Years ago I tried to write a spec TV pilot loosely based on an early chapter in my parent’s lives. It featured an ensemble cast of quirky characters and took place in an economically depressed mill town in eastern Kentucky -- A friend of mine referred to it as the hillbilly version of “Northern Exposure.” One of my characters, (named “Roland”) was sort of the heavy in the script. A gruff, hard-headed business man, he had little patience for anything that didn’t turn a profit and his desire to build a gaudy mini-mall in the center of town thwarted the altruistic efforts of our hero (who was based on my Dad). As written, Roland seemed to take a certain glee in screwing things up for others. The script basically centered on themes of forgiveness and redemption and although I liked most of it, this Roland character bugged me. He never quite worked. While all the other characters popped off the page, this guy just barked and sneered his way through the story without engaging our hearts in any way. Finally, I gave up and asked a friend to look at the script, hoping he’d provide me with some useable feedback.
While I was waiting for my friend’s response, I started reading a collection of short stories by Ferrol Sams, a writer I very much admired. One of the stories was narrated by a chatty female character that frequently went off on very long and highly entertaining tangents. In one of her long-winded asides, she briefly mentioned an old man whom she referred to as “mean,” but then quickly added that no one in town took his behavior personally since it was generally accepted that he was “just mad because his wife had died of cancer.” It was the only reference to the “old man” in the whole story, but that one detail instantly (and perfectly) defined this guy’s worldview in my mind. He felt robbed. Fate had taken away the only person he loved and now he was left alone. I began to think about Roland.
I didn’t want to steal anything from the estimable Mr. Sams, but I began to wonder if I could give my character some distinct reason for his ill-tempered behavior. I sat down and retooled my script; creating the character of Roland’s wife; who after 33 years of marriage had finally had enough of his hardball tactics and had left him and moved in with her sister. Now, Roland, who felt he’d done nothing but work hard all his life to provide for his family, had a reason to be angry at the world. He was being punished for doing what he believed to be right. And worse yet, his personal problems were now on display for the whole town to see. This change humanized him and gave him a journey in the script other than being just a stock antagonist – surly and obstructive for no reason. By the end of the story, Roland was humbly showing up on his sister-in-law’s porch with flowers for his estranged wife and in the final scene of the script, they are briefly seen out together on what appears to be a very awkward “date.”
So, here is the point of this tale: I never would have thought of that change on my own. Had I not read Ferrol Sams short story, I’m sure Roland would have just laid there on the page without making much of an impact. All I did was notice how Mr. Sams had artfully explained a character’s temperament and then tried to incorporate that tactic into my own work. It made a huge difference in my script and taught me an important lesson.
Many times, those of us who are trying to do something creative, tend to think we are the only ones who have ever traveled this road. It pays to remember that people have been writing stories and creating characters for thousands of years. Whatever kind of tale you are telling (a drama, a comedy, a romance), I can promise you someone in the history of time has attempted it before you with varying degrees of success. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t endorse plagiarism, but reading (and analyzing) the work of other writers is an invaluable part of developing your own voice.
I’ve been teaching an acting class lately and I recently advised my students to choose a “celluloid mentor” for themselves; an actor whose work they admire and then to start watching as many of that person’s films as possible. Again, I’m not advocating outright theft. I don’t suggest imitating anyone’s line-readings, gestures or personal style. I’m only suggesting that when you watch “how” a gifted artist approaches a particular character; “how” they achieve their goal in a tricky scene; you are gaining what could be an invaluable tool that might come in darn handy later in your career.
Years ago, Michael Caine (one of the most durable screen actors of all time) gave a series of seminars in London on the subject of film acting. They were taped and shown here on PBS in the late 80’s. I recently noticed that they will soon be available here on Netflix. What I remember most about these remarkable sessions (in addition to Mr. Caine’s enormous generosity) was him strongly encouraging his class to watch as many brilliant actors as possible. “For one simple reason,” he advised, “So you can steal from them!”