Rules of character? Don’t ask me.

by Alexandra Sokoloff

I have been fretting this week about questions and comments I’ve gotten, publicly and privately, which I guess go along with the territory of teaching and blogging and writing about writing as if I really know anything at all about what I’m talking about.

(But I have to say there have been a few questions that I should never have gotten at all – it’s mystifying.   For the record, if you have a grammar question, DO NOT write to an author to get the answer.   That is not our job, you will have burned a valuable opportunity to ask something actually worth asking, and it will make us crazier than we already are, and you really don’t want to do that.)

All these questions, aside from the grammar ones,  have made me want to say this again, and repeat it often:

While I blog about, and write about in the Screenwriting Tricks workbook, a formula for film structure that is widely used in Hollywood, the MAIN POINT of what I am always writing about here is that you study the specific structures of movies and books in your genre and that specifically appeal to you, so that you can discover the specific tricks that great storytellers use to create the stories you love.

And whatever it is you think they’re doing, you might try doing it yourself.  
That is the bottom line of every single thing I have ever written about writing.

It’s the same with creating character.   

As much as I get asked to teach, I never teach workshops on character.   Not solely on character, anyway.   I just don’t.   It’s not that I couldn’t figure out something to say.    It’s just that – as I’ve said before – I think writers live with characters in our heads on a daily and nightly basis.   I could be totally wrong, but I suspect people don’t become writers if they don’t have characters living in their heads.   We don’t live with structure quite so intimately, and therefore it seems more teachable.

And honestly, I very, very rarely hear anyone say anything about creating character that makes me think – WOW, that’s it, I get it now.  Of course, I’ve never taken Rob’s class on character but that’s only because he’s refused to let me in.  

But I see other workshop instructors at conferences handing out character charts, breaking down movies or stories I know pretty well myself, and will occasionally swipe one of those charts to see what the secret might be, and am sometimes absolutely horrified at what I see.

Case in point… people love to break down The Wizard of Oz.   God knows I understand that.   I’ve used tons of examples from Wizard myself.   We all KNOW Wizard, so it makes sense to reference it.   But The Wizard of Oz is such a special case.   It is an iconic movie for reasons that I wouldn’t possibly want to have to explain – it’s like explaining sunlight, or – a rainbow.   You can break it down into its elements, but that will never give you the experience.  There was a special magic looking over that movie through all its harrowing changes of writers, directors, actors, etc. – and let’s not forget that it was based on a classic SERIES of books – and, oh, yeah – it’s a MUSICAL.   And all that terrifying mess somehow combined to make a classic.   It is not something anyone could ever duplicate.

It’s confusing even to break the movie conveniently into sequences, because it is a musical, and musical numbers were cut and rearranged (and rightly so!) which would have made the timing of the sequence structure make more conventional sense.   Just as an example – the studio wanted “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” cut because it made the first Kansas sequence too long, but the movie gods apparently intervened, the song remained, completely screwing with the sequence timing, and film students have been arguing about the Act One break ever since.

So when I see the characters of a movie like The Wizard of Oz dissected on a chart, I am wary and skeptical.   I am hard–pressed to believe that you ever even come close to developing a story as rich and enduring as The Wizard of Oz based on the two-dimensional layout of a chart.

Just consider what The Wizard of Oz would have looked like had Shirley Temple (often named as the top choice for the role) been cast instead of Judy Garland, as Dorothy.
The casting of Judy Garland, and her lush, just blossoming, completely vulnerable sexuality, TOTALLY changed the dynamic of the character and every single interaction she had with the other characters in the movie.   It changed the meaning of the journey.  A young woman’s dream, or fantasy, or metaphorical journey – whatever you want to call that adventure to Oz – is completely different from a child’s.    Teenagers yearn for significantly different things than children do.   

When I was a preteen I became firmly convinced that the whole Wizard of Oz journey was Dorothy’s dream letting her explore which one of the three farmhands she wanted to marry – as a young woman reaching marriageable age, those would be her obvious choices in such a farm town.   In Oz, Hunk/the Scarecrow is the first one she meets, and over and over and over again the Scarecrow steps forward as the problem solver and her biggest defender.   (She also dances with him in a musical number that was cut from the final film – The Jitterbug, and as any dancer or choreographer knows, when two characters dance in a musical, that means they’ve just had sex.).  When she leaves Oz, she tells the Scarecrow she’ll miss him most of all, and when she wakes up in bed, he kneels by the bed and she touches his face.  She’s chosen.

I would tell people this occasionally in college and they’d laugh – but years later I read much more about the elaborate history of the film and learned that the final scene of an earlier script really had concluded with Hunk going off to agricultural school and winning a promise from her to write to him – implying a romance that would continue (and marriage once “The Scarecrow” had his real-life diploma).

What I’m saying is, there was a structure built in to the script, as well as the magic of casting, that resonates in a way that is not capturable on a character chart.

Okay, you might be saying now that I’m the only person who’s ever watched the Wizard of Oz and gotten that out of it.   But you’re wrong.   My author sister friend Ann Voss Peterson has always felt the same way, so there.  And even if there weren’t at least one other person who sees the truth of it – my analysis of the subtext is meaningful to me, just as my analysis of Ophelia’s role in Hamlet is, and my strong personal opinions on the movies I watch and the books I read, however obscure they may seem to other people, have been invaluable to my growth as a writer.

Plus, I have more to say about what makes Dorothy a great character.

Another level of my take on Dorothy – and I know I’m not alone in this one – is that
she is going through an inner journey to internalize the qualities of braininess, heart, and courage – and her higher self, Glinda –  so that as she grows into a woman, she will be able to use those qualities against enemies like Miss Gulch instead of running away as she does at the beginning of the movie.

And another big change that happens with Dorothy is that we see her in situation after situation go from a scared little girl who needs protecting to a woman who will step forward and protect her friends.   It’s a big character arc for a teenager, growing up like that.

I guess what I’m saying is that a LOT goes into creating a character, and even if some writer or teacher or workshop leader breaks it down brilliantly for you, it’s even more important to figure out what YOU think is going on with that character.

And I’m also saying – and this is very true of the Wizard of Oz film in particular – sometimes it is absolutely impossible to track how something was written.   There were so many writers, directors, artists, producers who worked on this one – somehow certainly the movie gods were watching over it to create the alchemy that makes it the classic it is.

Some things are quantifiable, but some simply aren’t.   And please don’t be satisfied with anyone else’s quantification.
You are the writer.   Ultimately, it’s you and the page.  You are God, baby.  Make your own rules.

So I’m snowed in here in Raleigh, after being in 90 degree Cozumel four days ago.   My body has no idea what it’s supposed to be feeling anymore.

Since I’m not going anywhere today, does anyone have any unique interpretations of movies or books to share?   Some deeper theme you’re convinced of, but somehow no one else sees it?  

And what about Dorothy?  Does she marry Hunk?

– Alex


Related posts:

What Makes a Great Protagonist?   Case Study: Jake Gittes

What Makes a Great Villain?

Creating Character – The Protagonist

Collecting Character

Screenwriting Tricks For Authors – now available on Kindle and for PC!

12 thoughts on “Rules of character? Don’t ask me.

  1. judy wirzberger

    Oh! How I wish you lived next door. I would never have to worry about lie/lay, was/were, me/I because being my next door neighbor, you would have given me a style book. Unfortunately I have watched my money circle the drain as I settled in to a conference or class and found the attendees unprepared for the level of class/conference/workshop.

    I took a creativewriting Saturday class at Stanford described as addressing the problematic story structure. After questioning the students, the instructor changed her direction and aimed her remarks to the beginner questions: So I sat through outline/no outline, agent/no agent, single space/double space, always hoping it would get better. It didn’t but Stanford refused to return my class fee or give me a financial credit. Poo on them!

    I learn so much from reading what you have written on so many topics, that if you do move next door, promise not to ask about lie/lay, was/were, me/I.

    I live in the Bay Area – You would love the weather where I live; it’s warmer than San Francisco, but cooler than the valley. Come visit us at MWANorCal sometime.

  2. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Judy, that is appalling about the Stanford class. That’s just wrong. I would NEVER teach down to that level. And I don’t feel that what I teach is over anyone’s head, either – more advanced writers will get more of the advanced ideas, certainly everyone brings their own level into the class – but I think beginning writers are equally excited about the concepts of film story structure because they’ve seen all or most of the movies we talk about.

  3. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Louise, what a Bay Area answer, I love it.

    You want to talk drug movies? Mary Poppins is the mother of them all, IMO. Maybe I should do that one next.

    Or maybe Disney would sue me. Scratch that.

  4. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Alex

    Sorry for the flying visit, but just wanted to say another great post. It would be fascinating if some time you’d analyse some of the ‘Rati members books in the ways you describe?

    Or maybe we don’t want to know … ;-]

  5. pari noskin taichert

    Actually, Alex,
    You should come back to NM and let me show you around. Be here, at least, for LCC Santa Fe. Then I can repay some of the incredible kindness you’ve shown the ‘Rati for years with your superb posts.

    Right now I’m reading THE ODYSSEY aloud with my younger child; it’s a translation I used when I was in high school — very traditional. What’s fascinating is to see the birth of many common myths in their first form (at least written form) and compare how they jive with the weird way everything gets transmuted in our culture.

    The gods are damned perverse most of the time, deceptive-dishonest-nasty-tempered and rarely kind. Odysseus is often weaker than we like to think of him but he’s also far more multi-dimensional than I remember.

    I’m not answering your question, Alex . . .

  6. JT Ellison

    Well, crud. I wrote a nice long answer, and it’s gone.

    Basically, I found it fascinating, and have been telling people to read this analysis. I love how your mind works, Alex. You just see these things and poof, I understand. Though I always though the farm hands were a bit old for Dorothy and it creeped me out a bit. But yes, Hunk and Dorothy inherit the farm.

    And I’m going to be near a Kindle next week and I’m downloading Screenwriting Tricks first thing. Can’t wait to see it in one cohesive unit!

  7. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Pari, I can’t WAIT for LCC Santa Fe. That is going to be some party.

    I may well show up at your door before then, though…

    The Odyssey is so rich. I really need to read that again. It’s so true how ungodlike the gods are.

  8. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Agree about the farmhands being too old for her. Then again, a man who can dance like that…. ageless.

    Thanks, JT. Because of the e price war, Screenwriting Tricks is now my only book available from Amazon. Strange days, here.

  9. Allison Brennan

    You can come to my SVR chapter anytime Alex! I can talk about character, but only through examples. I hate charts. Yuck.

    I love, for example, talking about Neo in THE MATRIX–but not just Neo. All the characters are so obvious but it completely works. Not so much the second and third movies . . . But WIZARD is brilliant on so many different levels.I would hate to dissect it.

    Great post, Alex.


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