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?
Best In Show Trailer