Writing any screenplay involves creating a new world and populating it with a compelling hero and/or heroine and supporting characters, so whenever I travel, I talk to local people and try to understand how they see their own lives. These insights later serve me when I need to create main and secondary characters for a new story. The trick is to see beneath the stereotype, to find the distinct life story each of us has, and then to infuse your characters with this uniqueness, so that they come truly alive on the page.
I recently spent a week in Jackson Hole, Wyoming on vacation. Since this is cowboy country, and one of the main characters in a new story is a transplanted cowboy, I sought new information so I could write him freshly. I talked to several cowboys in depth to understand the experience of growing up on a ranch, and what that experience was like.
At a classical concert that was part of the Teton Music Festival, I met Tanner, a jeweler. He was a tall thin man with graying hair and a drooping mustache, wearing a green turquoise bolo tie and tooled cowboy boots and belt. I asked him if he thought of himself as a cowboy. He said that he had mixed feelings, “ You can take the cowboy off the ranch, but you can’t take the ranch out of the cowboy.” Tanner grew up on a cattle ranch but had dismissed the cowboy experience completely, though he admitted to having grown up learning what he called “The usual stuff – wrangling, riding, hunting, fishing, riding.” He now lives in San Francisco, and was in town visiting his parents. When I asked if he stayed with them, he wrinkled his nose and said, “No, why would I want to go back and sleep in my old room? All I ever wanted to do was to get away. Luckily, I was the youngest of three so I could.”
I wanted to ask him why he still affected the cowboy style of dress, but didn’t. The disparity between what he said and the way he dressed, suggested his inner conflict: in my mind he became my new and unlikely character: an ambivalent cowboy. His inner conflicts were immediately accessible, showing the mythic quality and potential as the basis for a character: everyone, real or imaginary, has a conflicted relationship with their past.
Talking to him accomplished several goals:
- His real life experience confirmed for me that I was developing a new character that was true to life.
- He said things that I could use in actual dialogue, so I could begin my story literally hearing my character’s voice and tonality, something that often takes a long time to develop.
- I had enough facts about his life- his approximate age, where he was from, how he was able to “escape.”
- He was visiting his parents.
How could I use these facts to create the set up for my newest script?
First, I decided that I would make some changes so that real life facts will transform the character to fit the story I wanted to tell. I always imagine that my imagination is like those police artists who can take a suspect’s face and change them so that even if they are disguised, or have aged, they can be caught. So I renamed him “Cody”, made him younger, blonder and changed his profession. What I kept were the details that suggested conflict and suggested plot possibilities.
These details were:
- His rejection of his cowboy past contrasted with his cowboy dress style;
- His profession as being something completely different from anyone in his family;
- He was returning home to visit his parents – a classic plot set-up.
I now had a vivid main character, an artistic man returning to visit his ranching family, who did not understand their son’s choice. This was a good beginning, but I needed more to get the story moving. The mistake I try never to make is to look to events to create a plot. Rather, I seek another character with whom my hero or heroine is having a relationship, and to find out whether the inherent conflict leads me to an organic plot. I needed another character who could function as the villain or obstacle. A caveat here I often find that the character I think is the hero, becomes the villain or obstacle.
The other person who piqued my fancy was the guide on our horseback tour, so he became the other character. Scott is a 17-year old cowboy who had placed second in the Saddle Broncing competition at the local rodeo, the night before. He’s tall and thin with curly red hair, and wears the cowboy uniform of jeans, boots and hat. Scott is a cattle rancher and in spite of his youth seemed old and wise. He personified what I imagine a cowboy might really be like. He was polite, called me “Ma’am,” was dryly humorous and had an encyclopedic knowledge of cattle, horses, the rodeo and hunting. This was the last day of his summer job, which consisted of taking tourists out on horseback rides. He was leaving to manage his uncle’s cattle ranch in Arizona. I asked, “How many cows do you have?” “3300 hundred head.” “How many is that?” He looked at me incredulously. “ Each cow has one head – that’s 3300 cows.” Here was the perfect foil for my main character! I mentally cast him as a younger brother who is totally committed to the lifestyle that our hero Tanner has abandoned. The potential for conflict was obvious, but the writer’s job is to clarify the specific types of conflict that shape plot.
An idea came: The father is old and the brother is too young to take charge – and our hero “Tanner” wants to sell it. Eureka! I found the hook: A 17-year old cowboy fights to keep the family ranch when his father unexpectedly dies, and his evil (suddenly our former hero becomes the bad guy!) brother tries to sell the ranch to developers. Not a bad premise for a few minutes work.
I personally try to make up a story like this as often as I can, ideally once a day. While I may never write it, the practice is what is important. Give it a try and you’ll see that your storytelling will improve – not that it isn’t already good, but as it is said, “practice makes perfect.”
Here’s the exercise:
- Identify two people you met on your last vacation that you found interesting.
- Assign them a relationship, ideally a family one.
- Define the context, and type of conflict in their world. For example, in my new story, the context is the American West, and within that context, we can understand why two brothers might battle over the future of the family cattle ranch.
- Think about where the core conflicts within the characters lie. Do they embrace their past, or reject it? Do they want to preserve or change their current lives?
- Set a timer for 15 minutes.
- Write a scene where the two characters argue over the main issue in the story. For example, the scene I might write would involve the brothers arguing over what to do with the ranch, and I would set it right at the father’s funeral. The older brother would decide to sell, and the younger brother would swear to prevent it – over his father’s dead body.
In summary, using real people to inspire stories is both a fast technique for developing stories and is also a good way to practice your plotting and character development skills.
Try it and let me know what you come up with!