Believe in your characters – to the extent that it’s useful

Sometimes, you only find out what a character’s like in the story you’re writing.

Sure, you have some sense of what makes them tick when you’re coming up with that tale, but at the planning stage I find myself more engaged in structural matters than character nuance. And rightly so: the job of a treatment is to demonstrate that a story is functional – that is, whether it can be executed in a way that’s coherent and consistent in the context of appropriate frames.

For instance – generally speaking someone who gets shot will need hospital treatment. They may experience profound trauma in addition to physical wounding. In a story, being shot at exists in relation to the genre of the story and not to real world concerns. If they’re a hero in a thriller, bullets are being whizzed their way all the time, and are of no consequence assuming they’re dodged. In a zombie film, guns are typically used by people who’ve had no cause to use weapons before, as a matter of survival. In a war story, something similar may happen – but with greater chance of being emotionally affected by empathising with the person shot at.

Even within the constraints of genre, and despite whatever you think you know about your characters, it’s only when you write the story that you find out how they act and react. That’s the case for me anyway, if only because I like to be surprised by what I’m writing. A treatment is only a blueprint after all – if it told you everything about a story it would be the story.

Recently I adapted an animation script I wrote, the pilot episode for a possible series, into short story form. And despite having gone beyond blueprint stage and having scripted a whole story, I still experienced lots of surprises when I wrote it in prose. Which shouldn’t have been a surprise…

The key to what I found was in the distinction between writing a script where you’re writing all the characters from the perspective of what they say – something that happens on the outside – and a story written from the point of view of one character. So, it went from a third person experience where I was imagining what happened for everyone, to a first person account. And that opened up the character in ways I’d not anticipated, if only because there was no reason to consider them before.

So, I knew Donovan was a 13 year old with a great deal of social intelligence. And I sort of connected that with having grown up in a wealthy family who have a lot of parties, where family stuff and networking are intertwined. Which is reasonable enough. What I hadn’t realised was how Donovan’s social skills come from an ability to inhabit the assumed worldview of others. The result is what comes across as a particular kind of interpersonal confidence, but it’s actually rooted in insecurity of a sort, about living up to what’s expected of him.

There’s a kind of ‘aha’ that goes with realisations like that. And that’s fine. Don’t mistake that for having found a ‘truth’ of some sort though, and allow it to lead to stupid decisions for that character in the future. Remember: all this exists within the realm of the imagination, and what’s more important is creating a story that works within the criteria that are appropriate for it. In this case, I’m developing a whole series of stories set on a Martian colony, and realising that Donovan has insecurities cannot be an excuse for him not engaging with the larger purpose of putting something out there in the world that children can enjoy and result in wealth for myself and my partners in this venture.

By all means I can embrace Donovan’s insecurity – as long as I hold on to the fact that this is an animated series for children we’re aiming at, and not a Woody Allen film. And the same is true for other facets of other characters – their apparent three-dimensionality is an illusion, but if it helps to create the impetus for stories, then it’s an illusion that’s doing its job. And if it convinces you, it might just do the same for audiences.