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How To Create A Better Character By Knowing What Defines Them

By Marilyn Horowitz

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When I go on vacation, I love to watch favorite movies that I haven’t seen for a while. When the 1997 film, As Good As It Gets, came on, I gleefully settled down to watch it. In the film, a successful but disturbed writer, Melvin Udell, his neighbor Simon Bishop, a gay painter who is brutally beaten in a robbery, and Carol Connolly, the waitress who serves Melvin at his favorite restaurant are forced together on a road trip to Baltimore. In the course of the film, Melvin, who has OCD and is generally a hateful person becomes a generous man who helps Carol’s son regain his health, drives Simon to Baltimore so he can reconcile with his parents, and falls in love with and wins Carol.

At the beginning of the film, Melvin defines himself by his belief in his gift as a writer, where he is able to brilliantly render the inner lives of his female characters and has written 62 books. He is also a lonely curmudgeon who in the opening scene of the film throws Simon’s beloved dog down the mail chute in the hallway of his building because it’s yapping too loudly. By the end of the film, he has adopted both dog and painter.

In the beginning of the film, he is abusive to Carol and at the end, he becomes kind, and they fall in love.

In order to win her, he must give up his obsessive compulsive behaviors, one of which involves him not crossing lines on the pavement, and in the final scene he literally must cross a line to win her. He says at one point when he realizes that he is no longer writing or being nasty, “I have been evicted from my old life,” and Simon retorts, “What was so great about it?” For which Melvin has no answer.

Simon, on the other hand has lost his desire to paint, and it is only when he espies Carol preparing to bathe that his inspiration returns.  And for Carol, it is only after a terrible dinner with Melvin, and an evening posing for Simon that she rediscovers herself as a woman, and is able to find a new love with Melvin.

The insight for me here was that by changing how Melvin defined himself, he changed his life, while for Simon and Carol rediscovering who they already were is what created such a great character arc for each of them.

So the question I began asking myself was about how do my characters define themselves and do they have to change that definition or recover it?

Here’s the exercise:

Step 1: Decide if your character is going to change their method of self-definition or recover the one they originally had.

Step 2: Set a timer for 15 minutes.

Step 3: Writing as if you were your main character, write about what defines you. For example, if you were writing as Melvin, you might begin. “My father hit my hands with a ruler every time I played the wrong note on the piano. Does anyone care? Heck no, they’re all a bunch of faceless morons. I’m the only one who knows anything. Especially my neighbor, that fag painter. And his yapping little fag dog. I’d like to step on that dog and squash it like a bug. Do I hate everyone? No, there’s this one woman, Carol, she waits on me at the place I eat breakfast.  She is kind to me and I think she’s great. I would give anything to win her.”

Step 4:  Write a brief imaginary scene where the change or recovery happens. For example, you might write the scene where Melvin reveals he is now taking a pill to control his OCD. If you were writing about Simon, you might write the scene where he begins to draw Carol and recovers his art.

By understanding how your characters define themselves and whether they must change their self-definition or recover it, you will improve whatever project you are  currently working on.

Good luck and happy 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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