Take one character and call me in the morning…

Are you a writer who creates a cast of characters, or do characters evolve from your stories, appearing one at a time on that old ‘need to know’ basis?

Twelve years ago (can it really be that long?) I was hired as a consultant for the filming of Best In Show, a CastleRock “mock-umentary” about the world of dog shows. Co-writers Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy created a group of eccentric dog owners with a passion for winning. While there is a plot, the story is definitely driven by its characters… not one ordinary personality among them.

Movie set for dog show judging scenes in 'Best In Show.'

On the movie’s official Warner Bros./CastleRock website I am quoted:
     In considering some of the rather extraordinary characters featured as stars of the film, Garvin says, “The fact is that we [dog show professionals] sometimes laugh at ourselves, too. The competitiveness of dog shows attracts a very diverse group of people. There are definitely some eccentrics among them, but they are in the minority. This film focuses on that minority, but the film also portrays some of the really honest hard-working people that are in the dog show business, too.” 

There is disparity in the cast but unity in their goals. It is their single-mindedness that puts them in conflict with each other.


Cast and crew on day the Hound Group scenes were filmed (and yes, I'm in there). Photographer: Doane Gregory

Carefully set against the credible backdrop of a quality dog show, these characters keep us engaged in their incredible lives as each one struggles toward the ultimate Best In Show award.

We care about them, and that’s the hope of all writers… that their characters will resonate… that what happens to them will matter to readers.

I’ve mentioned before that my story ideas usually originate with the mental image of one character. From that image I am driven to explore the who, what, why, where and when that reveals plot. So, in answer to my original question, I do begin with just one character.

Those who write ‘by the seat of their pants’ may well accumulate characters as they are needed to forward the plot, while plotters and planners will have a fair idea of their cast before they begin writing.

Since the monologue and dialogue lines in Best In Show were all improvised, however, the writers had to have a clear understanding of personalities that were to be portrayed before they introduced the actors to the script. It is the diverse nature of those personalities that interacts to give cohesion to the story as a whole.

Does this suggest all writers, whether pantsers or plotters, need to know who all their characters will be right from the start, even if they let the story unfold without constraint? What’s your answer to the opening question in this post?

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 Best In Show Trailer

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13 thoughts on “Take one character and call me in the morning…

  1. joylene says:

    I think I spotted you, but I’m not sure. Behind the man wearing the dark suit and blue tie, and the blonde lady, roughly centre?

    How thrilling, Carol. I remember the movie. I can’t remember the actors, just the wonderful animals. Bet it was an experience of a lifetime. My husband’s niece was an extra in a few X-files. She said David Duchovny was adorable even if he thought Vancouver was too dreary.

    • Yes, it was a fascinating experience… I worked hard but learned a lot, too. The cast and crew were wonderful. If you’re hunting for me, I’m hiding out with some of the crew near the back right hand corner. :)

  2. I definitely create a cast. I usually have one or two main characters but they are as defined by the people around them as they are the events in their own lives.

    • I like how you explain that, Barbara. That’s something I learned from watching the actors on the set… the interaction between them affected how the audience discerned them, too.

  3. Laura Best says:

    My characters seem to show up all on their own. Some of them are there from the start. I always start with a character, what happens along is sometimes a surprise to me.

  4. Shari Green says:

    I’m still amazed by how much improv was involved in that movie — talented people! And the trailer made me want to see it again….

    As for my characters, I start with one, and discover the others as the story unfolds. Kind of like when you meet someone IRL and you begin to learn about their life… it’s a gradual reveal. You don’t know weird Uncle Caleb exists until “the MC” brings him into the story, and what you learn about him shapes what you know about (and feel about) the MC.

    • Watching that trailer made it seem more like last month, not a dozen years ago! I pull out the DVD to watch occasionally.

      Your comment about how the characters surrounding the MC affect how we experience him, is the opposite perspective of Barbara Ann’s, but both of you explain well how the interaction works.

  5. Paul Greci says:

    Sounds like a cool movie, Carol!! For my stories I usually know most of the major characters from the beginning, but not always. Thanks!

  6. What a fun project for you! Do you show dogs? What breeds do you own?

    If I wrote nf, I think I’d first outline the basic personality of each character, but let them evolve on their own as I wrote. Does this make me a literary schitzo?

    • It was more interesting than fun, Jen. I was pretty intimidated by it all at the beginning. Once I became fully involved with finding the dogs and handlers, and in choreographing the dog show scenes, I was in my element.

      I bred, raised, trained and exhibited Shetland Sheepdogs (Shelties) for 35 years, although my parents had Labs and that’s what I currently have. Our male finished his Cdn. Championship six weeks ago.

      When it comes to character development I think all of mine evolve during a story and I don’t know any of them really well until the end. That makes for a lot of rewriting during the revisions!

  7. Jenn Hubbard says:

    I love that movie, and I’m delighted to learn that you worked on it!

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