How To Make Characters Consistent Yet Surprising by BlueCat’s Gordy Hoffman

Film Courage: We had some Youtube questions come in earlier and this is from Harry ML (that’s the user name) “How to make characters consistent, but act in surprising ways?”

Gordy Hoffman, Founder/Judge of the Bluecat Screenplay Competition:  Writers have impulses inside them that they often don’t follow because they want to stay on track with an outline or they want to stay on track with a beat sheet or a plan or they have expectations for what is appropriate for a certain story or a kind of genre that they’re writing and so they ignore the impulses or the intuitive thoughts that they have. The imagination sparks and those are the things when you surprise yourself with an idea you need to embrace it.

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Whenever something comes up in your mind. You know we self-censor a lot and we’re like “Well, he can’t rip her shirt off right there, can he?” And it’s just like “No it’s got to be something else.” And it’s just like “Maybe he does?” And maybe she grabs his wrists after that because then they’re like “Then what happens? Then what happens? Then what happens?” Then you are going down the rabbit hole and you’re making things up and you’re surprising yourself, that’s how we create characters. Obviously we want the character to still be the character. Would the character maybe want to rip the dress, rip the shirt off or whatever? Or grab the paint can or run out of the car and start running down the field when they were supposed to stay in the car in the outline and then they started running toward the football field when you started to write it, are you going to allow that to happen?

Writers have to listen to their instrument, listen to their imagination. You know you don’t talk about imagination a lot and when we talk about the craft of screenwriting, we don’t really talk about imagination. Like what that is and how that is…like what if (that whole thing)? And we don’t cultivate that because it’s really so messy and so non-linear and spontaneous that it’s hard to write a book about it. It’s hard to organize a system, a beat sheet or a formula about imagination. But that is really is how you create on surprising revelatory behavior. It’s sort of like and then what if this happens and you’re just like “Oh my gosh!”

We were talking about THE MEG and how people are just like “I’m not going to see this shark movie with Jason Statham and it’s a genre movie, like a silly, stupid movie, right?” But there were a couple of moments in there that were complexly surprising and I thought “A-plus!” That’s stuff that doesn’t happen in movies where it’s like the audience completely fell into a lull and then the plot went left and it wasn’t like “Oh give me a break?” It was like “This is plausible and it’s arresting and it’s a surprise and it very likely probably came from the imagination of their author going well and then they thought of it “Why not! Let’s try that.” And embracing it because initially you come up with something like that and you go “Oohh!!” And an audience is like “What?” And so I think that’s what it is, it’s like paying attention to your own impulses and listening to your own voice. You listen to your own voice and let it be the primary thing in the creative act of your script then that will allow for these surprises to happen.

Film Courage: It reminds me of when SHARP OBJECTS aired. I didn’t see it when it initially came out but I watched people’s reactions on Twitter and by seeing this then I was like “Okay I want to watch it.” And they were shocked and let’s assume these were real Twitter accounts people couldn’t believe it. And Amy Adams can play so many amazing characters but she was playing this damaged character that was so fun to watch. 

Gordy: Right! Absolutely and that’s what we want to do and that all comes from someone allowing themselves to be creative. You’ve got to say like “You know, I’m going to have her like run out of the car. And that’s going to totally screw up my outline but it’s really cool.” Maybe I could have a lot more work to do because I’m making this decision. But I’d rather do a lot more work and not be lazy and embrace it because it’s really revelatory and awesome but people don’t want to do that. They’re like if I ever do that then everything is screwed up and so I’m just going to stay on course on the thing that’s not surprising and people are predicting because I’m predicting everything because I’m following a road map. You lose the road map and you start flying by the seat of your pants that’s like “What’s going to happen? I don’t know what’s going to happen?”

Film Courage: Do you think that’s really laziness or that’s again wanting to be the teacher’s pet versus the Johnny Rotten in the back of the room?

Gordy: Well of course it’s fear. It’s fear of I need to do it this way or it’s not going to work out. But I think mostly writers they won’t upend their outline or they won’t upend their plans or whatever. I mean a lot of them will say “Well look if it goes off my script, I always embrace it,” but I don’t know. I think a lot of people write outlines to make the process faster but at the expense of the something being more surprising and revelatory. A lot of things don’t need to be outlined if they’re character-driven, you can sort of discover a lot really special moments in a story by just seeing where it goes.

A heist movie, a mystery, that becomes more difficult to just follow impulses because you’ve got more of a puzzle to figure out. It’s like “Okay, how is this going to work?”

Question For The Viewers: In what other ways you keep a character consistent yet surprising?




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