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Crawling Inside Your Characters’ Heads: from Robert McKee’s Story

By on Friday, Sep 6, 2013 in Uncategorized | 4 comments

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Hi Everyone!

The kids are back in school and my house is SILENT…except for the soft snores of my pooch who is passed out on her back with her legs up in the air.

I’m reading the classic screenwriting book Story by Robert McKee and I wanted to share one little tidbit    that may help you to crawl into your characters’ heads and extract the perfect essence of truth and honesty that we strive every day to find to make our characters come alive.

 As writers, we seek to put truth on the page. Meaning we want our characters to act honestly, in ways that only they can act. We don’t want to create cliche. We don’t want to moralize. We don’t want to write over-the-top unbelievable characters.

So how do you write an honest, breathing character that makes your reader laugh, cry, and get moody and unhappy when they are unhappy?

The answer is partially–do they make YOU laugh, cry, and feel miserable (and I’m not talking about just when the writing’s going badly!)

Have you done that–gotten nervous, laughed, cried, started sweating, gotten pains in your stomach when you are writing a scene? Or even long after you’re done writing a scene?

Well, if you haven’t, maybe Robert McKee can help you out.

McKee says that we must write from the inside out–meaning that in each scene, we must not be impartial observers of our characters but actually crawl into their heads and experience the scene from their point of view.

How to do this?

Flowers that finally recovered from the torrential rains this summer and are blooming like crazy now!

Well, here’s how he says NOT to do this:

–Don’t ask, “How should my character take this action?”–that leads to moralizing.

–Don’t ask, “How might someone do this?”–that leads to writing cute and clever but dishonestly.

–Don’t ask, “If my character were in these circumstances, what would she do?”–that puts you at a distance from the character’s emotions, makes you guess at them, and leads to cliche

–Don’t ask, “If I were there, what would I do?”–guess what, no one cares what you would do. They care about your character (or that’s the point–you want them to!)

So what should you ask? McKee says “If I were this character in these circumstances what would I do?
(italics mine)

And here’s his grand explanation:

“Writers are improvisationalists who perform sitting at their word processors, pacing their rooms, acting all their characters:  man, woman, child, monster. We act in our imaginations until honest, character-specific emotions flow in our blood. When a scene is emotionally meaningful to us, we can trust that it’ll be meaningful to the audience. By creating work that moves us, we move them.”

From Story:  Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee, Regan Books, 1998, pages 153-154

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