Overnumerous characters in need of a story

Abandoning all the political stuff and reporting what other people are writing, I’ve decided to instead talk about my own experiences. If you’re just joining me, I’m Alex Sigsworth, and I’m studying a BA (Hons) in Film Studies and Screenwriting.

I’m currently working on something I’m calling Working Title: Mind Over Matter, with the protagonist Hugo Grey, a character possessing psychokinetic abilities. This is the only similarity between the incarnation of the character as currently written. Grey’s original version was a much different character, due to the context of the story being told. The initial story isn’t something I particularly want to tell, but rather the story of the story.

About two years ago, I began work on my first live-action pilot, for a series called The S Word, with the first episode titled Brunch of Heroes. Occasionally, I’ll reread that script to remind myself if there’s anything I like about it. I’ll say it has its moments, but is generally cliched, lightweight tripe – think “CW”. But I’m proud to have written it, because it’s a full-length, 45-50 page script. And at least finishing something that long is an objective achievement. What isn’t an achievement is the content. Because – other things aside – there are just too many characters for me. Which is a subjective statement to make, because “too many characters” is based on how they’re used. I was trying to write Pulp Fiction, but I actually wrote The Amazing Spider-Man 2. To put it simply, the format that I was attempting was overambitious for a writer with my experience – which wasn’t, and still isn’t, much. The S Word was basically about a group of people who all live in Sheffield together, and Brunch of Heroes introduced a new resident into that mix. What I’ve just done there is to describe the series very loosely, but that’s all that matters retrospectively. And yet, writing it turned-out to be a good thing, because it lead to what I’m doing now.

Which brings us to Mind Over Matter, a series about Hugo Grey (the psychokene). Having considered what went wrong the first time, I decided to take a new strategy that should provide me with enough series for the foreseeable future: my strategy was to isolate each character in their own series. So Mind Over Matter is about Hugo Grey, who was also in The S Word. And other characters from The S Word are being held-out of Mind Over Matter in order to give them their own series. An analogy I like to use is that Marvel decided to do The Avengers as a TV series, realised it didn’t work, and instead did an Iron Man series, with each Avenger getting their own separate show (that aren’t interconnect like they actually are). This is a much simpler way of doing it, I’ve found, because it means I can construct a world around the one character, rather than accommodating everyone else. Serialised stories are about time and development, and that means that I first need a format that will allow that time and development to begin with.

Thinking about The S Word even more, I’ve come to the conclusion that I was being overambitious because I was being enthusiastic. I’d created numerous characters, and wanted to write them all at once. That is not what writing is. Writing is – in my case – making every idea unique, and giving each of them the same chance and opportunities. The way I approached The S Word wasn’t respectful to its characters, and therefore disrespectful to the story. And a story will only cooperate with the writer if the writer cooperates with the story. That’s what we are. We’re conduits, hosts for that higher-plane of existence which transcends us, called fiction. Fiction is my polytheistic pantheon – if I obey it, it will provide for me.

For instance, I’m now in the planning stages for another series about a second character from The S Word, which I’ll begin developing once Mind Over Matter is finished (at least, inasmuch as it satisfies me as being complete). Writing can’t just happen, that’s not how it works. No story comes from anywhere (I don’t care what Ray Barone says). It’s the stuff that happens outside the writing room that does the writing. It’s an ironic craft, that way. It’s impossible to tell a good story on the spot, so my technique is to be making notes about my next story while I’m already writing my current story. That way, when I finish a story, I can move-onto the next story with some of it already there. And that’s what I’m doing with The S Word‘s second character, Ashley Brandon. Love a socially-unisex name. Honestly, I don’t know what Ashley’s series will entail, other than that they can control fire with their mind. Which makes sound it sound like a step-down from what Hugo does, which may be true – but I can be working on this while I finish Hugo’s story. And once Hugo’s story is done, I can start Ashley’s story, based on the notes I’m writing now, before I start on another The S Word character’s story. Who that will be isn’t something I need to think about right now. Or I might start developing a completely new character (like Udis).

It’s a rather roundabout way of saying it, but what I wanted this to be is one of the best pieces of writing advice I can give based on my experience: a lot of the time, I can find myself with a character or characters that don’t have a story. This isn’t how to solve that problem (so I shouldn’t really call this “advice” as much as a rambling), but what I can say is not to make the mistake that I made: don’t just shove them all your characters together and hope for the best. Give them the chance to work on their own, and the story will reward you.

Author: the Purple Prose Mage

I'm not Batman, but I wish that I were.

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