Thursday, August 20, 2009

IF YOU'RE CHARACTER CHALLENGED...

One exercise that will help eliminate writer's block, especially when dealing with a stagnant character, is to explore and study Character Arcs. Not only does this exercise work, it's a great way to spend a few hours. To begin, list 10 movies in your genre and a brief description of the plot (another great exercise).

Here's my list in no particular order: (there's a common denominator)

1. Taken - Former government agent, Bryan Mills (Liam Nelson) hunts for his daughter after she's abducted by a slavery group in Europe.

2. Get Carter - After his brother dies in a car accident, mob enforcer, Carter (Stallone) travels to Seattle to investigate.

3. Cellular - Kidnapped victim, Jessica (Bassinger) contacts a total stranger who must then stay on his cell to help find her before she and her family are killed.

4. Proof of Life - Alice (Meg Ryan) hires a profession negotiator to obtain the release of her husband after he's kidnapped by guerrillas in South America.


5. The Gift - A small town widow (Blanchette), with psychic abilities is asked to help locate a missing debutante.

6. Heaven's Prisoner - Ex-cop Robicheaux (Alex Baldwin) obsessed with a bizarre plane crash in the everglades, jeopardizes up his quiet life and the safety of his family to solve the case.

7. Man Hunter - Emotionally scarred FBI specialist (Will Peterson) is manipulated into searching for the current serial killer of the day, a student of Hannibal Hector.

8. Thief - Nick Atwater, (Andre Braugher) is in the middle of planning a dangerous heist when his wife dies in a car accident leaving him the sole guardian of his troubled and bigoted step-daughter who hates him.

9. Don't Say a Word - Psychiatrist Nathan Conrad (Michael Douglas) must break through to a post traumatic stress disorder suffering young woman who knows a secret, if Conrad wants his abducted little girl back.

10. The Silence of the Lambs - A young FBI cadet (Jody Foster) must share her most personal fears with an incarcerated serial killer in return for his help catching another serial killer who skins his victims.

Next ...

comes the fun part. Write a few sentences to describe the character at the beginning of the movie: his attitudes, goals and beliefs; then write a few sentences to describe how he has changed by the end. Are there big changes? Describe them.

1. In the opening of Taken, Bryan Mills quits his job as a government operative to be closer to his beloved daughter. He soon realizes he can't compete with the lifestyle of his ex-wife and her new husband, and feels inferior in comparison. His birthday gift is a Karaoke machine verses their gift of a horse. Not a huge character arc by the end, he still can't compete with their lifestyle, but he has what none of them possess: the experience, expertise, training and fearlessness to do whatever it takes to protect his daughter. I think every parent hopes they will what needs to be done to protect their child. Mills proves it.

2. In the opening of Get Carter, Jack Carter intends to solve the mystery of his brother's death and help his brother's family cope in the future. He quickly learns they want nothing to do with him because he hasn't earned their respect. By the end, he earns that respect having risked his life to solve his brother's murder and protect his niece. She learns to love him because he respects the person she is.

3. In the opening of Cellular, Jessica feels safe, confident and secure in her role as wife, mother and career woman. That dissolves fast when she and her family are kidnapped and separated. Again, not a huge character arc, but Jessica ends up being the one who does what it takes to save her family, and not because she's a trained operative, but because it's left up to her.

4. At the start of Proof of Life, Alice is not happy about moving to South America so her husband can supervise the building of a dam. She is at the mercy of his career, then by the guerrillas who kidnap him, then by the negotiator hired to get her husband out. But at the end, Alice takes back control of her life, and although she's attracted to the Australian, chooses to stay with her husband, not out of guilt, but desire.

5. At the start of The Gift opens, Annie has been a widow for a year and is still unable to mourn openly for her husband. The gift of second sight, a gift passed on from her grandmother has always made Annie feel as an outsider in her own town. By the end of the film, she understands that yes, she is the heart and soul of her small town. Soon, she's publicly expresses grief over the loss of her husband, helping her oldest son realize she did love his father very much.


6. Heaven's Prisoner begins with Dave living a quiet life with his wife. As a recovering alcoholic he is still haunted by his troubled past. By the end of the film, his attitude has come full-circle. He grieves for his wife, adores his adopted daughter, and cherishes the tranquil life as it is now.

7. In the opening of Man Hunter, Will is living a tranquil life with his wife and son, but he is also haunted by his past. Like Dave Robicheaux, Will can't live in the now because of the nightmares of his encounter with Hannibal Hector. Forced to face Hector because he needs his help with a new serial killer, Dave faces his greatest fears. By the end, he too cherishes the tranquility of his life in a small fishing village in Florida.

8. Thief, opens with Nick living in a fantasy. He's a thief, the husband of a loving wife and step-father to a bigoted teenage girl. By the end, he's man enough to give up the easy life for a daughter he has learned to respect.

9. Don't Say a Word, opens with Nat living the good life with his wife and daughter. By the end, (can you detect a pattern?) Nat has been forced to face his greatest fears, and now knows what really matters in life.

10. In the opening of The Silence of the Lambs, Clarice is young, naive and ambitious. By the end, Clarice has survived so much that she is able to embrace a new sense confidence and inner peace. She's proven to herself and her superiors that she can handle anything.

The exercise should give you some inspiration into your own characters. How do you see them ending up? What big changes will occur? Answer those questions and filling in the middle of your story will be a lot easier.

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