midpoint. So what is the connective tissue in the screenwriting process?  
I think characters are where it's all at, really. And every time there's a problem in a script I'll always come back to character. I'll always come back to talking to the writer about, "Well, tell me how you came up with this character? Where did it come from? Is it a research based thing? Did this really happen to someone?" "Yes, it really did." And then I researched them and I met them or I met someone who knows them. And then I found out this. And then I realized that their mom is actually fascinating. There goes your mother again. You know, she did this, she did that. 
So, I don't know. That's interesting, it's really interesting for me. And as for you working on your project, all of that stuff is really important to log and keep because you can come back to it when you run out of ideas. Why? Why are you interested in that character? What is it that sparked it off? And what did you find out? And it will go on being useful. 
You know, I'm working on quite a big biopic movie and we've gone back, two years into development, which by the way is not very long. Two years in development we've gone back to do more research on one of the characters. Read more stuff. Because we realized that there's something we want to say about him that we know we need to say. So the gut is saying, "The story needs to say this." Because we know it's truthful. We're not making it up.  
But the research that we've done to date is not delivering us the examples and stories and ideas and anecdotes that fit it with that need. So we've gone back. So it's a to-ing and fro-ing process. So I think the research of character is absolutely vital and it can go on being useful to you as the process evolves. 
So characters are connected to places, okay? This is absolutely vital. That goes back to that specificity thing that I mentioned earlier on, is never talking about a character in isolation of their environment. Our environments form us, they inform who we have become and what we are becoming.  
Our aspirations, our environmental aspirations are to do with how we see ourselves. So the world that we create around us is merely a reflection of ourselves in some way or the self that we don't want to be. So if we're in the wrong place because it's you understand what I mean? I mean, we all know the stories of so many characters who are not in the right place. So many characters need to be somewhere else. So many characters need to go away from where they are in order to find themselves because where they are is in some way damaging the possibility of change. 
So the place that a character is in is absolutely crucial to the development of your story. So it's also recognizing how do you use the place. And when you're making a short film, for example, it's difficult because you're limited by, budgetary restrictions dictate that you're gonna limit the number of places that you're going to shoot in.  
But we're talking about locations there rather than place. And place is much more about how the character fits in or doesn't fit into the place in which you've placed them and what that says about them. And how you use that to advance the story. 
So in a feature, obviously, you have more opportunity to take the character on a bigger journey in the real world. So you've got more opportunity to explore the world and the character together. But it doesn't change the edict, which is, "What is the place saying about the character?"  
And if I read your script and I say to you, "Why is the character here, in this place, right now? Why? If you put the character somewhere else, what would change?" And that's a very big general question, which I'm sure you could answer. But if there were any hiccups in the answer there, that would be a very useful development area for us to be examining. To be thinking, "Okay, so how can we dig around in there and do something a little bit more emphatic that's going to create emotion about that character's journey?" 
And within individual scenes as well. I mean, one of the things that sometimes is really useful is just to move the character out of the setting that you've put them in.  
I often read something and when we're sort of more developed, because it's not a first shot development tool because that's detail. It's sort of what I call moving the cushions around. It's not important at the first step development. But later down the line, you could say, "You know what, supposing you have this scene outdoors and there are other people around. And this person can't say what they want to say. And so they're whispering it or they're not saying it and they're trying to communicate it. And the audience knows exactly what they want to say but they can't say it." Would that not be more interesting than you having, six drafts down, struggling with working out how to get them to say something that they just can't say. Well then, make them can't say it. Do you see what I mean? 
It's those sorts of things that are really, really interesting is triangulate situations. So for example, if two people are fighting backwards and forwards, you stick another person in the room. So suddenly I'm telling you what I want him to hear. And you are saying to me something else because you don't want to get involved in the argument. So for now, we've got two conversations going on. And then this person butts in with a third conversation, telling them something in order to not engage with what I've told him to tell him. Do you see what I mean?  
So now we've got three conversations going on instead of one. That is potentially a much more interesting scene that does exactly the job that you need it to do, which is to open up the space. And then if there is someone else in the room, and prior to that it was a bedroom scene with two people in bed, they're not even going to work, so you've gotta move the scene somewhere else. 
So don't be wedded to places. Recognize where they are less emotive and more emotive in terms of the purpose of the scene, and the sequence and the whole movie. And also recognize the specificity. If I don't know where I am and I don't know why I am where I am, then I'm outside of your film. I'm not in it. I'm out of it. I'm observing it, but I'm not engaged. And those are two very different things.  
And we all know that. We all know exactly the difference between observing something and going, "Mm-hmm, mm-hmm, mm-hmm." And going, "Oh my gosh, now what's he gonna do? What's she gonna do now? Oh my, no he did not. He did. Oh my goodness." That's the difference. 
And using place...You know, what I often see with short films in particular is what I call the kind of panning across the mantel piece opening to short films. Where we go into the world and the filmmaker says, "This is my world. Here it is." And I'm supposed to read that and apply that to the rest of the movie.  
How's that okay? It's okay to do that if it's telling me something that informs something particularly. It can't do the whole job. You can't expose visual information to me and make me therefore understand your whole film. That's not how it works. Because what does work is for you exposing visual information and then connecting it to people. The two things together will help me understand your whole film. 
So do you see what I'm saying? I mean, different ways of saying the exactly the same thing, which is that conflict connects character in the place. And the character needs to connect to other characters in the place. So everything has to be connected up.  
And then what we need is causality between the events and all of the characters. 
Something I read the other day where the main character has a really big problem. Her best friend knows about this problem. The way she handles this problem is perverse and problematic. And so she creates a whole other set of problems by her behavior. And her best friend finds out, okay? Now her best friend doesn't say anything for the whole of the rest of the movie about what she found out. There's, without giving the plot away, but then there's a kickback onto our main character for her actions. She is then made to pay for her actions by the third party with whom she got involved.  
It becomes apparent in a scene further down the line that they best friend knows that she's now been hurt by her inactions. 
And said to the writer, "What are you doing? You've given the best friend knowledge of something. How does she feel about that? She just discovered what her friend's doing and it's not okay. What does she do? Nothing.  
And then she sees the consequences of that in the real world, which are not pleasant, and what does she do? Nothing. So what you've done is you've created a character and you've given her a journey. And then what you've done is you've booted this best friend out of the movie because, in your head, best friend has gone, "Oh, that's not okay. Oh my God that's a real problem that now she's got involved with that guy and that's really, really not okay. I'm just going to make absent myself."  
Assumed. All of that is assumed. Now I can work it out. You know, you could work it out. We're not stupid. But isn't the audience going to sit there and work that stuff out when they're trying to work out what's going on, and what they're watching, and what they're supposed to be feeling? No, they're not. Or they are and then they're going to get lost when they come back into the film because they don't know where they are anymore. Because they've been too busy trying to work out what the best friend should be doing when she's not doing it. Do you see what I mean?" 
Now that's just the process. It's not bad writing. If it stayed in the script it would be bad writing. It's just recognizing that a character's connectivity to the other characters changes the course of the story.  
And so the writer was going, "Oh my goodness me. Oh wow, oh wow." Because suddenly she realized that she had more plot to write than she realized. So all this, "Where's my plot, where's my plot?" On there. On your page, right there. You're just not seeing it because you're not making the characters react to what's happened and it's not changing the course of the story.  
And therefore you're not creating plot where there is plot to be had. 
And the causality thing is because film scripts, movie, feature film scripts are complex beasts. They're a hundred pages of interwoven text that is meaningless in the real world because nobody cares about the script. People only care about the movie. And that means, therefore, that this script that you create has to be absolutely accessible and legible and communicable to all the different types of people that are going to access it.  
Therefore what you have to do is create a map of causality. That's your job. And the map of causality people can then play with. And they can say, "You know what, we're going to lop off that exit point there. It's much more interesting if the audience goes, 'Oh my goodness me, we never found out what happened to him. Isn't that cool?'" 
But it's a choice that you make having made the script already work. You can decide, for example, where your key turning points are. You can make it clear on the page, you can give it to an actor who can trace their through line.  
So when they do a reading with you, and I love doing readings with actors. I think it's just so revealing and I just love actors. They're just so sparkly and better than us in every way. And so we're sitting with the actors and the actors are really polite because they're always so lovely and polite, at least to start with. Saying, "So, um, sort of what am I really doing in this scene?" And I'm thinking, "You know what, the scene should be telling you. An actor should never have to ask that question." They can ask, "How do you want me to play it?"  
You know, that's where the director can help you out. But the point of the scene? If it's not on the page, you're doing something wrong. 
And causality is one of the big problems that I encounter in scripts all the time. The loose ends and where something isn't followed through on the surface, so I can't see that connecting to that, to that.  
So what happens is, bad development note, is someone absolutely correctly says, "Page 65, scene 97 doesn't work. Rewrite it." And you do and it doesn't make any difference. Because it's not scene 97. The problem is scene 32. And then the problem escalates in scene 61. And then by the time it gets to 97 it's really obvious to everybody.  
So the problem is hidden and then it surfaces a little bit. And if you're smart you'll spot it. If you're good at it or if you do it all your life, you'll spot it. And then when it hits the surface everyone will spot it, right? But that's not where the problem is. 
That's why causality is key. Because if you don't understand the nature of causality you won't know how to recognize where to take the problem back to its source. And also the aftermath of the problem as well. The consequences. Because if I change scene 97, chances are I'm going to change scene 122.  
Or, suddenly, scene 122 never worked. And you changed scene 97 and now it works. And you were right. And you kept saying to your producer, "I know that scene works. I know that scene..." And you were right. You were absolutely right. But you were wrong the way you got there. Do you see what I mean? That's good development. 
So if you are not aware of every time someone digs into a scene and says there's something wrong with that scene, never change the scene until you have mapped its journey through the whole script. Through and out the other side of it, okay? And see, at each point of the way, what it's doing and where the problem might actually be.  
It might be that scene. It might not be. Just be really, really circumspect about the idea that development is about rewriting scenes. It's rewriting causality and it's rewriting character motivation is really what development it about.  
I would put that out there and get shot down on Twitter. 
Okay. Any questions? Yes? 
Man: How do you approach creating a three dimensional character in a scenario which is quite clichéd? Say like in council estate or something like that. What do you do to approach the character to make them different and stand out? Or reach the needs of what your story is? 
Presenter: Again, I think it goes back to what does different mean? What do you think is different about them? And then recognize what you're saying. So what is my cliché?  
My clichéd understanding of the housing estate is top boy or [inaudible 00:14:20] or whatever it is. That's my clichéd understanding. And the tropes of that world are these things. And I actually think my character, what's interesting and different about my character is that's the only world he or she knows and they love it. And they can see the poetry in it in some sort of way. And they use those long corridors to practice their dancing. 
You know, I'm just making stuff up. But I think it's about asking yourself. It's not about looking out into the world for solutions, it's about's about, in a sense, judging your own value system.  
You know, what is the cliché of the housing estate? And if my character is caught up in that world, what is the problem? So what is the character's problem? And what does the character want? Does the character want something from that world or is the world just the backdrop? Does that answer your question? 
Man: Yeah, it does. 
Presenter: Yeah, it's about you. Again, it's always about you. It's all about you, yes. Okay, so the application of anatomy. I mean I'm, again, I'm slightly preaching to myself. But know your world.  
I've just given you some questions here which I'm sure you know. But again, it's just rigor. What does each character want for him or herself? That's not about what you want for the character, it's about what the character wants for the character. Because often, you know what that is. That's the plot.  
"I want a boyfriend. Here's me trying to get one. What do I really want? And what do I really need?" You know that whole want/need thing? "I don't need a boyfriend at all. What I need to do is make friends with my school friends because I'm treating them like shit and actually I should be nice to them." That sounds like a bad movie.  
But actually, if you think, it's not. It's "Muriel's Wedding." That's what "Muriel's Wedding" is. That's "Bridesmaids" is. It's about friends rather than personal egotistical fulfillment. Well that's not even fulfillment, is it? It's about realization. 
So what's the best outcome for the character? And that is, as I said, it's a more pragmatic way of approaching the whole want and need dynamic. What's the character want and need for him or herself? And what do I think is the best outcome for the character. That's it, that's the want need right there.  
And I find that a much more dynamic way to talk about that. Because I get really caught up in wants and needs. And people say to me, "Yeah, but I know what my character wants and I know what my character needs. But when does my character start realizing what they need? At what point is that?" And I go, "Well that's actually interesting because that's a turning point. And you're right, you need to find it." 
But the truth is that characters know what they need right from the beginning. Deep down somewhere inside. Otherwise the journey towards it would probably be impossible. And that's where we get tragedies. The tragedy is when the character never knew and is never going to know, right? The true need of a character is in there.  
Because one of the most interesting things about a lot of great dramas is the whole story is, again, we're talking about passive characters. There's no such thing as a good passive character in the movie. It's a character actively not doing something. That's not a passive character. I'm actively not. 
So that for me is a very useful development tool. I like to talk about, you know, what the character thinks they want and what I think they want.  
The anatomy of film storytelling is really about the character's realization of the dichotomy between want and need. Really at a profound level when you're writing a story. That's what you're doing. You're shifting a character from one dynamic to another. "I want this. I want it. I want it. I'm gonna get it. I'm gonna...look at me I'm getting it. Look at me...oh I'm not getting it. Oh the world's not allowing me to have that. Ugh. Fight, fight, fight, fight." 
Do you know what writers tend to do which is rather brilliant and makes me very happy? It's that in the middle of a script, so around page 50, the characters...often the writers will instinctively write a scene where the characters tell each other what's going on in the movie. They will actually talk about what the films about.  
And it's a very natural thing to do because you've got the story to the place where the characters go, "Oh. Oh I know what's going on. I...oh. He doesn't want me there, he...oh, oh okay I've got it. But sod it, anyway, I still want it." You know, and then on it goes. 
So if I...and that's what I call the fulcrum of the story. And I think if I were to pick you up on that, if I were to work with you, it would be a really good thing.  
Sometimes it's in the wrong place, actually. But your instinct to...I kind of, the thing I use, and I don't know if I stole this. And if I did I apologize to whoever I stole it from. But for me it's like, you know, a film journey is quite jagged. A film journey from beginning to end. If it's an escalating straight line then it's supremely boring for the audience. So it's much more of a jagged journey. Heartbeat anatomy.  
We slump just before the middle of the second act. And we rise. And then's almost like we're at the top of the mountain and the view clears and we can see where we are. And we know where we are now. And we can look back and we can see where we were. And we can't get back there. We have hit the point of no return.  
We can't get back there, but if we look forward we realize we have to go down into the clouds again in order to come back out to the mountain peak which we can see. And that's a nice way of looking at it. It's that we know there's a journey ahead and we can't see what it is. And nor can the audience. But we can see where we're going. We know where we need to be. As does the audience. And there's nothing wrong with that. We all, mostly, in pretty much every film that's successful you kind know where you were going to end up. And that's cool because it's all about the journey.  
And it's all about how it feels like when we get there. So the surprise is the feeling. Okay? 
You know, do you remember the Javier Bardem film called "Biutiful?" Who would have known that we could feel the way we did at the end of that film. We knew we were going to be cut up. We knew that. But we didn't quite know the intensity of emotion that we would experience watching that film. Because we didn't know how watching someone die could be beautiful, right?  
So that's an extreme example, but I think even when we watch Bond. You know, just jumping back over there with the ultimate. But the penultimate Bond, which I really enjoyed. And that scene when Q dies is really surprising for Bond. But at the same time it didn't feel like, "Oh no, we're now tacking in emotional evolution because Bond has to evolve." It felt like a very natural end to a chapter in the end of the bond storytelling.  
So it felt iconic and it felt appropriate. For me. All I can say is what I think. For the type of movie that we're in. But it was surprising. It was cool.  
That's what we're looking for. Surprise us but do it in a way that doesn't surprise us, if you know what I mean.  
So but I think that's a good question, personally. Yeah, understand your characters. Love them. And even if you hate them, love them for how they make you feel. I just, if someone says to me, "I'm writing about this person and I really hate people like that. And I kind of want to show the world that people like that really suck." I'm going, "Don't make a film. Just do something else."  
Because I don't want to sit there and be made to hate someone because the person who's making the film hates them. I don't think that's okay, I think that's wrong. I don't think everybody is lovable, but I think everybody is interesting. And I think everybody has something about them that is worth our understanding, you know. Right? 
And I think as a writer you can totally hate your characters but you've got to love the way they make you feel. You've got to love the fact that they make you so mad. They upset you so much. Because then transfer that onto me. Transfer that onto your audience. That's genius, that's brilliant. And let the characters drive the story.  
Which goes back to my example earlier on of a character seeing something happen, not reacting, deciding that they were going to have an emotional reaction to the consequences of that, and us not seeing it. That's the writer’s hand.  
Because if the character is leading that, there's no way on God's earth that character is not going to have some sort of reaction to their friend. Even if their reaction is to studiously not react. The director needs to film that. I need to film her studiously not reacting. Because then my character is going, "Why are you being weird? Why aren't you being yourself?" Do you see what I mean?  
So the nonreaction, the sort of actively not doing something thing is cause and effect. That's where you let your characters' behavior dictate where the story goes. 
If you get them into a scene and you go, "Actually I've got them into this scene but I don't really know why they're here. I mean, I know they're here because they need to get there." So this is a very common thing, I think. You can nod a bit because that would make me feel better.  
But I suspect it's quite a common thing is that you're writing a character and you get them to a place because you need to get them there, right? So they're here and you're going, "Ugh, urgh, this is not..." Okay, so take them back. Don't worry about there, go back. Where were they before? What happened there? How did that affect their attitude? What do they know that they can never not know? Remember that, characters can never un-know things. Audience can never un-know things.  
Take them into that scene and go, "Aha, it's obvious. She's furious with him." There's your scene. There's the scene that you didn't write. She's driving the scene. She's furious with him. So is she going to be furious or is she going to hide her fury or is she going to bring someone else into the scene to turn the scene into something else in order to not deal with her fury? 
"Well, I don't know what my character does when she's furious." A-ha! You don't know your character well enough. More love, we need more love. What does your character do when they're furious? "No idea." Find out. Do you see what I mean?  
And then suddenly you're not doing what you were doing. You're not driving the story, the character is driving the story. But it's just rigor. It's just ruthless rigor that will get you there. And that's what you have to think about. So don't push the plot, okay? 
Yeah, these are my personal soapboxes. I love soapboxing. But I'm allowed to. So don't soapbox, okay? Just don't. It's really annoying. And don't aim to teach your audience stuff.  
I was working on a project recently and I said to the writer, you know, the $6 million question. And we haven't got there but of course we're going to get there. It's "What is your film about? What is your film about?"  
And he said, "Well, I think it's really important that people understand," and I'm not going to tell the story because that would be indiscreet of me. Of course, it's a confidential issue, development. "But I think that people in the world need to understand that people who behave in this particular way, that it's perfectly justified and actually it doesn't mean anything apart from blah blah blah." 
"Okay, you just told me that. Why am I going to give you £2 million to tell me that?" No seriously, why? Why would I do that? I think that that's a great starting point. But your job is not to educate me, your job is to take that and do something with it that makes me feel differently about the people that otherwise I would have judged.  
So what you're doing is you're unpicking moral judgement, you're unpicking the value system that you think I might believe, I might live under. And you're exposing another way of life. You're communicating, you're emoting. What you're not doing is telling me what to think. 
You start telling me what to think, I don't know about you guys, I don't like being told what to think. Because I know my own mind enough to know that what really excites me, my curiosity to learn and to grow as a person, is for you to do it from a place of passion and commitment. Because you believe something really strongly. And then I will reach out towards you and I will try and understand you. That's my personal growth, okay?  
And I'm a really curious person and I haven't lost my wonder. But I get very angry when people think that it is their job to tell me what to think, okay? Not because, as I said, not because I'm unwilling to learn or I'm not curious, but because it's not okay. 
You know, and we live in a very, very open film culture in this country on the whole. I've recently been in Indonesia and it's very, very different there. Film is used as a propaganda tool all the time. And for those filmmakers who are trying to make personal stories that just are emoting, but also are politically very engaged with what's actually going on, it's almost impossible.  
So I think we should just take joy in the fact that we live in a film culture where we are, on the whole, very much allowed to express our views. And therefore it is even more incumbent on us not to feel that it's our job to teach. Because people are so willing to listen. 
What would my character do if? That's my final really important question. And I do that, and it's kind of mean, but I say to writers sometimes. "Supposing your character ran...Okay, supposing your character found an opportunity to steal, would they take it?"  
I did this the other day, actually. I was thinking about this because I was asking that very question. And I started to think about my close friends and who I thought would and wouldn't. And I started thinking, "Whoa, that's really interesting. I actually think he would. I think he'd steal. Wow. I better not tell him I thought that." Do you see what I mean? It's really interesting, you know? 
Do you know? You need to know. What would my character do if he got involved in a hit and run? What would he do? What would my character do if he saw someone in trouble? Is my character a doer or an observer? It's that thing of acting. You create characters that then are performed by actors and so acting is at the heart, behavioral acting is at the heart of film storytelling. And you ask, "Does my character act up or not?" So something happens in a shop, do you kick off? Yes or no? And if you don't kick off, why not? And if you do, why? And how does that manifest? Is it sort of passive aggressive? Or is it just straight?  
"This is not okay and I'm going to see this through until I get what I want." How? Where on the gauge between, "Ugh, I'm not going to say anything" and "I'm actually going to torch this place," where does your character sit? 
Lots and lots of things you can ask of your character. You know, how does your character feel about things? It's just really good to ask. But I prefer, because I don't like what I call police profiling where someone writes, "Six foot four, went to school here, receding hairline, goes to the gym all the time." You know, yeah okay that's interesting but it's not that interesting. What's much more interesting is for me to write a list of questions about what my character may or may not do, because that grows plot.  
If the question might be random or abstract but it suddenly fits into your story well, you're like, "Oh, that's interesting. I could turn that into plot. I could actually make that happen." 
And you're more likely to ask those kinds of questions anyway because you're in that ballpark, you're in that zone. You're unlikely to answer really random questions because your head is in the space of the film. Your head is in the world of the film, the setting of the film, so you you're much more likely to ask questions that are actually suited to what you need to know about your character.  
So what if? It's a good game to play with your friends as well, it's quite fun. 
Matimba: That was the middle episode from Angeli MacFarlane’s talk during the BFI NETWORK’s Story Day - you can hear about how to structure your story in Episode one and the third and final episode looks at plot. For more information on Story Day and everything else we’re doing to champion emerging talent go to the BFI Network website.