Sunday, December 8, 2013

Secondary Characters - The Art of the Secondary Character – How Robert Newton convinced the world that pirates say ‘Arrgh.’

One of the major issues I have encountered in reading screenplays from new writers, and sometimes not so new writers, is their inability to flesh out secondary characters.  Actors like to, well – act.  It is only in your words that the actor can reflect their performance.  Give secondary characters something to do.  Or, believe me they will find something to do.

A noted character actor from the 1930s and 1940s had a habit of doing something with his hands during scenes where it was required that he stand and listen to the main characters do their lines.  His minor action of just playing with a pocket watch made all the viewers zero in on his character regardless of what the main characters were saying.  Yes, he was scene stealing.  However, his actions bespeak of a professional who was trying to make the scene interesting regardless of his lack of lines.

What you as a writer need to do is replicate this kind of action in your writing.  I am not suggesting that you make every character ‘live,’ but you need to give them a sense of ‘being’ on the page.  Many inexperienced screenwriters; I know because I did this, make characters such as COP 1 and COP 2 and give them bland lines to say.  Better yet, the infamous WAITER and his “Can I take your order?” line.  If a minor or secondary does not have anything to say that moves the story ahead, do not give them anything to say.  If you give them something to say, make it meaningful within the context of the story and make the dialog move the story forward.

Richard Lester in his brilliantly directed Musketeer series movies used secondary characters in a sneaky way to add context to the ongoing main character movement.  Many of the secondary characters have little asides they would say that added texture to would have been otherwise an obligatory scene of actors racing away on horses.

So, I am giving you three techniques by which you can make your secondary characters more interesting.

Technique 1: Private Drama
When we meet a minor character, immediately introduce us to their private drama(s).  Doing this makes a character seem more real, for we get a feeling that person has a past, ongoing dramas, and a network of relationships.

Technique 2:  No Bland or Cliché Dialogue
No cliché secondary character dialogue.  Avoid the WAITRESS/WAITER “Can I take your order?” line.  If you want the secondary character to interact with your main character, make the interaction meaningful and move the story forward.

Technique 3:  No Cliché Characters
If a cliché character is one who has a combination of familiar traits, to make a character non-cliché, make sure that he or she has, at his or her core, a combination of traits that we are not used to seeing in combination.

Please note you do not need to make each and every minor character have major lines, but some sort of interaction would be good.  Real interactions between characters add texture and depth to a story.

Robert Newton, in his very short but talented life, was a character actor who played mainly secondary but memorable roles.  Using his own West County, England accent, he performed the role of Long John Silver and taught the world that pirates say, “Arrgh, matey.”  Sometimes playing the lead, he played villains, ruffians, detectives, and had comedic roles.  He died in 1956 in Beverly Hills, CA.

7.  Speaking Ability

In this discussion about speaking ability, I am not talking about public speaking, although you may be called upon to talk to large groups of people, nor am I writing about sales, although you are in effect trying to sell something.  What I am writing about is ability to speak in a structured, deliberate manner that informs, influences, or entertains the agent, producer, whomever you are trying to get to buy your script.  Perhaps this manner is better described as eloquence.  All of us writers are called upon to pitch our ideas to various members of the motion picture and TV industries.  What I suppose each of these classes is missing is an explanation of not only what to say but how to say it.

Eloquence is fluent, forcible, elegant, and persuasive speaking.  It is primarily the power of expressing strong emotions in striking and appropriate language, producing conviction or persuasion.  Remember, your agent gets you the meeting.  You do the pitching.  Therefore, it would behoove the writer to develop a sense of eloquence to present your ideas gracefully, combining thought and reason in a powerful way, so as to persuade these folks to your point of view.  At the very core of your presentation is the use of graceful style, clear concise grammar and usage, insertion of rational and emotional arguments to be able to win over the agents, producers, et al.

A suggestion for writers interested in pitching – Learn, practice, and develop your skills in:

·         Oratory – speaking clearly and pronouncing your words
·         Voice register – Not speaking too loudly or too softly
·         Controlled use of gestures
·         Control of the voice - inflection
·         Vocabulary and word choice
·         Using humor – Don’t be a comedian, but lose the seriousness.
·         Developing a relationship with your audience – This is by far the hardest part, but worthwhile (I will have more on this area in a future blog.)

Why are you reading this?  Go write!

John still practices screenwriting in King County, WA along with a small rat dog, a mortgage, and a great view of the valley.

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