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How To Create Living, Breathing Characters and a Basic Plot in 30 Minutes

By Marilyn Horowitz

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Now that my thriller, The Book Of Zev, is being published in December I am beginning a new book. Although I teach screenwriting and work with screenwriters as a writing coach, I have always worked with novelists as well. My writing system teaches a way of creating a structure that is helpful no matter what form of storytelling you are working in.

The system is based in part on the idea that a character’s expectations of what life can offer them in Act I must be expanded so that they can become the hero, heroine or villain they need to be by the end of the story. So you, the writer must first create a character that has limited expectations and then you must create a plot that forces him or her to grow into the person they need to be. How can you determine the necessary experiences and combine them into a plot?

The answer is simple, but not easy, so we use real life as a guide: As in life characters do what they do and we can generally predict the outcomes of their behavior. We all know someone who is constantly getting involved with the wrong person, or someone whose business ventures always fail. By understanding the character’s tendencies when we create them, we will (mostly through common sense) know what challenges will force them to overcome their limitations.

For example, the friend who chronically picks the wrong person will need to be treated in such a way that forces them to wake up and change so they meet a better person; or the businessperson who must make a business work because a family member desperately needs an operation. Working this way is both effective and affecting, as you get right to the heart of the matter.

Creating an imaginary character that you “know” as well as you know a close friend, romantic partner or family member will not only cut down on your rewriting time, it will help you to connect with your intended audience in a way that is authentic, and hence, irresistible.

The most important benefit is that you can infer the arc of the story by understanding your character.

I am going to share a helpful exercise that I use with my private students to create realistic characters that will help you find the plot.

Step 1.  Set a timer for 15 minutes.

Step 2.  Write a description of someone that you care about.  Describe their appearance, way of speaking, family history, work, and their issues.  Finally write what you think is their future based on what you know about them.

For example: My friend Ellie comes from South Carolina. She is a tall, shapely brunette who favors cowboy boots, tight V-neck sweaters and jeans. She is a descendant of the man who perfected the billiard cue. She is divorced and has two grown kids. When we met at a professional conference we were in a terrible workshop and enjoyed poking fun. She has a southern accent and remarked when we first met, “Why you aren’t any bigger than a minute.” She is desperately looking for a new mate, and has been dating extensively but they are always “losers,” as is her ex. I asked her what she would do if she met a “winner,” and she replied bitterly, “No such thing.” I sure hope she meets a winner who can penetrate that wall of bitterness and get her to find the love she is seeking.

So you see how her real life sounds like a good premise for a romantic comedy: a bitter but hot, divorced empty nester who is down on men meets Mr. Right but can’t see it. By the end of the movie, she comes to her senses, and after finally driving him away for good at the end of Act II, realizes in Act III, that she must try to win him back.  (See the film, The Truth About Cats and Dogs for a good example of this storyline as a movie.)

Step 3.  Reset the timer for 15 minutes.

Step 4.  Now repeat the exercise but this time, describe your main character.  Go into as much detail as you can before the timer goes off, and stop when it does. Don’t forget to explain where his or her issues suggest the outcome. For example, in my new story, the main character, Sophie, is a food writer who believes she will always be disappointed in love. The story revolves around the events that make her have to change herself so that she can be happy in love.

Step 5.  Reset the timer for 15 minutes

Step 6.  Spend 5 minutes and complete the exercise for your villain/obstacle, love interest and friend/sidekick.

To recap: by using a technique of describing real people and their flaws, we can create imaginary characters, and by identifying flaws such as bitterness, we can project the probable outcomes and select a plot that will force them to grow and become the hero of heroine of their own story.

Here’s to your successful 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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