Screenwriter Gill Dennis on creating compelling characters

Screenwriter Gill Dennis on creating compelling characters

By Jessica Holland 30/05/13

The writer behind Johnny Cash biopic Walk The Line recently ran an eye-opening, funny, inspiring IdeasTap Spa event about creating three-dimensional characters. Jessica Holland rounds up some of the highlights…

Most writers are writing movies that they’ve seen. You ask what’s happened in their own lives and they say, “nothing”. [I used to tell my writing students], "Tell us the saddest thing that’s ever happened to you. Then tell us the most terrifying thing that had ever happened. Then the most shameful thing you ever did; the angriest you’ve ever got." 

There’s one final category: stories people tell you to save your life. There are moments that you’re desperate and a friend tells you something that’s happened to them and you don’t feel alone. You appropriate those stories; they become yours. 

It’s the emotional depth behind a story that makes it compelling. Then I’d say [to my students]: "Write down every word you said, every incomplete sentence", and the emotion was there on the page. Each story had a style. It’s the failure of your perceptions that gives you style. You try to tell the truth but you can’t be accurate. 

You’re going to the moments when life is baffling to you, when life is out of control; it’s bewildering. That’s why we go to the theatre, for these moments, and that’s where we connect with other people. 

Shame: that’s the key to making a character sympathetic. Sadness and terror are the backstory to shame. Shame and terror are the backstory to joy and pride. “Give me a second chance” – that’s the Johnny Cash movie. 

There’s no such thing as a "real" character. [In the movie], this isn’t Johnny Cash; this isn’t June Carter. All stories are biopics, but what’s on the page isn’t what really happened. We don’t remember things. 

Collect good lines; keep a notebook with things you hear. Write down the lines of people who bore you. It took me a long time to listen to bores. 

When you write dialogue, it’s about what’s unspoken. That’s the key thing. 

I hate all the stuff that tells you to write in three acts; it’s such a racket. Everyone writes a different way. 

Do another draft before you show it. You get to show it one time. 

Write the one on the back burner – the one you’re going to get around to eventually. Imagine it’s the last thing you’re ever going to write. Write what’s important; don’t fool around. Make it worth their money.

 

In Focus: Drawing from your own life 

[To come up with the story for Walk The Line] I asked, "What are the saddest things that have ever happened to you, the most terrifying, the most shameful, the times you said 'I love you', the angriest you ever got, the most joyous moments?" I wrote one word associated with each story. 

Then I went through them subjectively, thinking, “What’s a good story?” until there were only three left, and asked, “What are the narrative elements they have in common?” 

You find out what you know about yourself, and it makes you more interested in other people. There are patterns about your emotional history that are unique to each individual person; they’re like fingerprints.

 

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