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How Living a Day in the Life of Your Characters Can Help Your Story

By Marilyn Horowitz

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My personal preoccupation when developing a new story is to find an experiential understanding of my characters. I am not so interested in the circumstances of their birth as I am in how they do the ordinary tasks that everyday life requires. The study of the performance of any action by your character can reveal more about his or her nature than any detailed background study because it’s active, not conceptual.

This is not to say that I don’t support the exploration of the circumstances of a character’s birth, culture, nationality, religion and class. These are critical details, but ultimately writing is about action, and that is where I look for the big clues.

Each character in a story possesses the same components as a “real” person: traumatic experiences, unresolved personal conflicts, and, most importantly, a mystery that keeps the reader or viewer glued to the story.  Why does anyone commit a murder? Why does someone betray a friend? Why do some people prefer vanilla ice cream to chocolate?  (I still don’t have the answer to that one.) These types of behavioral questions can lead us into the experiential heart of a character easily and with great accuracy.

In a recent film, I’ll See You in My Dreams, the character of Bill, played by Sam Elliot, is an elderly millionaire looking for love. He is never seen without a six-inch cigar sticking from the corner of his mouth. Carol, the love interest, played by Blythe Danner, at one point asks him, “Are you ever going to light that thing?” Bill shakes his head, saying words to the effect that cigars are bad for his health and he’s not allowed to smoke them anymore. The use of the cigar here as a symbol of youthful virility is not subtle, but it reveals Bill’s way of dealing with age and dying.

The film contains similarly telling moments about Carol. Early in the story, she must put her beloved dog to sleep, but she doesn't weep. Her lack of tears is a way for us to experientially understand that she has not grieved for other traumatic events in her life, such as the death of her husband and her professional failure as a musician. This presents us with the film’s deepest mystery: why is this beautiful, youthful woman so resistant to finding a new relationship so many years after her husband’s death? Why does she choose instead to live a closed, introverted existence with only her dog as a companion?  When Carol meets Bill, who by his own reckoning has lived a full, rich life, she is finally freed to mourn her past and explore a new, more fulfilling future. 

It's the keenly observed details of Carol’s behavior that allow us to understand her character long before she speaks a single line of dialogue. We first see her as she wakes up to her alarm, the dog asleep at her feet. The ritual of feeding and walking him fill up her morning, and then we see Carol eating a solitary lunch. The afternoon is consumed by a card game with friends, and then on to an evening dulled by white wine and TV. Her home is comfortable but not lavish. She is well kept, pretty, dresses nicely, and drives a relatively new car. There is a message on her old-fashioned answering machine from her daughter, who is planning to visit.

By the end of the film’s first 10 minutes, we know all we need to in order to root for this character and understand how she feels. The details are apparent without being underlined.

The character of Bill is revealed in broader strokes. He is shown driving an expensive car, cigar planted between his lips. He reveals in dialogue that he is alone, with no one to care for him, and has decided to live large. After he meets Carol, he takes her to expensive dinners and shows her his yacht. And after their first romantic tryst, he proposes marriage in such a way that suggests that he knows there is no time to waste. He’s a man who has made peace with his life. Bill and Carol are opposites, but both are seeking love.

I’ll See You in My Dreams is a fine, understated movie, and I highly recommend it. Here is a writing exercise that will help you learn more about a new or existing character in your story.

A Day in the Life of Your Main Characters

Step 1.  Set a timer for 15 minutes.

Step 2.  Writing as if you are your main character, describe an average day in your life, and be sure to mention how “you” feel. For example, if your character is like Carol, you might begin, “Ever since my husband was killed, my days are much the same. I awaken in sunny California with my beloved dog at my feet. While he’s not a substitute for my ex, it’s nice to wake up feeling that I am loved unconditionally … ” Try to get through your character’s entire day.

Step 3.  Reset your timer for 15 minutes.

Step 4.  Repeat the exercise for your next character. For example, if your character is like Bill, you might begin, “The first time I saw Carol in the supermarket, I knew that if I could win her love, it would be the jewel in the crown of my life. So I got busy. The next morning, instead of my usual coffee and Metamucil, I picked up the phone and called her … ”

Step 5.  Reset your timer for 15 minutes.

Step 6.  Repeat the exercise for whichever character you have defined as the obstacle or villain.

Completing this exercise will not only give you new insights into your characters but also likely suggest new scenes and plot ideas. 

To recap: Behavior reveals character, and by observing the small actions of our characters, we can better understand and write about the events of our stories.

Here’s to Your Successful Writing!

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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