Welcome to week two of AFF at Home! For those of you just joining us – AFF at Home is Austin Film Festival’s way of promoting a sense of community, engagement, and creativity even in a time of distance and restrictions. Each week we’ll guide you through content and stories in the hopes to inspire and motivate you to take your next creative step.
Last week’s theme was Spark Your Story –content curated for connecting that spark of idea to script or story. We found this content to a great square one.
This week we’re focusing on Character. Great scripts need well-developed characters that captivate an audience. This is pivotal to your script’s success.
Just like last week, we have five actions to help strengthen the characters in your work. We encourage you to go at your own pace and keep us updated on Twitter with #AFFatHome.
Let’s Get Going!
-Colin Hyer, Creative Director
Characters are the emotional anchor for all great stories. No matter how intricate your plot, well-developed characters are integral for engaging your audience and encouraging them to invest in your story’s journey. This podcast features Carly Wray (Westworld), Ben Cory Jones (Boomerang), James V. Hart (Hook), and Erika L. Johnson (Queen Sugar) discuss writing effective characters and why character building is so vital to the success of a screenplay.
Listen to the raw audio from these inspirational panels straight out the On Story Archive at the Wittliff Collections:
- Building the Better Character Part 1 (2001) featuring Lawrence Kasdan (The Empire Strikes Back) & Anne Rapp (Cookies Fortune)
- Building the Better Character Part 2 (2001) featuring Lawrence Kasdan (The Empire Strikes Back) & Anne Rapp (Cookies Fortune)
- The Craft Room Continues….Craft Session #3 – Character Part 1 (1999) featuring Nicholas Kazan (Reversal of Fortune)
- The Craft Room Continues….Craft Session #3 – Character Part 2 (1999) featuring Nicholas Kazan (Reversal of Fortune)
- Shades of Gray: Writing the Anti-Hero Part 1 (1998) featuring John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side), Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential)
- Shades of Gray: Writing the Anti-Hero Part 2 (1998) featuring John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side), Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential)
CONNECT WITH US
How will you apply this character insight to your writing this week? Tell us on Twitter using #AFFatHome or in the forum below.
Q&A with Brian Helgeland
Where do you start when creating characters in your writing? Ask Brian Helgeland! This week’s virtual Q&A is with Brian Helgeland! Submit your questions here or on Twitter using #AFFatHome by Thursday 4/2 by 11:59pm and we’ll publish his selected responses here on Monday 4/6.
Submissions now closed. Read Brian’s responses to your questions here!
MORE ABOUT BRIAN HELGELAND
Brian Helgeland was born in 1961 in Providence, Rhode Island. He was raised mainly in New Bedford, Massachusetts where his family made their living in that city’s fishing industry. After somehow receiving an undergraduate degree in English, Brian took a site as a ‘half-share’ man on the fishing vessel Mondego II. A chance meeting with a book entitled “A Guide To Film School” changed everything. Ignorant as to the existence of such venerable institutions, Brian applied to several and was accepted by one. Giving up his now “full-share” berth on the fishing vessel Concordia, Brian headed west in 1985.
Thirty years later he has found himself in possession of nineteen feature film writing credits. He is also a film director. Among the films he has written and directed are Legend starring Tom Hardy & Emily Browning, 42 starring Chadwick Boseman & Harrison Ford, A Knight’s Tale starring Heath Ledger & Paul Bettany and Payback starring Mel Gibson. As a straight screenwriter, his writing credits include Curtis Hanson’s L.A Confidential starring Russell Crowe, Tony Scott’s Man on Fire & The Taking of Pelham 123 both starring Denzel Washington, Richard Donner’s Conspiracy Theory starring Mel Gibson & Julia Roberts, Paul Greengrass’ Green Zone starring Matt Damon and Clint Eastwood’s Blood Work and Mystic River for which he received an Academy Award nomination and for which stars Sean Penn & Tim Robbins both won the Oscar.
Helgeland is also the recipient himself of the Academy Award, the Writers Guild of America Award, the PEN Center Literary Award, the Edgar Alan Poe Award, a two time recipient of the USC Scriptor Award and the Sidney Lumet Award for Integrity in Entertainment.
Student Screenwriting Corner
All stories have characters, but more specifically, every story needs a protagonist. A protagonist is a main character that wants something badly, but has a hard time getting it. To know your protagonist is to know what they want. Sometimes, it can be hard to brainstorm a dynamic leading character let alone decide on what they want, but as screenwriter you have to know your characters best. The attached worksheet from Digital Storytelling Lesson Two: What Makes a Good Story provides a brainstorming activity in hopes to better understand your protagonist’s goal.
CLICK TO LEARN MORE ABOUT CHARACTER WRITING
- Section one asks you to describe someone in your life. After all, sometimes the best characters are right in front of you. Then, section two asks you to provide details for a fictional character. These details should help you discover the answers to section three – your character’s want and flaw.
- When you’re done, share your worksheet with us using #AFFatHome! We’d love to see the character you’ve created!
Then, check out the short film Full Windsor by writer/director Farady Okoro to see how his protagonist’s goal drives the story.
Movie Night Pick
Beauty & The Beast (1991)
“The constant refrain around AFF is the mirror-shattering trumpeting of writing and storytelling. Through AFF at Home we intend to showcase every extension of what Austin Film Festival aims to champion in its community, including our vaunted film competition alumni. We are delighted to represent the legacy of our alumni base through the WATCH section of the AFF at Home campaign; by curating incredible titles that are now available to stream in your living room, shower, wherever. Come join us in celebrating some festival competition favorites, and marquee film titles from our Writers Conference heavyweights.”
-Casey Baron, Senior Film Program Director
AFF FEATURE Now Streaming Pick:
Hand-picked past competition films from the AFF film department
Meerkat Moonship (2017)
Considering this week’s subject matter revolves around character, the AFF Film department and I personally would like to re-introduce you to a wonderful selection from AFF24: MEERKAT MOONSHIP. This incredible coming of age fantasy tale introduces the audience to a dynamic protagonist by the name of Gideonette who must overcome her otherworldly fears while grieving a tremendous loss and a budding friendship with a young boy hellbent on becoming an astronaut. When I first saw this film in 2017 it was smack in the middle of 20 hour days, intense brainstorming efforts, and enough coffee to fill a swimming pool (beer may have aided as the sun set). But upon my first time viewing, MEERKAT invigorated me with boundless energy. That was purely due to the surprising journey writer/director Hanneke Schutte casts this whimsical world of characters upon. From Gideonette to her mother and beyond, each character feels imbued with flaws and insights of the world that all feel shaped to affect the audience akin to a swordsman’s blade to the heart. I won’t be lecturing you on the nature of these characters, or how they were built, etc. I figured I’d enlist the help of a friend to do just that. With some words about how she brought these characters to life, and some practical tools any writer may grab along as well, please read some words from Hanneke below on building characters.
– Casey Baron, Senior Film Program Director
Timid, wildly imaginative 13-year-old Gideonette de La Rey learns that the name she was given comes with it a horrible curse. After her father dies, Gideonette is paralyzed by fear and is sent to live on a farm with her grandparents, where she befriends a young deaf boy who is “training” to become an astronaut and preparing to fly away in a Moonship that Gideonette’s grandfather built for him. When fate hands Gideonette a final blow, she learns the real reason her grandfather was building the Moonship. Her newfound strength is tested, and she has to decide whether she’s going to let the curse consume her life or if she’ll choose to defy it.
READ MORE FROM WRITER/DIRECTOR HANNEKE SCHUTTE ON CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT
Meerkat Moonship was loosely based on the youth novella Blinde Sambok and even though I retained most of the characters in the book, I decided to rewrite them in order to create characters that deeply resonated with me.
I imbued the characters with my own flaws and personality traits and those of people I know. My mom struggled with depression most of my childhood and I decided to incorporate that into the story because it made the narrative feel more personal and real.
As a child I also shared many of the lead character’s fears and I wanted to show kids who struggle with similar ‘monsters’ how to triumph over these fears. I think we often misinterpret the maxim: Write what you know. This doesn’t necessarily pertain to occupations or worlds, although it’s great if you do have some expert knowledge in a certain field, but, more importantly, it applies to feelings.
Write what you’re feeling or what you’ve felt before. Once the audience can identify with an emotion they’re much more willing to go on the character’s journey, no matter how outrageous it is. You can always research space ships or medical procedures, but you can’t research emotion, it has to be lived.
Just like the heroes and heroines in our stories the writer has to go on his/her own perilous hero’s journey, bring back the boon (the emotion, the life lesson) and share that with the audience. But if you never heed the Call to Adventure, you won’t have anything to write about.
Tolstoy calls this “infectiousness” (perhaps an apt word for our current situation).
“To evoke in oneself a feeling one has once experienced, and having evoked it in oneself, then, by means of movements, lines, colors, sounds, or forms expressed in words, so to transmit that feeling that others may experience the same feeling — this is the activity of art.” – Leo Tolstoy
He said that, “the degree of infectiousness is the only measure of the value of art”.
So instead of spending all your time coming up with high-concept ideas, how about keeping a journal of your emotions, because that’s where the real gold lies. Be vulnerable, find your own ‘fatal flaws’ and let that guide your story.
The most important thing to remember is that the emotion has to be grounded in truth. Unlike saccharine emotions, truth immediately disarms us, it infects us and makes us feel more connected. Truth feels like an exposed nerve that jolts us awake – it’s raw, visceral.
In his book What is Art? Tolstoy wrote, “A writer is precious and necessary for us only to the extent to which he reveals to us the inner labour of his soul.”
This is the perfect time for writers to mine the depths of their souls and bring back these glittering boons of truth. All that anxiety, fear, hopelessness, outrage and self-pity can finally be put to good use. Write about it, infect people.
Once you imbue your characters with these traits and show them how to overcome them, you’re not only healing your character, you’re also healing yourself.
Often when I’m in a dark place I look back at Meerkat Moonship and remind myself that as much as I wrote that script for audiences to enjoy I also wrote it to teach myself how to overcome my fears.
So go out and use your emotional truths to make connections with people who feel exactly the way you do right now, that’s how we grow as writers and it’s also how we’re going to get through this current crisis.
“If you’re always hiding you’re going to live a very small and uninteresting life.” – Grandpa Willem, Meerkat Moonship
AFF Short Pick:
Hand-picked past competition films from the AFF film department
The Gary Gold Story (AFF 2018 Audience Award Winner)
Digital series give an audience the opportunity to invest in a character and follow them on their journey. Our 2018 Audience Award Winner, The Gary Gold Story, follows Gary Gold as he moves to LA to play football (soccer). Gary Gold is quite a character and this is a great ‘inside look’ as we wait for sporting events to resume. Cheers!
The Gary Gold Story
On Story Movie Night Pick:
Screening with a postshow On Story conversation
A Knight’s Tale (2001)
Looking for great examples of character? Host a double-feature of A Knight’s Tale paired with our ON STORY episode with writer/director Brian Helgeland. In it, you’ll hear about Brian’s process behind developing and adapting unforgettable characters and how he was able to crack the story of A Knight’s Tale when he realized who the main character was.
On Story: A Conversation with Brian Helgeland
CONNECT WITH US
Which movie or show did you watch? Did it inspire your writing? Spark the conversation on Twitter using #AFFatHome.
Since we want our characters to feel alive, it’s important to take time to focus on each one separately. This weekend, choose two of your characters – not the protagonist – to focus on as you review your script or think about your forthcoming script.
Once selected, attempt to answer these questions for each:
- Who is this person?
- How do they act in the face of challenges?
- What are their habits?
- How do they serve the story?
- How do they challenge, help, or underscore your protagonist?
- They have their own goals; what do they want? How are they trying to get it?
- What’s their flaw? Are they aware of it?
- Do they change over the course of the script? If so, how?
The goal is to fully hash out who these characters are and to ensure you fully understand them. In the future, feel free to repeat this process for each character you see fit.
– Sage Kosiorek
Script Competitions Director
Routines are crucial to writers. Not only do they help us stay on task, but they help us learn the schedule we need to create. What routine do you need to complete the next draft of your characters journey?
Share your writing routine with us using #AFFatHome.
Need some inspiration? Read Anne Rapp’s (writer, Cookie’s Fortune, Dr. T & the Women) “dead, solid perfect writing routine”. We think you’ll find that she is a bit of a character herself.
CHECK OUT ANNE RAPP'S "PERFECT" WRITING ROUTINE
Every writer needs a routine. Routines are crucial. A routine is your best friend. A writer without a routine is like a traveler without a compass, a lamp without a light bulb, a master without a dog. I’m proud to say I have a dead solid perfect routine and I am happy to share it with you:
I wake up very early every morning, with or without an alarm. (I’m a farm girl, and if the sun’s up and I’m not, the day’s going to waste!) I pour myself a large cup of coffee and get back into bed, trying not to spill it. I turn on the TV and flip around the early local news shows, masterfully avoiding all mattress commercials. I check out the weather, traffic and sports scores. These things are important even though I have no intention of going outside all day. (Because I’m going to stay home and write!) Of course I already watched most of the ballgames the night before, but highlights are essential. You always
catch something you missed.
At 7am, on my second cup of coffee, I peruse the big dog news shows ‐‐ Good Morning America, Today Show, etc. I try to find the least offensive anchor presenting the least banal segment. The dolphin who saved an entire cruise ship full of people? The department store busted for selling “used” underwear? Carey Underwood on the Plaza? I settle on the Cajun chef whipping up crawfish etouffee. Now there’s something I can sink my teeth into.
At 9am Regis, Kelly and Ellen remind me that I need to get to work, so I turn off the TV and crawl out of bed. I pass by my full‐length mirror and am immediately reminded of the three bowls of chips and salsa I powered back the night before at Manuels. Ack. Regret rolls over me like the tidal wave of tequila I consumed along with it, so I put on my workout gear. Sometimes I actually go work out. This takes another couple of hours, but it makes me feel good about myself. When I finish I’m totally ready and fired up to go attack that keyboard and create!
I return home, shower and get dressed ‐‐ often into the clothes lying on the chair that I took off the night before. This makes me wonder if I’m part Swedish. I’ve heard that about the Swedes. I go into my office, sit down at the computer and google Swedish Dressing Habits. Then I google Genealogy. I’ve always wanted to do a complete family tree and figure out if I’m related to anyone famous. (The only person of distinction I can actually claim kinship to is Rip Torn but I tend to brush that under the carpet these days.) It’s usually about this time that I feel my first hunger pang of the day. I look at my computer clock, which seems to be stuck on Greenwich Mean Time. I google Greenwich Mean Time and read all about Greenwich, England. Then I remind myself I have to deduct six hours to know the real time. The confusion somehow makes me even hungrier, so I get up and go downstairs.
I look at the kitchen clock and realize it’s noon for Christ sake, and I should’ve eaten something already. You know what they say about people who skip breakfast ‐‐ total under achievers. So I make a sandwich. While spreading the mayonnaise on the sourdough I remind myself that it’s not mentally healthy to work while you eat. You’re supposed to be nice to yourself and sit down at a table and actually eat your meal in peace instead of taking it to your computer and working. Also it’s better to not drop crumbs into your keyboard. So I do the right thing ‐‐ I plop down at my kitchen table. Sometimes I turn on the TV in the corner to see what’s on ESPN. (I think watching TV while you’re having a meal is okay.) If Sports Center is on, my meal lasts for a good hour. Sometimes I don’t turn on the TV though, but instead pick up the newspaper. After reading every section and finishing the jumble, I get up, clean the dishes and wander back upstairs to my computer.
By now it’s 1 or 2pm. It’s usually about this time when I notice the three notes on my desk that I made the day before: A. Pick up cleaning. B. Need paper towels, soy sauce, nail polish remover. C. Call Lisa. I look at the computer clock. It’s 8:30pm! No wait ‐‐ 8:30 minus 6 hours equals 2:30. Whew. I look at the notes and realize if I run out to the cleaners and Target right now, right this minute, I can get back before the traffic gets bad. And I can call Lisa from the car. Brilliant. I run a brush through my matted hair, swig some mouthwash, whip out the door and complete all these tasks with lightning speed. I give myself an A for efficiency because I also manage to fill up with gas, stop by the
ATM, make a grocery store run and swing through Bed Bath & Beyond because my 20% off coupon expires tomorrow. I find myself back at the keyboard by 4pm. A record!
I lean back in my chair, proud of myself, and click open the Final Draft file. My latest screenplay comes up on the screen, and the last page I worked on is conveniently displayed in front of me. I look at the last line of dialogue I typed the day before. Or was it the day before that? Can’t remember. Anyway, it’s about this time I usually feel my second hunger pang of the day. I look at the computer clock, and this time 10pm doesn’t throw me at all. I’m getting used to this GMT thing. But I can’t bear listening to my stomach growl so I get up and go downstairs.
I open the frig and stare at all my food. Since this will be a “snack” and not a “meal,” I’m allowed to take it up upstairs and munch while I work. I consider apple butter on Triscuits, but I remember I had that yesterday. So I decide on my other favorite: low calorie meringue. I invented this one myself, although I’m sure others have tried it because it’s SO obvious. I crack three eggs, discard the yolks and put the whites in a bowl. I beat until frothy, add salt and continue to beat to desired stiffness. Then I add a 50‐50 combo of sugar and Splenda. I tried it with all Splenda but it doesn’t work. Too not‐sweet. When the meringue is the perfect texture I take the bowl upstairs with a spoon. (Yes, raw. I once tried cooking the meringue ‐‐ like you would on top of a pie but just by itself in a clump. It was like eating caulk.)
I settle back into my chair in front of the computer and eat the meringue while scrolling back a few pages and reading the last work I did on my screenplay. Usually I finish the meringue at about the same time I get to the end – or rather the starting point for today. I put the spoon down and use my finger to lick the bowl clean, really concentrating by now. I’m in the zone, as they say. I put the bowl next to my keyboard and start to really dive in when I realize how sticky my fingers are. And besides, I hate having an empty bowl of anything next to my computer. It distracts me terribly. So I get up and take the bowl downstairs. I wash my hands, look up at the kitchen clock and notice it’s getting close to 5pm. My goodness, almost cocktail hour! Where did the day go?
Believe it or not, I actually go back upstairs and sit down at the computer again. But at this point things can go any direction. I guess you could say this is where the routine might start to waver a little bit. Sometimes I actually do start writing. Although sometimes I write for a short time, then look up and notice it’s 5:30pm and I realize I need to watch the national news to make sure nothing important has happened today. And after that I remind myself of the evening schedule on ESPN. Don’t want to miss Villanova/Seton Hall. (Note: If it’s late March, or Xmas bowl season, none of this applies.
After lingering on the local 6:30 news to see what the weather is going to do, I shut off the TV, pick up the “sissy” vodka tonic I made a few minutes ago and turn back toward my computer room. I am stopped in my tracks by the glow of light coming from beneath the door. I turn to the window, pull the curtain back and peer outside. And this is when the inevitable occurs. Yes, the inevitable ‐‐ the event that happens to all the farm girls in all the joints in all the towns in all the world who ever chose to be a writer: the sun goes down! And when the sun goes down you know what that means. Quittin’ time! So the computer goes
off and the rest of the night is delegated to rewarding myself for the hard day I’ve put in.
Lucky for me I have a lot in my life to help with the reward process: Good friends who will join me at the sushi bar. My sports package on Dish. A mountain of New Yorkers and fashion magazines mixed together like a shuffled deck of cards on my coffee table. That and a good bottle of red, and there’s no way I won’t end this day on a high note. I finish off the night with a healthy dose of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, then the clothes come off and go on the chair, and it’s light out. And I drift off to sleep with the comfort of knowing that the rooster will crow early tomorrow morning and I will wake up and thrive again as a writer. Because who is my best friend forever? My dead solid perfect routine! Every writer should be so fortunate.
How will you use Anne’s advice? Share your writing routine with us online using #AFFatHome
Anne Rapp, the queen of ensemble storytelling, gave us some incredible characters in her Robert Albert directed film Cookie’s Fortune – now streaming on Netflix.
Need a bit more insight on crafting the perfect character? Check out a few of our favorite “Trick of the Trade” for inspiration.