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A Simple Way To Develop Rich Characters

By Marilyn Horowitz

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I am about to release my first novel, a thriller, The Book of Zev, and I am constantly being asked whether or not my story is autobiographical. My answer is that all writing is autobiographical in the sense that everything we create, no matter how imaginary, must be experienced through the filter of our own experience. I realize that the answer is paradoxical: while writing is often not intentionally autobiographical, to a certain extent, it must be.

If we take this reality one step further, we can use this filter to create much deeper characters quickly and efficiently by accepting that we are not our imaginary characters, but that we share a vocabulary of experience with them.

This shared experience offers us a rich gift; the opportunity to know what we would do in any situation, real or imaginary and being able to compare that behavior with the behavior of our characters.

Remember, we always know what we don't want, but what exactly we do want often eludes us.

For example, one of my favorite scenes in a movie is the one in The Wizard Of Oz where Dorothy has run away with Toto, and meets Professor Marvel, the carnival fortuneteller during her flight. He reads her fortune by “consulting” a crystal ball. He warns her that if she runs away with Toto, Auntie Em may get sick and die. Dorothy is horrified and agrees to return home. I always felt disappointed at this point in the movie, and hoped against hope that Dorothy would make the decision to save Toto instead.

Further, in the scene, we, the audience are shown that Professor Marvel has taken a photo of Auntie Em and placed it in a secret chamber beneath the crystal ball so that her image appears in the ball but makes her look weak and sickly.

I always wondered if Dorothy had known that she was being lied to would she have changed her decision? Then I posed the question to myself as well; if I had been Dorothy, believing me was telling her the truth, would I have relegated Toto to death to save Auntie Em? And what if I had known Professor Marvel was lying?

Here’s another example of how this technique works: I asked my wonderful assistant, Jafe, what he would do if he found himself in a James Bond movie, and was confronted by a villain such as Goldfinger?

Jafe is a witty guy, and I thought he might answer that he would engage in the type of elegant banter that the Sean Connery version of James Bond does. Instead, his reply both surprised me, and at the same time somehow made sense. He said, “ I would just run like hell.” What would you do? And what would your character do if confronted by an arch villain?

I use the simple exercise below with my students and in my own work. When you try it, you will be surprised at how clear you can be, not just about your characters, but also about your plot and structure.

Here’s the “What Would You Do?” exercise:

Step 1.  Set a timer for fifteen minutes.

Step 2.  Write a brief explanation of a favorite scene in a movie, using my description of the scene from The Wizard of Oz as an example.

Step 3.  Now rewrite the scene in the first person pretending to be the character in the movie you have selected. For example: “I, Dorothy ran away to save Toto…and decided I had to return home to save Auntie Em.”

Step 4.  Reset the timer.

Step 5.  Rewrite the scene as if you were the main character.

Step 6.  Rewrite again, but this time, write as if you were the character in your current story.

To recap: by understanding the unavoidable connection between the writer and the character, we can understand our characters more deeply. We can also learn how they are NOT like us by comparing ourselves directly with them.

About Marilyn Horowitz

Marilyn Horowitz is an award-winning New York University professor, author, producer, and Manhattan-based writing consultant, who works with successful novelists, produced screenwriters, and award-winning filmmakers. She has a passion for helping novices get started. Since 1998 she has taught thousands of aspiring screenwriters to complete a feature length screenplay using her method. She is also a judge for the Fulbright Scholarship Program for film and media students. In 2004 she received the coveted New York University Award for Teaching Excellence.

Professor Horowitz has created a revolutionary system that yields a new, more effective way of writing. She is the author of six books that help the writer learn her trademarked writing system, including editions for college, high school, and middle school. The college version is a required text at New York University and the University of California, Long Beach.

Professor Horowitz has written several feature-length screenplays. Her production credits include the feature films And Then Came Love (2007). Her new novel, The Book of Zev is available on Amazon.

Screenwriting Article by Marilyn Horowitz

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