Julie Gray steps out on the stage with a huge smile and a halo of golden hair, she’s funny in her introduction, has done some superb work, “been around the block a few times” she calls it, and when she gets down to talking about character she is tough love all over! “Nothing is more important,” she says, “than entertaining the people who watch the film. Character is the most important thing in screenwriting and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise! If a meteor hurls to earth, I don’t give a sh*t unless I care about the character who might get killed.” So, no beating about the bush there and there’s an honesty to Julie’s address that prepared us to delve during the workshop into how we as writers create characters that an audience can care for.
She continues in the vein of Character is about ‘we’ not ‘me.’ Writers are observers we’re weird, this is what makes your writing. Empathy is important. Our deep well of experience is what gives us our understanding of what the character goes through. Transformation comes through great pain. A friend of the late Blake Snyder, Julie recognises that characters have to be likable enough to an audience and that the ‘save the cat’ moment (the title of Snyder’s book and part of his writing technique) is valuable. It’s important, she says, not to fall so in love with our characters on page one that we can’t put them through a shed load of pain. Love them on page 100 is her advice. You don’t want to love them so much that they stay the same. That doesn’t make for a very interesting film.
Julie takes us through some exercises as we partner into pairs down in the audience and tell the person next to us a bit about a trial or issue we’ve been through and what we’ve learned, one word for the trial, one word for the learning. My partner’s words are debt and control. She then gets us to talk about three things we love about ourselves and three things we detest in other people. The things that make you mad, the things that piss you off. That’s the kind of flaw your character needs to have in the beginning of your story, in the end, more like the traits you love. These seem to me like great starting and finishing places to making a character far more human, more rounded and I find a lot of what Julie is saying to be on the money, sort of hitting me in that part of my stomach that senses truth. What’s she’s saying is not to write our own experience but write from a place of experience that we can understand and feel for ourselves, and the audience will feel it too.
“I usually teach this class over a longer period.” Says Julie. Suddenly I find myself wishing we had a whole weekend just for this speaker.