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Interviewing Your Characters: Using A Real Life Experience to Get More Creative

By Marilyn Horowitz

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It's a hot humid summer in New York City where I am based, and it's not the most exciting or creative time of the year. What should screenwriters do when they're feeling a little depleted, whether it's from the heat or overwork?

My suggestion is to get away from your computer and to go live a little. There is nothing like a change of scenery to get your brain simmering. Often the real life experiences you have by talking to someone you've never met before, seeing two lovers kiss or overhearing an amazing conversation may be just what you need to give you the spark for your next scene or an insight into a character you can't seem to connect with.

For example, I was feeling creatively flat so I forced myself to go out for a walk. I entered a little park on West 72nd Street and Broadway and saw a bearded, ragged homeless man sitting on the sidewalk making a meal of half-eaten things he had retrieved from the trash. I handed him a few dollar bills. "Thank you," he said, and took the money. He examined the bills and then handed them back to me with a smile, saying "I don't use them, but thank you."

Of course I immediately wanted to talk to him and find out how he lived on a daily basis, and to develop a story about someone in our society who manages to survive without using cash. More importantly, the exchange made me think about what money means to me? I raced home and turned on the computer to write because this self-query brought me back to a time-honored technique I developed years ago that always works called, "Interviewing Your Main Character." Funny, how I forgot to remember to use my own technique! Here is an exercise in how to use it yourself:

How To Do The Exercise:
  1. Find a question that came up as a result of a recent foray into the real world. In the example above, the question I thought of after my encounter with the homeless man as: what are my beliefs about money? Now, ask yourself what you learned from your experience. For example, I learned that I think money is very important, though I often pretend it isn't.
  2. Cast yourself as an anonymous interviewer.
  3. Formulate four questions that were stimulated by your real life experience.
  4. Interview your main characters. Type the questions as the anonymous interviewer and then answer as if you were the character in your own script.
For example, the questions I, as the interviewer, asked were:
  1. How do you feel about money?
  2. What you would do if you were stuck somewhere without money?
  3. What you would be willing to do for money?
  4. What would you not be willing to do for money?
I then pretended to be the main character, the villain and the love interest and answered the questions. A bonus tip: before you write, sit as the character you are writing as sits. You will get their "voice" easily and write something you can use.

As a result of my doing the exercise, I made a real connection with my characters, and wrote a new scene! Try it and see how it works for you.

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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