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‘Committee Meetings’ Hold Key to Well-Developed Characters

Writers and directors breathe life into their creations, but to give them real depth, they must rely upon actors. And those voices in their heads

We all have voices in our head.

You know the voices, the ones who tell us what to do and what not to do, those voices that can simultaneously praise us and condemn us. And since there seems to be an inordinate number of voices in my head, I have given them the collective name "the Committee."

One of my problems with my Committee is that they are always in session. They never take a break or seem to need a rest. Especially in the morning – I wake up and they’re in full swing, in the midst of a deep debate on one or more heated topics. It feels like they’ve been at it for a long time and they’ve clearly made decisions without consulting me. And now I have to scramble and catch up.

Since I have this Committee in my head and can safely assume that every other living human being has one, it must be also true that every character in every story has their own Committee. And since my Committee clearly embodies all the inner workings of my character then it is clear that a major key to truly understanding any fictional character would be to meet its Committee face-to-face.

When I read a well-crafted novel I can feel and often hear the energy of each character’s Committees. Take “My Sister’s Keeper” by the magnificent Jodi Picoult as a perfect example. Each chapter is written from the unique perspective of a different character and we are deeply immersed into their inner drives, motivations, fears and aspirations. We hear those voices.

And Shakespeare, with his brilliant use of soliloquies: “To be or not to be …” is a powerful Committee debate articulated, laid bare and exposed.

But, as filmmakers, we face the profound limitations of the screenplay format where the writer doesn’t have the opportunity to articulate those voices within the character. Yes, I know we make feeble attempts through narration and voice over but for the most part we have to rely on behavior and dialogue to suggest the inner thoughts, feelings and concerns of our characters. How frustrating.

When we are writing we can feel our characters pulsing through us. But how well do we really know these fictional individuals? We think we know them well simply because we created them and they live inside us.

And when we read a screenplay how well do we really understand those characters? How much of what we are experiencing is a result of our own projection?

As writers and directors we are dealing with profound characters about whom we have limited knowledge and understanding. We suffer from the desire, opportunity and ability to control and shape these characters to fit the story as we see it, as we want it. But if we want to create unique and original characters we need to allow them to be authentic, to be themselves. We need to meet them and accept them as who they are.

There is only one way this can be achieved. We must think differently. Whether we are writers who are trying to create characters or directors who are trying to bring them to life, we need to step back and rely on the skills of the actor. That’s right, the actor. The actor is always the key to the authenticity of the character. Allow the character to emerge through the actor. Be prepared, you’re going to meet someone who you only thought you knew.

The actors’ greatest strength, greatest contribution to the creative process, is their ability to inhabit the mind, body and soul of the character. The actors’ craft is as much character discovery as it is character development. Writers and directors create, manipulate, develop, design and control characters. Eventually that control gets in the way of the natural development of character. Actors discover characters, meet them face-to-face and let them breathe and present them to the rest of the world.

Writers and directors need to learn how and when to step back, to remove themselves from the process. They need to be open to the luxury of meeting their characters in the flesh. They need to be willing to be naïve, innocent, impressionable. They need to be ready to be surprised, alarmed, thrilled or horrified.

How is this done?

First, be willing to talk to the characters that live within your actors. Question them. Interrogate them. Form a relationship with them. Be willing to let them be who they are. That’s what you want, authenticity.

And, secondly, don’t expect to meet their Committee. You won’t. They will be just as clever at keeping their Committee hidden as you are with yours.

This is where you have to take a bold step. Become their Committee. Become the voices in their head. Allow yourself (as either the writer who initially created these characters or the director who needs to bring these characters to life) to speak for the voices in their heads. Give voice to their voices. You may be surprised by how each character responds to their Committee, and you will most certainly be surprised by what comes out of you.

Because, the truth be known, the Committee for each character you are writing or directing already exists – inside you. You just need to give it voice and allow it to take residence inside the actor, inside the character.

Good luck. 

 

Mark W. Travis is regarded by many Hollywood and international professionals as one of the world’s leading authorities in the art and craft of film directing. He has served as a creative consultant on several studio and independent feature films including: "A Bronx Tale," "Notorius," "Men of Honor," "Barbershop" and "The Stoning of Soraya M." He is the author of the number-one bestseller (L.A. Times), "The Director's Journey: The Creative Collaboration between Directors, Writers and Actors." His second book, "Directing Feature Films" is currently used as required text in film schools worldwide.  His latest book, "The Film Director's Bag of Tricks"  was published in September 2011.