Writing Great Characters for the Screen, Novels and Stage Plays – Part One

So what comes first – the development of fascinating and compelling characters? Or creating the world (or the story) in which the characters participate? It can work both ways, but you have a big advantage if you start with some unique and complex characters to begin with.

So, let’s jump in and look at a great movie that has some really juicy characters – “Silver Linings Playbook.” The screenplay was adapted by David O’Russel from a novel written by Matthew Quick. And, it’s the first time in 32 years that the lead actors got nominated for the Oscar in all four acting categories: Bradley Cooper for best actor, Jennifer Lawrence for best actress, Robert DeNiro and Jacki Weaver for best supporting actor and actress. I strongly believe it’s because of the “characters” they got to embody and LIVE in, as well as interact with each other. Yes, all brilliant performances but it was delivered by a writer and director who created such complex, highly provocative, multi-layered, unpredictable, RAW, compelling and flawed, but oh-so-human characters to begin with.

There is NO story without these characters to propel it! If your characters are well defined enough they will help you inform and shape your story. They will start telling you how they want to behave, how they want to EXPRESS themselves and how they want to deal with challenges in the way of achieving what they want. Because every good character has a big “want”, something they want to accomplish, then they have to deal with all the obstacles and challenges in the way of them achieving that. So let’s take a look at these characters for a moment to see where all this “magic” stemmed from.

Let’s see, how complex can we make Bradley Cooper’s character Pat… hmm?? Let’s not just make him complicated – let’s make him bi-polar as well as obsessive compulsive! He has had to deal with emotional ups and downs his entire life, with WHITE KNUCKLE control of his anger, until he finds his wife in the shower with another man. BOOM, all his pent up rage explodes in psychotic fury and he almost kills his wife’s lover. That one outburst of fury destroys every aspect of his life; he loses his teaching job, he loses his home and he loses his wife. And that is all established at the beginning of the movie as he is getting discharged from a psychiatric ward!

So, naturally, he becomes obsessed with getting his emotions under control, getting healthy physically and emotionally, to focus on the “positive” and find the silver linings, so that he can get his life in order, so that he can get his wife NIKKI back. That becomes his driving force – his big “want”– Nikki, Nikki, Nikki. All that while dealing with the fact that he is bi-polar and not taking his meds. That character is just RIPE for one interesting challenge after another.

Since he is down and out, where else can he go to start his life all over? Into his parents house! So to add as much discomfort and conflict as possible, let’s make sure the father (Robert DeNiro’s character) has his own unique quirks and obsessions that keep him from being emotionally available to his complex son growing up. He’s obsessed with the Philadelphia Eagles and is a compulsive bookmaker who is no longer allowed in the stadium because he got banned after engaging in too many rage-filled fights at the football games. Like father, like son. Great set up. It’s also quite profound to see the walls between them gradually collapse as they bond in other ways, besides watching Eagles games together.

While Pat is obsessed with getting Nikki back – Life is making other plans… In walks Jennifer Lawrence’s character Tiffany, who has also dealt with emotional issues her entire life, along with the medications that go with them. She has no censor, says exactly what’s on her mind at ALL times, has even more rage and unpredictable behavior than Pat does, which of course scares him as much as it intrigues him. He is equally drawn and repelled at the same time, which always makes for a great love story, doesn’t it? If it was too easy, it wouldn’t be as fascinating to watch would it?

Many of the best writers draw from their own guts and real life. They not only know how to express their deepest feelings and desires, but they also know how to shine the light on their darkest thoughts and fears, as well as their own inadequacies and very human FLAWS. And Matthew Quick, who wrote “Silver Linings Playbook”, is no exception.

I am going to share a little excerpt from an interview with Mathew:

AND I QUOTE: “I always say that artists live on the fringe. I was a very good high school English teacher and I was a very good counselor of teenagers. But inside I was extremely depressed, partly because I wasn’t doing the one thing I wanted to do, which was to write. The other part was that there were a lot of weird quirky things going on inside of me that I didn’t let show. But when I started to write, I started to explore my psyche and all the things that make me Matthew Quick. And part of that was the fact that I do deal with depression. I do have anxiety issues. I can get overwhelmed with emotions. I had always been embarrassed by those traits but it’s also what fueled my writing. And the more that I came to understand that, most of my heroes who are novelists like Hemingway or Kurt Vonnegut, these are people who know the wild ups and downs. These are quirky people. These are people who are not mainstream. That was a revelation to me.”

He also lived for a spell with his parents and his father was obsessed with the Philadelphia Eagles, and in “Silver Linings Playbook” he used all that as the foundation of his story and then added all these extra elements to the characters and the story line in a fictitious way to make the characters even more complex and compelling and ripe for conflict. In my writing workshops, we are unearthing the most fantastic, RAW and deeply human and sometimes dark stuff that comes from a writer’s soul. We are mining for personal Gold and I encourage you to do the same thing.

You need to answer some important questions when creating a character:

  1. Who are they? What is their back-story? Meaning, what is their history that has helped define their personality and shaped the world they live in?
  2. What quirks or inadequacies do they have that make them flawed and very human?
  3. What talents, expertise or confidence do they have that gives them courage to overcome obstacles?
  4. What is their relationship with the other characters and the challenges that they have to deal with in order to have a healthy or loving relationship with them?
  5. What is their big “want” or desire they have to achieve in the course of the story?
  6. What are the main obstacles in the way of achieving it? This is where you want your IMAGINATION TO FLY.
  7. What are some unique and UN-predictable ways in which they can accomplish their goal based on the attitudes, beliefs and behavior of that character??

This time we are focused on drama, next time in Part two of “Writing great characters” we’ll focus on comedy. But comedy needs complex characters and their conflicts as well.

If you haven’t yet, I also encourage you to watch my first two MTT videos about “How to Tap Into your own Personal Creative Genius” and “How to Cultivate Great Story Ideas”. They will also help you create great Characters for whatever you’re writing.

If you want to know more about my Writing Mastermind groups or private coaching, the info is down below… So until next time, wishing you all the best and have a beautiful day.

Minda Burr
www.mbwritingworkshop.com
310-923-2726

Commercial Audition Callbacks, Part 2

There are dozens of audition technique tips I have given in previous articles and can be found on my partner page on Master TalentTeachers.com that would be really beneficial but right now the most valuable information I can offer to help you to do your best callbacks is offer some insights on Commercial Callback Anxiety.

Commercial auditions can be challenging for actors but callbacks are a cause of anxiety for most. The pressure is on because the decisions-makers are in the room, you know that everything little thing you do is being carefully judged, changes of direction are sometimes made at the last minute giving actors very little time to be secure with the adjustments, the money that you can make if you booked the commercial is often needed, and because it is a callback, the pressure you put on yourself to do well can be problematic.

Every audition especially callbacks are a precious opportunity to work, make money, create contacts and fans and move a career forward. When actors fixate on these expectations before auditioning, it normally creates anxiety and pressure. Don’t focus on disempowering thoughts and questions, such as:

Did I wear the right outfit? Maybe I should have done something different with my hair. Did I work on the material enough? I hope they don’t notice that my skin is broken out. How many people will I be auditioning for? Who are they? Will they direct me before I read? What will they ask me? What should I ask them? Will they think I am physically right for the role? I wonder if the reader is going to be any good? I haven’t seen this CD for a few months – maybe she doesn’t like my work. How will I do? Will they re-direct my reading? Am I right for the role? What will they think about my audition?

Many of these thoughts flash quickly through almost every actor’s mind and especially those who are new. These are the same types of concerns that people usually have interviewing for any job. At callbacks, because the stakes are raised, the concerns get more intense for most. Actors who are unfazed at the initial audition often have callback anxiety. Now, the thoughts are

They must like me; now the pressure is really on. It’s only betweena few others and me; I have to be great. Will my agent (or manager) dump me if I don’t book this job? What did I do that made them call me back? I really need the money. My competition must be good. I hope I don’t “blow it” now. And so on.

This “brain-noise” is normal. How you deal with your questions, concerns and expectations will determine how much power those thoughts have. You must learn how to alleviate, use or quiet them, or they will take their toll on your work. I know great actors who can’t get out of their heads at interviews (and refuse to do anything about it), and their work suffers. I also know less talented ones who shine because they have very little “noise” and are excited to be auditioning.
What you think influences how you feel, and how you feel impacts your audition. With time and experience, actors usually figure out how to alleviate the self-imposed stress. In the meantime, work on your audition anxieties whether it is with self-help books, hypnosis, audition classes, coaching, therapy, talking with friends or teachers and/or developing a sense of humor about your disempowering thoughts – the sooner the better.

SUGGESTION: What you think produces feelings. The feelings are real but the thoughts you created are not real. So be careful what you are saying to yourself.

For additional insights and tips, check out my book Hit The Ground Running @ www.hitthegroundrunningbook.com and for more information on Commercial Acting Classes: http://carolynebarry.com/workshops/commercial/

Blue8 Intro to Basic Stunt Work

Intro to Basic Stunt Work

Stunt performance is the ultimate form of physical acting. It is the moment when you commit, mind, body, soul into a physical state and share the same fears, exhilarations, triumphs and defeats as your character. In this place the lines of reality blur and for a blink you exist in complete portrayal of the role you have submersed into. Safety is step 1 toward this experience and involves years of extensive training to attain a foundation by which you can build on and progress toward higher level action scenes.

In this video our head stunt coordinator Kyle Weishaar breaks down the basics of action for film and introduces some traditional concepts that will help you gain a firm understanding of the fundamentals.

Today’s video will cover:

  1. The Golden Thread
  2. Action and Reactions
  3. Safety Tips

This course of instruction introduces you to beginner level techniques and general knowledge that we would like you to internalize and apply to the vast library of discipline specific tutorials offered by the Blue crew’s Action MTT’s covering parkour, kung fu, tactical work and much more!

To us action and stunts equals cinematic poetry. It is artistry and science combined that demands attention from both sides of your brain to pull it off. We know that these valuable teachings will augment your career as well as your life and are proud to share this knowledge with you. Check out our blog for more Blue8’s tips tricks and suggestions on how to approach stunt work and action acting.

Broadening Your Casting Range with Original Scene Production

Create Your Reel – Broadening Your Casting with Original Scene Production

In this video by Create Your Reel, Retta Pugliano discusses how actors can broaden their casting range with original scene production.

Create Your Reel: Using a Demo Reel to Show Off Your Range

In this video by Create Your Reel, Retta Putignano talks about the importance of having a demo reel that shows off an actors range.

Read more

walking into the Audition Room

Walking Into The Audition Room

The audition begins for the viewers when the actor walks into the audition room. That first impression of the actor can determine whether the viewers want to take 3 minutes to read the actor – or not. They want to see a confident actor who is focused, prepared, and ready for the audition. They want an actor to take control of the room and make eye contact as they say “Hello”. They want the actor to solve their problem of needing to cast this part and, believe it or not, they are rooting for the actor. But, if the actor walks into the room looking down, mumbling, and looking like a deer in the headlights, the viewers will assume this is either an actor who is very nervous, unprepared or inexperienced. They have tuned you out and don’t want to bother reading you even before you say your first line.

The audition begins for the actor when they are in the lobby; BEFORE they walk into the audition room. Walking through the door should be “part of the act”….acting the part of a confident actor… even if they don’t feel confident. If the actor does not feel confident, they should fake confidence: “Fake It Till You Make It”. As you walk from the waiting room into the audition room, treat it as if you are going from the wings of a theater onto the stage. Get into your zone, bubble, mental focus…whatever you call it…and begin your audition as you walk through the audition door, a confident actor taking control of the room.

Behavior influences thought. If an actor feels nervous or unprepared before walking into the audition room, they should try imitating a confident walk or assume a confident stance. The “feeling” of confidence in the body fakes the mind into “feeling” confident. So when the actor is waiting in the lobby, before their name is called, their mental focus should be that of an athlete…focused and ready to walk into the room.

As the actor walks into the audition room, they should make eye contact and say “Hello”, entering the room in a hybrid state…NOT in character…but focused and ready to go. If an actor chooses to walk into the room “in character”, it can backfire in a big way. The part the actor is auditioning for could be described as a jerk, a drug addict or arrogant. If you say “Hello” as the character would say “Hello”…not as yourself…it is possible the viewers will think you are really a jerk, a drug addict or arrogant. I have seen this happen during my years as a Casting Director, and the actor needs to remember that just the act of saying “Hello”, may be the only moment that shows they are an OK human being who will show up on time if cast, be civil to their fellow actors, and will learn their lines.

The actor should take control of the room and make it their space for 3 minutes. A chair is usually provided for the actor to use if they would like, and moving the chair to where the actor would like it to be, is a great way to take control of the room. Right off the bat the viewers can see the actor has made choices and is prepared. Five seconds should be taken before the audition begins so the actor can make the transition from walking into the room… into the scene itself. The viewers also need this transition time before they watch the scene, so if chit-chat happens, taking five seconds helps everyone have a moment to adjust. There are four tools the actor should use during these five seconds to help with this transition…

(1) Sense Of Place: Where does the scene take place

(2) Relationship: Who is the character talking to in the scene, and how does the character feel about that person

(3) Intention: What does the character want at the top of the scene

(4) Pre-Beat: What happens the moment before the scene starts

Once the scene gets going, the actor should LISTEN to the reader! This is the best tool an actor can use in an audition. “Listening” grounds the actor in the scene instead of anticipating what their next line will be. If an actor is not “listening”, the viewers can see it…they will know that the actor is not “present” in the scene. The last tool in the actor’s audition arsenal, is RESPOND IN THE LISTENING. Most Television and Film auditions are put on tape, and the viewers of the audition tape only see a close up of the actor…they don’t see the reader. It is very important that an actor genuinely “listen” and “respond in the listening”, so when the viewer watches the tape, they can see the thoughts going through the actors head …they see an actor who is present and in the moment of the scene.

Walking into the room is a skill that can be mastered with a confident mind set and the use of simple audition tools. The actor should walk into the audition room as an athlete would walk onto the field, dive into the pool, or step onto the mound. Having the mental focus of an athlete will help the actor conquer the first step in the audition process…walking into the audition room.

You Got the Audition, Now What?

So You Get the Audition… Then What?

I wanted to cover the topic, “What Does An Actor Do Once They Get An Audition?” From the point of view of a Casting Director, I see your picture and resume and decide to call you in for an audition. I know that each actor has their own process about how they prepare for an audition, but I’m not in the actor’s shoes.

So, I thought the best way to cover this topic was to go directly to some of the actors in my Audition Workshops and see what their tips are…

JD FERRANTINO: I get the sides and read it and read it and decide who the character is…searching for clues and hints and the gems the writer has given me. I decide what the moment is before the scene starts, where the scene takes place, who I am talking to…what my relationship is to this person…and what my intention is.

Often you don’t get a full script, only a breakdown is given describing the character. The breakdown is often very vague, so I need to mine the scene for clues.

NOSHIR DALAL: I often don’t quite get the tone of the scene or script, and one thing I’ve really been doing lately, is to look on IMDB (International Movie Data Base) to see who the writer of the script is. I see other things the writer has written, which helps me get a feel and tone for this script. I also look to see who the Producers of the show are as well, which can also give clues as to what the tone is.

SHARON MUTHU: I read the sides first, and if there is a script, I read that later to see where my character fits. When I first look at the sides I get a “gut” reaction about what’s happening and who the character is. So, when I then read the full script I will compare and contrast to see if my overall intention is right.

I’m one of those actors who tends to be over analytical…and then I could end up sabotaging myself.

JOSH LATZER: Most times when I get an audition, I’ll leave it alone unless it is the next day. I don’t like to over think it. But, I do prepare. Part of my preparation is that I read both parts out loud. I always work by myself, and it helps to hear the other characters lines out loud so you aren’t hearing them for the first time when in the audition room.

I try to trust my instincts.

BETHANY MANGUM: If I read the breakdown and it is nothing like me…like an Asian character and I am a Caucasian…I think, hmmmm…why did they call me in? Then I think…Why not me? The Casting Director called me in for the part, so maybe I can change their minds about it.

I read the sides, but do my best not to read the character description. Because I’ve done a lot of Theatre, I like to base my choices on text only. What is the writer giving you? Then I’ll read the breakdown, and if the description matches my choices then great….and if not…? I like to go with my “gut”, because that can change their minds. Have them re-write it for me!

BEN STILLWELL: First, I figure out how much time I have with it, and may give it a little less thought then if I had the audition the next day. If given a script and sides, I will read the script first and see how my character fits. Then I read the sides.

I figure out what Network it is for. I have messed up on that before. I have treated it like it was a FOX audition when it was a DISNEY audition and it was totally the wrong move.

MICHAEL GREBE: You should always prepare everything as if you were right for it. You can’t tell yourself you are not right, ever, because…who knows? I could go in and they say “Alright…I like that…the dimples and blue eyes!”

KAITLYN REED: I like to start really small. I work on bringing me as much as possible to the character. I tend to match breakdowns pretty spot on…so I might look at it and say, “This is so much like me, maybe there is something I’m missing.” I try to trust that it IS me, and that it’s fine.
Where in here can I make things me.

I will read the script later…I always go to great lengths to find it if I don’t have it…but, I like to start small and go through each moment.

For me, the relationship is the big thing, that and the moment before. When I get into the room…if things start to go out the window…even if I don’t know where I am, if I know where I am coming from and who I am talking to, I pretty much can’t go wrong.

HOLLY POWELL: Every actor has their own process on how to prepare for an audition. But, take this advise from a former Casting Director…PREPARE, DON’T WING IT. I once had an actress in one of my Audition Workshops who told me that she never worked on an audition, because she liked to keep it spontaneous and fresh. And I said to her… “How’s that been working out for you?”