A new book by Marilyn Atlas, Elizabeth Lopez and Devorah Cutler Rubenstein asks writers to envision themselves in a dating relationship with the people they're trying to invent.
A new book by Marilyn Atlas, Elizabeth Lopez, and Devorah Cutler-Rubenstein asks writers to envision themselves in a dating relationship with the characters they’re trying to invent. Atlas is speaking this weekend at ScriptDC, a Women in Film conference in Washington, D.C.

A great movie is all in the characters, and the good ones are deep wells of history. We want to find them interesting and believable, to learn something by unwrapping complex layers of their personal histories, over the course of a narrative. They don’t have to be realistic (just ask J.K. Rowling or Joss Whedon fans), but they need to be worth the time investment. We want to recognize humanity, in their strengths and flaws alike and, similar to dating them, we don’t want to know everything about them from a first impression. Personally, nothing will get me to turn off Netflix quicker than to meet a boring, or offensively stereotyped character.

Fiction writers are tasked with a uniquely difficult undertaking: Create a person who doesn’t exist, but who is complex enough to believe in. Make them relatable, but not redundant. It can be hard to envision a new person further than a physical description and a level of virtue that distinguishes hero from villain. To do so, writers often pull details from multiple real-life people to create fictional ones or walk themselves through writing exercises or association games to spark ideas.

A new book, written by authors working in the production and management side of Hollywood, presents a new approach to writing better characters, keeping that dating analogy in mind. “Dating Your Character” suggests that developing a fictional person can be done by pretending to enter into a long-term relationship, right down to all the frustrations and surprises that come with getting to know someone new. 

Author Marilyn Atlas runs a self-named production and talent management agency in Los Angeles. She has used her career for decades to campaign for more interesting, empowering characters, especially for women and minorities. She wrote the book with her colleagues Devorah Rubenstein and Elizabeth Lopez to “demystify screenwriting and the growth of characterization for people who feel they have a story to tell,” as Lopez put it. The three women were kind enough to answer questions about the book, the state of writing in the internet streaming era, and the challenges that face women in Hollywood.

You’ve developed a method in which writers are asked to invent characters and get to know them by imagining personal, minute details about their lives and personalities as if learning about a new love interest. To do this, you ask them to combine details from people they know in real life. Does this ever get writers in trouble?

EL: It may very well get writers in trouble when their inspirations recognize themselves as sharing particular flaws or having endured embarrassing scenarios as a certain character on screen. But, if your script gets sold—and made—the sheer pleasure of a friend or frenemy seeing an actor play them will probably outweigh any ill feeling toward you. That actor would also then become the visual imprint of that character in most people’s minds, adding more cover and distance from the original.

The only true “danger” is if you limit yourself artistically to adhere to the outlines of that person’s life. Loosely borrow biographical intel and then go off from there; at the end of the day, you’re trying to understand someone else from the inside out.

MA: I expect that good writers are also great observers of the human condition. So, we encourage readers of the book to take their observations, combine them with their creative ideas, and then come up with the layers for a fictionalized character who is distinctly memorable.

I like the outline of scenarios (“meet cute,” “first date,” “first fight,”) you lay out for executing this method. Do you find most people respond better to structured steps when it comes to character development?

EL: While we encourage writers to get comfortable writing from a place of doubt, to question their first creative impulses, no one wants to feel they’re flailing without a sense of direction. We also wanted to acknowledge the emotional ups-and-downs, the occasional lack of productivity, or bumps in communication that can occur during the course of working with your character. Therefore, we decided to organize our exercises to follow the overall deepening journey of a romantic relationship, so there’s a sense of hard-won, earned progress. Since this method of excavation doesn’t provide a guarantee of what you’re going to unearth, inconsistencies, ambivalence and other frustratingly real dilemmas may crop up. But, you can use them as clues to see beyond that into what’s motivating such uncharacteristic behavior.

With so much access to fast-paced information and entertainment online, our collective attention span as an audience has shortened. Have you found that on-screen character development or storytelling as a whole have changed?

EL: Because people can stream and watch content according to their own appetite and schedule, if anything, the importance of solid characterization has been amplified. The only thing really cementing people’s loyalty nowadays is if they relate and care about the characters they’re watching. And to get the fervor of appointment TV, when fans tune in live just to tweet back to their favorite creators in real time, you’ve got to make your audience feel that the world and character back-stories have been thought through and are steeped in a mythology that’ll make viewing worthwhile. You don’t want them to feel they’re throwing away their time on something half-baked.

In addition to co-writing this book, you all have active careers in production and management. Besides the goals of the book itself (help writers create more unique, fully developed characters), were there goals you had in mind for creating this resource?

MA: Long before I became a manager and producer, I was acutely aware of those characters that did not reflect the depth and range of characters as they applied to gender, race, and sexuality. There seemed to be a homogenized, stereotypical way that these characters were portrayed. For me, even as a young woman, it was frustrating that women were often depicted as defining themselves in terms of men or when their roles were relegated to wife, mother, or certain professions.

EL: We felt that most screenwriting books were rather stifling. We wanted to provide a flexible “trampoline” effect to help writers launch their stories, instead of making them feel like they were simply creating a character by rote instruction and coloring in a story by numbers. As we’ve seen from actively selling our clients’ work in the marketplace, for professionals working on deadline, sometimes a helpful outside suggestion or note can help elevate the material. Having your own voice is crucial, but this is a collaborative medium. Take what’s offered, be it career advice or story ideas, if it feels right.

Personally, we don’t send out work we feel has some lumpy or saggy bits. So I guess, the more that writers are pushed to come up with their very best in terms of plot and the people moving that plot, the more opportunities we’ll have to go out and pitch work that’s ready. All of us have come across specs and pilots with “potential”—the potential for us to be proactive and help sculpt the story to where it ought to be in degree of execution. It would just be nice if writers early on in their career were further along to eliminating the performance gap between “developmental” talent and in-demand professionals.

Throughout your careers, you’ve all actively campaigned for more positive, less stereotyped female and minority characters. Did your desire to push the idea of non-stereotypical character development in this book come from frustration with generalizations, or just boredom with cliches?

MA: I was bored with the clichés on a personal and a professional level. If even your dreams or fictional imaginings of what your life can be like are stilted, how deflating is that? I wanted to see more women depicted with a fuller range of characteristics and traits, women who didn’t necessarily reflect tradition.

Screenwriting must be a team effort with which you’re all familiar, but collaboration is often more difficult that working alone. Why choose to write this book as a trio, and how did you divide the work?

EL: We all felt that combining our varying points of view would address the multiple concerns of being a working screenwriter and not just the technique itself. At the very outset, though it may seem counterintuitive, what happens afterward – pitching and selling – is something that an aware writer has to consider before even outlining the story. In the book’s extensive editing process we kept asking ourselves how applicable exercises were, if we were using a wide-enough range of film/TV references and if we were making an effort to be practical.

Screenwriting is not a vanity exercise because the only way a screenplay actuallylives” is if someone chooses to pour money into it and produce it. And while diversity is thankfully now a buzzword, there is a “diversity” in what that word represents. It denotes more than racial or ethnic inclusivity; it’s economic, philosophical, sexual, religious, professional. Any cultural perspective that is rarely heard.

You are women in powerful positions in a stereotypically male-dominated field. What advice do you have for women in film writing that you might not give to their male peers?

DR: You might be the smartest person in the room, but you should not let them know that right away, especially since you may be the only woman in the room. 

Be kind, really listen. If you’re in a crowded meeting, unfortunately not everyone is listening to each other… and you will earn points if you can actually hear and “duplicate” what others are saying and then BUILD on it!

Do some work with a branding person, and try to go against your type, whatever you learn that is. Having outside, dueling—but complementary—styles is something that can make you memorable. 

Take improv and stand-up.  Having a sense of humor helps take the sting off any gender barriers. Everyone loves to laugh; it’s a good writing and meeting skill to have in your toolkit.

EL: You have to push yourself to not just chime in at meetings, but strive to open up the discussion or focus it in a new direction. Personality, and the physical space you take up with your energy is fundamental to sparking someone’s interest in what you’re passionate about. While there’s no gender bias as such in writing, as there is in directing, it’s key that all writers participate and offer how their POV or background distinguishes them. This ability to assert yourself and contribute something of value will serve you well in writer’s rooms later.

Dating Your Character: A Sexy Guide to Screenwriting for Film & TV is available on amazon.com as well as booksellers nationwide. Marilyn Atlas speaks at the Script DC conference in Washington, DC this weekend. Visit http://www.wifv.org/programs/script-dc/ for more info.

Rachel Bone

Rachel Bone is a regular contributor to the Baltimore Fishbowl.