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Creating Unforgettable Characters
Researching the Character
Some time ago, one of my writing clients came to me with a terrific concept for a script. She had worked and reworked the script for over a year. Her agent was excited and eagerly awaiting this new story.
Although she had been told that some of her scripts weren't strong enough for the American commercial market, this one was exciting and tough. It was the kind of story that many producers called "high concept"--with a strong hook and unique approach to the story, a clear conflict and identifiable characters.
Her first film had just been completed, and she was counting on this script to break new ground. She had to finish quickly--but the characters weren't working. She was absolutely stuck.
When I analyzed the script, I realized that she didn't know enough about the context--about the world of the characters. A number of scenes took place in a center for the homeless. Although she had spent some time serving soup at the center, and talking to the homeless, she had never experienced sleeping there or being on the streets. As a result, details andemotions were missing. It was clear that there was only one way that she could break through the character problems--she had to return to research.
The first step in the creation of any character is research. Since most writing is a personal exploration into new territory, it demands some research to make sure that the character and context make sense and ring true.
Many writers love the research process. They describe it as an adventure, an exploration, an opportunity to learn about different worlds and different people. They love seeing characters come to life after spending several days learning more about their world. When their research proves something they intuitively knew, they're overjoyed. Every new insight gained through research makes them feel they have made giant strides in creating an exciting character.
Others find research intimidating, and the most difficult part of the job. Many writers resist it, and resent spending hours making phone calls or foraging for information in the library. Research can be frustrating and time-consuming. You can go down a great many blind alleys before you accomplish a thing. You may not know how to begin to research a specific character point. But research is the first step in the process of creating a character.
The depth of a character has been compared to an iceberg. The audience or reader only sees the tip of the writer's work--perhaps only 10 percent of everything the writer knows about the character. The writer needs to trust that all this work deepens the character, even if much of this information never appears directly in the script.
When do you need to research? Consider for a moment: You're writing a novel. Everyone who has read it agrees that your protagonist, a thirty-seven-year-old white male, has a fascinating personality, but there are certain motivations they don't understand. You decide you need to learn more about the inner workings of your character. A friend suggests you read Seasons of a Man's Life by Daniel Levinson, about the malemid-life crisis. You also arrange to sit in on a group of men in analysis. Through this research, you hope to learn what happens to men in the mid-life transition, and how it motivates their behavior.
Or, you've just finished your script, but the supporting character of the black lawyer doesn't seem as fleshed out as the others. You contact the NAACP to see if they know a black lawyer who might be willing to talk to you. You need to gain an insight into ways the ethnic background will affect this particular character in this particular occupation.
Or, you've been assigned to write a film about Lewis and Clark. You're smart--you ask the studio for research money, transportation expenses, and eight months' time. You know you will need to understand the experience of the journey, and how the period will affect the characters and the dialogue.
GENERAL VS. SPECIFIC RESEARCH
Where to start? First, understand that you're never starting from scratch. You have been doing research your whole life, so there is a great deal of material to draw upon.
You are doing what's called general research all the time. It's the observation--the noticing--that becomes the basis of character. You're probably a natural people-watcher. You observe how people walk, what they do, what they wear, the rhythms of their speech, even their thought patterns.
If you have another profession besides writing--perhaps medicine, or real estate, or teaching history--all the material you absorb within those jobs can be applied when you write a script for a doctor series, or a story about the real estate profession, or a novel or screenplay that takes place in medieval England.
You're doing general research when you take classes in psychology, art, or science. Later, what you learned may give you the details you need for your next story.
Many writing teachers say, "Write what you know about"--and for good reason. They recognize that this constant lifelong observation and general research yields many details that might take months or years to learn if you were writing about an area outside your experience.
Carl Sautter, writer, former story editor of "Moonlighting," and author of How to Sell Your Screenplay, recounts the story of a writer who pitched a Fort Lauderdale story to him. "He wanted to do a film about four girls who go to Fort Lauderdale for spring break. It's an all-right idea, but I discovered that he had never been to Fort Lauderdale during spring break. We continued to talk and I discovered he came from a little farm in Kansas. And then he said, 'It's a shame I'm not there this week because this is pancake week.'This little town was having their annual pancake festival. And he starting describing all the things they do with pancakes, and all the details about the festival. And I said, 'Now there's a story. There's a wonderful setting for a movie.' And I said, 'Why take a story that two thousand people could write better than you can, about a situation you've never experienced? Write about something you know'"
The creation of character begins with what you already know. But general research may not yield enough information. You'll also need to do specific research to fill in character details that may not be part of your own observation and experience.
Novelist Robin Cook (Coma, Mutation, Outbreak, etc.) is an M.D., but he still has to do specific research for his medical fiction books. "Most of the research is reading," he says, "but I do talk to doctors who specialize in the subject of my novel. In fact, I normally will work in that particular field for a few weeks. When I wrote the book Brain, which deals with a neuroradiologist, I spent two or three weeks with a neuroradiologist. For Outbreak, which was about a modern-day plague, I talked to the people at the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, and researched viruses. For Mutation, I researched the science of genetic engineering. The pace of change in thatfield is so rapid that most of what I had learned in medical school was no longer valid. I put out a book a year. I usually spend six months of research, two months of generating the outline, two months writing the book, and a couple of months doing other things such as publicity and working at the hospital."
Characters don't exist in a vacuum. They're a product of their environment. A character from seventeenth-century France is different from one from Texas in 1980. A character who practices medicine in a small town in Illinois is different from someone who's the pathologist at Boston General Hospital. Someone who grows up poor on an Iowa farm will be different from one who grows up rich in Charleston, South Carolina. A black, or Hispanic, or Irish-American will be different from a Swede from St. Paul. Understanding a character begins with understanding the context that surrounds the character.
What is context? Syd Field, in his book Screenplay, gives an excellent definition. He compares context to an empty coffee cup. The cup is the context. It's the space surrounding the character, which is then filled with the specifics of the story and characters.1 The contexts that most influence character include the culture, historical period, location, and occupation.
All characters have ethnic backgrounds. If you're a third-generation American of Swedish-German background (as I am), the influence of this background may be minimal. If you're a first-generation black Jamaican, the ethnic background could determine behavior, attitudes, emotional expressiveness, and philosophy.
All characters have a social background. It makes a differencewhether someone comes from a middle-class farming family in Iowa or an upper-class family in San Francisco.
All characters have a religious background. Are they nominal Catholic, Orthodox Jew, followers of New Age philosophies, or agnostic?
All characters have educational backgrounds. The number of years of schooling, as well as the specific field of study, will change a character's makeup.
All of these cultural aspects will have wide-ranging influence upon the makeup of the characters, determining the way they think and talk, their values, concerns, and emotional life.
John Patrick Shanley (Moonstruck) came from an Irish-American home, but observed his Italian neighbors across the street. He says, "I saw that they had better food. They were more connected to their bodies. When they spoke, they spoke with their whole selves. There were things about the Irish that I liked, too. They could, for example, outtalk the Italians. And they had a different brand of charm. So I took the best of both ... for my writing and for my life."2
William Kelley researched Witness for about seven years, studying the Amish culture and trying to find a way to get more information from people who were not interested in talking to the public. "The Amish were very distrustful of Hollywood so I really had a terrible time breaking through until I met Bishop Miller--a buggymaker--and happened to mention to him that we would need about fifteen buggies to do this movie. Miller built buggies and being a good businessman he immediately said 'Uh-huh' and I suddenly had an entrée into viewing the Amish life."
Bishop Miller became the prototype for Eli in Witness. Through this association, Kelley learned that the Amish were bawdy, that they were "a good judge of horseflesh," that they had a good sense of humor, and that the women could be coy and flirtatious.
Culture determines speech rhythms, grammar, and vocabulary.Read out loud the dialogue that follows, to hear the voice of the characters.
In Crossing Delancey, by Susan Sandler, the Upper West Side language contrasts with that of the Lower East Side. In this case, all of the characters (except the poet) have a Jewish context, and come from a particular location in New York. Both of these contexts influence their speech.
Upper West Side Izzy describes her situation: "I met someone. It was an arranged meeting with a marriage broker. Grandmother set it up."
Bubba, the grandmother, speaks with another rhythm: "You want to catch the wild monkey, you have to climb the tree. A dog should live alone, not people."
Sam, the pickleman, from the Lower East Side, has a different style of speech: "I'm a pretty happy fella. I like to get up in the morning, hear the birds tweet tweet. I put on a clean shirt, walk to shul, make the morning prayers. Nine o'clock my doors open."
And the poet says, "You do have an exquisite stillness, Izzy."
Listen to the rhythms from the Irish play Riders to the Sea, by John Millington Synge: "They're all together this time, and the end is come. May the Almighty God have mercy on Bartley's soul, and on Michael's soul, and on the souls of Sheamus and Patch, and Stephen Shawn; and may He have mercy on my soul, Nora, and on the soul of everyone is left living in the world."
Listen to the difference in language between Eli, the Amish man, and John Book, the Philadelphia policeman. These rhythms are very subtle, but if you read the dialogue out loud, you'll hear the difference between the slight lilt in Eli's speech and John's directness.
ELI: You be careful out there among the English.
JOHN BOOK: Samuel, I'm a police officer. My job is to investigate this murder.
Many times, your stories will have characters from several different cultures. For those from your own culture, you can turn to your own experience to find the rhythms and attitudes. For characters from other cultures, you may need extra research to make sure that their cultures ring true, and to be sure that you've created separate characters--not simply characters with different names who all sound and act the same.
THE HISTORICAL PERIOD
It is particularly difficult to set a story in another period. Generally the research is indirect. A writer can't get direct information from walking the streets of twentieth-century London when the story takes place in the sixteenth century. Listening to the speech of the modern Englishman sheds only a bit of light on the speech that existed four hundred years before. The vocabulary is different, the rhythms are different, and even the words are different since many words and meanings have become obsolete.
Novelist Leonard Tourney, a history professor at the University of California in Santa Barbara, has written several books about sixteenth-century England, including Old Saxon Blood and The Players' Boy Is Dead. His professional background provides him with a knowledge of the period, yet he still has to research specific details when writing his books.
Leonard says, "I might need to know about the Inns of Court and its history and practices during the late sixteenth or early seventeenth century. One of my novels dealt with a witch trial. I had to learn whether a defendant would have been represented by counsel in the early seventeenth century. The answer was no--which makes the trial look strange. I had to learn how many judges sat on the panel, and whether there would have been a jury, and how many jury persons would have served. I had a kind of license based upon what I had learned that any kind of suspicious behavior at this time wouldhave been adequate evidence to convict a suspect of witchcraft. I had to learn what punishment was meted out to witches."
Recently I consulted on a project about the Mormon trek west to Salt Lake City in the mid-nineteenth century. Kieth Merrill, writer and director, supplied the research information about historical speeches and details of the journey. Writer Victoria Westermark, who has written a number of scripts set in the nineteenth century, did a rewrite and polish. She explains how she was able to build upon past experience when determining characteristics and period language for the script, Legacy.
"Usually I pore over diaries, original letters, speeches the person might have made, if available. Although the written word is different from the spoken word, people reveal themselves through diaries. Letters can be very stiff. For another approach to the time, I read the local late-nineteenth-century newspaper, where I found the rhythms of the general public, their adamant likes and dislikes, and even the swearing.
"I've also researched at the Huntington library in Pasadena, where I was able to read original diaries. I keep lists by decade of interesting words or phrases that aren't in common usage but that add flavor and don't throw an audience by sounding too dated."
Even after copious research, you will often need to imagine details that you can't find, using everything you have learned so that the period will ring true.
Many writers set their stories in familiar locations. If you grew up in New York, many of your stories may take place there. Hollywood has thousands of scripts about people coming to make it in Hollywood. Or writers set scripts in places they've visited or lived in for short periods of time. The more knowledgeable someone is about the location, the less research isnecessary. However, writers who know the area often find they need to return for specific research.
William Kelley had lived in the Lancaster County area of Pennsylvania. He already had a good start on location research for Witness. However, he still returned to the area to look for models for his characters, and to expand his knowledge of the Amish for this specific project.
James Dearden, writer of Fatal Attraction, is British, but he's spent considerable time in New York City--the setting for his film.
Two of Ian Fleming's James Bond novels, Dr. No and Live and Let Die, and several of his short stories were set in Jamaica, where he maintained an estate, Goldeneye. He visited Tokyo before writing You Only Live Twice, and wrote From Russia with Love after riding the Orient Express.
Location affects many different aspects of a character. The frenetic rhythm of Philadelphia in Witness is different from the slower-paced life on the Amish farm. The rhythm of the West in Electric Horseman is different from the rhythms of New York in Working Girl. And each will have an effect on the characters.
If you were writing the story "Rain," by Somerset Maugham (later made into two films), or Night of the Iguana, by Tennessee Williams, or The Power and the Glory, by Graham Greene, you would want to capture in your characterizations the sense of oppression from the heat and humidity, or the claustrophobic feeling that can come from the constant rain in the tropics.
If you were writing a book such as In God We Trust, by Jean Shepherd, or the script for Never Cry Wolf, by Curtis Hanson, Sam Hamm, and Richard Kletter, you would want to know how subfreezing temperatures can affect life-style and behavior.
Dale Wasserman, writer of the play based on Ken Kesey's novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, had to do location research to understand his characters. "As part of my research, I went to asylums. I went to classy asylums and dreadful asylums.And then I arranged with the psychiatrist in a very large asylum to have myself committed as a patient for a time. Originally I was going to stay for three weeks but ended up staying for ten days. Not because it was scary or uncomfortable, but because of the opposite. It's extremely comfortable. I learned a few things I hadn't expected. Number one: that if you hand over your will and your volition to an institution life becomes very simple and the temptation to just keep on living it in just that way is very strong. I learned about the great range of patients, the articulateness, the various abilities."
When Kurt Luedtke wrote the screenplay for Out of Africa, he needed to know all about Karen Blixen's world in Africa in the 1920s and 1930s.
"As a boy, I was interested in Africa, so I'm sure I can look at my bookshelves now and find at least fifty books on East Africa. My research had taught me about the African frontier, that it hadn't even opened in 1892, that people lived on the edge of the known world."
His books supplied his general research, but Kurt had to do a great deal of specific research, too, to answer the questions that surfaced as he wrote the script.
"I needed to learn how coffee grows, and how it flowers, and how a plantation operates. I learned that by interviewing a coffee grower.
"I needed to have some understanding of what the relationships were between the whites, primarily Brits, and the Kenyan blacks. I needed to understand the African tribes, because Blixen is probably not using Kikuyu for the household servants, she's probably using Somalies.
"I needed to know that many white men were making a living through ivory hunting during this period.
"I needed to know about the government situation: was it a colony or was it a protectorate, who had the authority to do what, and what was the relationship between the government and the settlers?
"I needed to know the history of World War One in EastAfrica. You don't normally think of World War One as having any effect in Africa, but the fact was, it did."
All of the many details--the slow pace of life where long stories are part of the evening's entertainment, the behavior between the colonists and the natives, the free-roving wild animals, and the economic instability of life on a coffee plantation--exemplified the considerable location research that helped make these characters work.
THE IMPACT OF OCCUPATION
Sometimes the context is the character's occupation.
Someone on Wall Street has a different pace and life-style from a farmer in Iowa. A computer analyst has different skills from an Olympic runner. A gardener and a podiatrist might have different attitudes, different values, different concerns as a result of their work.
James Brooks was attracted to the idea of Broadcast News because he was a real news buff. He had also spent some time in network news, but even with that background he still needed to devote about a year and a half to researching the script. As part of this research, he spent considerable time talking to newscasters and being an observer at news stations.
"I cared about the subject," he says, "and I'd say the first few months of the research were to get rid of my caring so that I could be as objective as possible and unlearn what I thought I knew.
"I started my research by talking to a lot of women--starting specifically with two, a Wall Street woman and a reporter. I was interested in the women who had made a mark, very fast, right out of college, well educated, top school, something good happened professionally right away.
"In some ways, the questions I asked were no different from the questions you would ask at various stages of a relationship, but it just felt more clinical."
Besides talking to people, James Brooks read up on the field. "I read the long biography on Murrow, I read some essays on news and broadcast, and whenever I'd hear about anything interesting, I'd track it down.
"I spent a lot of time in the city, hanging out with the people at the workplace. And if you spend enough time researching, your chances of being in the right place at the right time are enhanced."
By simply "hanging around," James Brooks saw many details that were incorporated into the film. "I saw someone run--physically run--when something went wrong with a tape."
I asked Kurt Luedtke how he would go about researching a certain character, for example, a safecracker. Since Kurt was once a journalist, he's very comfortable with the research process. He explained the process he would use to gain both character and story information.
"If I were doing a story about a safecracker, the first place I would go would be to the law authorities. I might ask, 'You haven't put anybody away lately who's literate and has half a brain and would be willing to talk to me?' Now one time in five or six somebody might say, 'Yeah, there's a guy who might be willing to talk to you, probably want to be paid, but if you give him a couple hundred bucks, he might be willing to talk to you.'
"Now I'm not necessarily looking for character information, but for vocational information, scene information. I'm surely going to ask him about the five times that a boost went wrong, what happened, just for the funny stories of how things go wrong. I'm probably looking for everything other than information about what the specific character would be because the guy in jail probably is not going to be useful to me. He's probably a true felon, while I'm probably writing about a less true felon for commercial reasons, in order to make my character more sympathetic."
Some of the questions that Luedtke would ask include:"How does he pick his places? Who does he work for? If he works alone, why? What are the problems? Why did he pick safecracking rather than any number of other ways to get money? Where did he learn to crack a safe? What did he do as a kid?"
By asking these Who, What, Where, When, Why type of questions, Luedtke would begin to form some conclusions about what kind of person becomes a safecracker, and how he differs from other people who commit crimes. "I assume that out of the nature of safecracking goes a certain resistance to authority, a certain conservative approach to crime, as opposed to murder, or to robbery where you have to hold the gun on someone and think they might have a gun too. Safecracking is kind of a nice quiet job. You don't run into anyone else and your goal is mainly an economic one. You're not really a sociopath, you're just someone who lives outside the rules. You merely want the money."
Kurt would also listen for specifics of vocabulary. What are the current words that safecrackers use? This can't be found in the library. "A book that's been published in the 1970s might have some words, but it's probably an outdated vocabulary."
Kurt would then draw other conclusions from this information. "If he's careful, he's probably not a showboat; he does not want to be remembered, he is not going to be a flashy dresser. He probably doesn't do heists in the town in which he lives, but he flies into St. Louis to do his job and then gets out ... ."
By thinking through what he's learned, Kurt begins to think of specific story points that would fit this character: "Because I know he's a careful person, he probably doesn't trust a lot of people. I know that probably a story mistake he's going to make is that he's been warned not to get so involved with people, and he probably gets involved with someone, which leads him into all sorts of trouble."
Through this type of interview, the writer begins to get basic information that rounds out the context and makesthe character more realistic. This in turn can stimulate the creative process, helping the story emerge naturally and truthfully.
EXERCISE: If you were interviewing this safecracker, what other questions might you ask? About family? Life-style? Psychology? Motivations? Goals? Values?
CREATING SPECIFIC RESEARCH OUT OF GENERAL RESEARCH
Sometimes general research leads writers actually to model a character on someone they met.
When William Kelley researched Witness, he met models for both Eli and for Rachel. He says, "Bishop Miller himself became a character; he became Eli (although I'd never tell him this). I study character first by carefully looking at the face--the face is the map of the soul--and by listening very carefully to intonations and accents and merriment and if he's putting me on to see if I can tell. I wasn't allowed to take a picture of him so I memorized him.
"The model for Rachel came from Bishop Miller's daughter-in-law, who came out of the house one day. She was sort of coquettish, with a specific tilt of the head, a rather coy glance, and she said, 'So you're going to do a movie, am I going to be in your movie?' I said, 'Well, if you keep talking to me I can almost assure you, you will.' She was very pretty, she looked like Ali McGraw and was easy to pay attention to, about twenty-seven or twenty-eight."
For Broadcast News, James Brooks built the character of Jane as a composite of four or five women. Tom was based on a network correspondent he had heard about. "One person told me a story about what happened when this man was asked to go to Lebanon on an assignment. He said, 'No way; I'd quit first. I'm married and I have a kid. I'm not going to risk my neck inLebanon.'" Brooks recognized that here was an interesting character because he was going against the stereotype. In network news, most people would risk everything to get to Lebanon, but this man placed his wife and children first.
If you find a model for your character as a result of research, that's a plus. But the specific character need not come out of the research. That can come out of your imagination, provided you first understand the character's context.
SPECIFIC RESEARCH TIPS
In all of these discussions, a certain process is evident. Each of these people knew where to look and what to ask.
Asking the right questions is a skill that can be learned. Gayle Stone, writer of technical thrillers (A Common Enemy, Radio Man), is also a writing teacher. She says, "There are some people who go through life missing 90 percent of what is going on around them. Everyone has the capacity to pay attention. Some people can pay attention more easily, maybe because they got encouragement from their parents. Those people will have more information in their memory banks. If somebody can open the door for you and start to reveal that you're one of those people who really hasn't been paying attention, then the possibility is there--no reason why you can't start now. There is no time limit to observing life. As long as you're living and breathing you can do it, and you might be surprised at how much you actually know, how much your unconscious has been storing all along."
Many people are willing, even honored, to be asked questions about their work. Whether it means interviewing an FBI agent, talking to a psychologist who specializes in clients with obsessive behavior, or asking a carpenter to explain the names and uses of various tools--Who, What, Where, When, and Why questions will usually yield the necessary information.
"Get to know your librarian" is also valuable advice for anywriter who needs fast access to information. Librarians will either know the answer or have ideas about where to find it.
HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE?
Research can take longer than any other part of scriptwriting. The length of time needed depends on what you know before you begin, and on the difficulties inherent in the character and the story.
James Brooks: "Research never stops. Broadcast News took a year and a half of absolute research and four years all together, because the research continued throughout the filming."
William Kelley: "I researched the Amish for seven years, and Earl and I wrote the script during the 1980 writers' strike, which lasted about three months."
Dale Wasserman: "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest took three months to research, but I began with a very interesting book. And I took six weeks to write it."
Without adequate research, the writing process often takes longer, and can be filled with frustrations. Although research usually continues throughout the writing process, there are points when you know that you are familiar enough with a certain subject. James Brooks says you reach that point when "every additional person tends to confirm what you've already learned, and when you can be a full participant in shop talk among people in the area you're exploring."
A CASE STUDY: GORILLAS IN THE MIST
In February 1989, Anna Hamilton Phelan was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Screenplay Adaptation for Gorillas in the Mist. This case study exemplifies a variety of ways thatresearch can be used to create a character, even if, as in this instance, a character is based on a real person.
"I started researching Dian Fossey's character in mid-January 1986, just a few weeks after Dian was murdered. I finished researching on June first, started writing the screenplay on July first, and delivered it on September first. It took about five months to research, and eight weeks to write. It was so fast because I had everything there. I was so secure in what I had that it didn't take any time at all to put it down onto paper.
"I had to do different types of research for this story. The primatology information I needed to know I learned from books. I read everything that I could read about the mountain gorilla--all the back issues of National Geographic, anything that I could find in the UCLA library on the mountain gorillas of Ruanda. I learned about their night-nests, which became a scene in the film. I learned that a person should not make direct eye contact with the gorilla because that threatens them and will entice them to charge.
"I learned about the gorillas' protectiveness toward their families or their groups. There will be one gorilla--a juvenile male--who will guard the rest of the group. This worked very well because Digit, who was a juvenile male, was Dian Fossey's favorite gorilla. He was the one in the film who eventually put his hands in hers.
"During my time in Africa, I was looking for the smell, the feel, what the environment does to me visually. Although you certainly don't smell a character or an environment in a screenplay, you can get it there in between the lines. And I was looking for a sense of how dangerous the area was to live in. Much of the danger came from the discomfort of living ten thousand feet above sea level. Dian had emphysema, which was exacerbated by the climate. Smoking two packs of cigarettes a day plus living in that humidity made her emphysema much worse. The walking, the hiking, the schlepping up those mountains and sliding around in that mud made me ask, 'What kind of a woman would want to live in that kind of environmentfor fifteen years?' It's a long time to live in the mud and it's freezing cold. Absolutely bone-chilling cold. The coldest I've ever been in my life. It's so damp and you're always wet. There is no part of your clothing, when you're outside, that is ever dry.
"I stayed in a little cabin about fifty feet from the cabin in which Dian was murdered, because we were not allowed in her cabin. It had been cordoned off after the murder. However, I could look in the windows of the cabin. I wanted to get in to touch things. Sometimes in touching things that in this case real live people have touched--there is something that happens. And it's not even--I can't even express it--but there are certain feelings that you get that you can use in the work. And I knew, if I'd have been able to get in there and touch some things that she had touched, it would have probably been good for me. But I was able to look in the windows and see what it looked like inside this corrugated tin cabin where there were little tablecloths, little vases of dried flowers, little silver picture frames, good china, good silver. It was so bizarre, to see these valuables in this strange place, but that was what intrigued me about this woman.
"The first time I saw the gorillas, I thought, They're not real. They're so gentle and so docile and just kind of minding their own business that you're not frightened at all. But I never had that feeling about the gorillas that I know Dian had--that feeling of awe and wonder. So I had to create that feeling. But it was helpful for me to see the gorillas.
"The actual period of the story was more difficult to research, because the civil war which had formed a strong subplot in the story had been over with for a number of years. I did, however, find some information from Dian Fossey's book, where she mentioned a tiny bit in one of the chapters about her run-in at the border. There were other books I read, other historical accounts of the conflict in the Congo.
"The local people were very in awe and very much in love with Dian Fossey and/or her project. Those that had never mether were very taken with her. She was called Niramachebelli, and that means 'the woman who lives alone in the forest without a man.' But the people that I met that knew her better didn't like her. I only found one person out of the forty that I interviewed that liked her and that was Ross Car [played by Julie Harris in the film]. She had so many enemies. You could point your finger anywhere and find a murderer."
As you think through your research, ask the following questions about your characters:
• What do I need to know about the context of my characters?
• Do I understand their culture?
• Do I understand the rhythms, the beliefs, the attitudes that are part of that culture?
• Have I met, talked to, and spent time with people in that culture?
• Do I understand ways that they are similar to, and different from the way I am?
• Have I spent enough time with a number of different people, so that I won't create a stereotype based on one or two encounters?
• Am I familiar with the occupation of my characters?
• Do I have a feel for the occupation, some sense through observation of what the work entails, and how people feel about their work?
• Do I know the vocabulary well enough that I can use it naturally and comfortably in dialogue?
• Do I know where my characters live? Do I know the lay of the land, the experience of walking the streets?
• Do I have a sense of the climate, of leisure-time activities, of the sounds and smells of this location?
• Do I understand how this location is different from my own location, and what effect this has on my characters?
• If my script is set in another period of time, do I know enough historical details about that period in terms of language, living conditions, clothing, relationships, attitudes, and influences?
• Have I read diaries or other literature from that period so that I have a sense of how people spoke and the words they used?
• In researching my characters, have I been willing to ask for help from resource people--whether librarians or people knowledgeable about a specific area?
Almost every character demands some research. There is more than one reason why new writers are often told to write about what they know. The research can be both time-consuming and expensive. Many new writers can't afford to spend a month in Africa, or may not know how to find a safecracker, or may not be able to hold out the possibility of new business to the Amish buggymaker.
Understanding the importance of research and understanding what to research are important steps in the process of creating strong characters.
Once new writers get over their initial resistance to research, many find it can be one of the most exciting, creative, and exhilarating parts of the writing process. It paves the way for the imagination to give the character life.
Copyright © 1990 by Linda Seger