Pen Densham is an Oscar nominated filmmaker, with 16 features and over 300 hours of TV under his belt. He’s also an author. He pulled the title of his best-selling book on creative screenwriting, Riding the Alligator, from his first job in entertainment where he had to ride atop a live alligator for a film made by his parents. The book has been supported by Ron Howard, Paul Haggis, Jeff Bridges, Morgan Freeman, as well as heads of major motion picture studios and academics from film schools at USC, UCLA, NYU and AFI.
Densham draws from his own extremely simple breakthrough techniques, shares his philosophy of finding a personal well of creativity from your inner voice, to overcoming the many challenges in a unique business, managing stress, the real secrets to selling your work, finding the right agent and being true to one’s nature to create a lasting and passion filled career.
Below is an excerpt from his book Riding the Alligator. To read more, click here.
Creating Roles Stars Will Want to Play
I am convinced that actors with creative intelligence want to play roles that challenge and refresh their artistic instincts. Movies that get noted for Oscar consideration. When stars commit to a movie in Hollywood, it is frequently the reason the film will get financed. No imaginative person wants to do the same thing over and over. Yet studios offer stars the same type of role over and over. The assumption is that this is the persona the actor wants to play or this is the persona that the studio thinks will sell.
But the big secret is: The studios are competing against each other for these artists. Stars are one of the main, shiny baits for the audience from which the studios hope to profit. And to attract those stars “screenplays” are the lure the studios need: great stories with great roles. Charlize Theron won for the role of a dynamic and demented female killer in Monster. Sean Penn won for his deep and charismatic portrayal of Harvey Milk, the first openly homosexual politician in America. Eddie Redmayne for playing Stephen Hawking.
So how do we, as writers, create complex characters that will attract talented performers? Personalities whose emotional palettes are less obvious, more engaging, or totally tantalizing chances for stars to refresh their instincts and create a unique human portrait?
Humans come with such a vast lexicon of traits there is virtually no wrong way to portray our species. But, when we start to sketch out our protagonists and antagonists, we might see them as types before we see them as people. This often happens to me, so to break the mold I struggle to free my thinking and deepen my originality and authenticity.
I ask myself questions. Who would be the least obvious, most unusual character to take on this challenge? What would be the weirdest world to place my favorite character types in, thus making their behavior fresh? What eccentricity, or handicap, or permutations of personality would make a dull person fascinating?
I use bi-association, taking two or more contradictory human types and forcing them together: A prostitute must become a detective. A fireman decides to sing opera. A teacher must become a knight. A dog transfers into a man’s body. A nun has a sex change. Crashing types together can create weird or wonderful discoveries.
I have made lists of examples of human attributes and emotions and tried to divine ideas by running these options through my mind: employed/loafer; introvert/extrovert; gay/straight; bigot/saint.
I will confess to spending hours just trolling through the Internet and looking up odd things like “the worst human beings in the world” or “ten things I love about my friends.” I also like to read psychologists’ case studies. They are remarkable documents of human experience, and can be filled with day-to-day anecdotes from real people that can open our own minds to new possibilities that will color or shape a character type into someone surprising and real.
I often review the five stages of grief, as discovered by Doctor Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, to see if they can help me create realistic character behavior. Elizabeth decided to study people who had terminal illnesses to try to bring comfort and understanding to both the dying and those who were about to lose a loved one. She discovered a set of innate emotional stages that seemed constant and necessary in helping someone deal with loss and grief.
They represent a road map to piecing together truthful responses we as fiction writers need to give authenticity to our characters’ reaction to loss or damage or change. A romance breaks up. Someone stole their treasure. Their leader has been killed. We can add complexity as our characters try to cope with their circumstances, deny them, curse them, try to push them away… and then go on to acceptance.
This is human nature in action. It can make a fantasy or science fiction story more believable, too. Take a character who is haunted by a ghost or abducted by an alien. No real person would just accept either of these scenarios as an instant reality. We can use some or all of the five stages to take the audience with the character through the layers of rejection of a phenomenon to the ultimate belief in its actuality.
When I am exploring new ideas with that strange mixture of hope and fear, I tell myself it is important to be playful, to write as explorations and inventions — let the consequences fall later. I sometimes doubt whether all this research is procrastination and I should punish myself, or if this is valuable time when I am feeding my unconscious to kick out more complex and intriguing human amalgams. Although I do have a masterful relationship with procrastination, I mainly come down on the data bank side.
Create a welcome in your head to allow your characters’ personas to speak. Surrender to them. Let their voices float through you. Great writing can feel like you are channeling, taking dictation from your inner spaces. My channeled observations of humanity seem to be colored by pains or hefty emotions from my own past. I find that channeled writing is more poetic, insightful, aware of the human condition.
Do not let your internal critic nag you into drawing lines of right or wrong. Do not question how weird, contradictory, crude, or bad the material is. I have discovered that my brain is mostly incapable of making a judgment call on quality while in the process of writing. My mantra stipulates that no one will ever read the work unless I choose to share it. The idea is to free myself so that idiosyncrasies can arise. Fascinating characters are not developed by following rules but by breaking through our limitations.
Later, I am often surprised how good — even excellent — the writing really is. When you free yourself to write your characters from the heart you are expressing your original voice. Push for what feels dangerous and as different as you can stomach. It will have an imprint, a uniqueness, a potency and complexity that other artists will hopefully sense and use to bring their own skills to a higher level.
Once I have discovered my characters, I firmly believe that they must grow and change as the story evolves. Artistic actors usually work out their own backstory, an internal monologue for the people they play. They get pleasure from filling in the personality, habits, and emotions of their roles. I give my characters an Achilles heel, something that has gone wrong in the past and must be straightened out in their head before they can get to solve the story situation they are in. Their father hated them, because he thought their mother trapped him into a shot gun marriage. They lost their parents in a terrifying way that gives them a phobia. Their brother was killed doing something heroic and they have always felt they were a coward by comparison. I call this the Nugget… Some people might call this the character’s “Arc”. But I prefer my own definition.
We constantly read streams of scripts that are all action and no character nugget. They say the essence of drama is conflict… When characters don’t have a Nugget to struggle with, we learn nothing about ourselves by watching them. The script feels empty, a bit of a Tin Man. All outside and no heart.
The nugget approach provides a deeper solution to generating a struggle for emotional evolution, creating a core of challenging emotional logic that the actor can build on. Possibly in an award winning way. As the complexity of emotions and conflicts from overcoming a past damage colors the performance like a complexity in music gives depth.
I was lucky enough to write a character called Hibble in my Moll Flanders script that was unlike any role that Morgan Freeman had ever played. A black concierge to a madam in a London brothel in the 1700s, Hibble had a rich backstory, having been the madam’s lover once and now black-mailed and tied to the madam he hates, because she know’s things that could get him hanged. When facing the possibility of casting the film, I was pretty much an untested director and needed stars or MGM was not going to finance the movie.
I asked myself, who would I like to work with? I had an epiphany. I had met Morgan on our Robin Hood, and found him to be a great artist and a deeply caring man. My partner John forwarded Morgan the script. And I can still remember taking his phone call. I was fully prepared for a polite pass. But… my heart thumping, I heard Morgan speak. “I think your words are poetry. I would be honored to speak them. You can tell people you have Morgan Freeman.” It was the call that started me on the journey that got Moll Flanders made. A script written from my voice and not my head. That seemed to appeal to high caliber talent.
PEN’S CHARACTER PROVOKER
For those who want to play with ideas to enrich the roles they create:
Let your mind roam by asking yourself questions evoked by this checklist. This is a work-in-progress for me. The concept is not necessarily to complete the whole list, but to see if any of the questions open up your own understanding of who or what your characters might be.
For example: How do my characters feel about their age? If they are from divorced parents, was this ugly and game-changing for them? If they are short, do they fight to compensate? etc.
Engage each element in your mind. See what it conjures.
Ethnic background? Its status in character’s life? Skin color/ nationality? What languages spoken?
Social class/present status/Would like to be?
Position in family: orphan, single child, firstborn leader, youngest spoiled?
Parents: happy, separated, divorced?
Father’s career/mother’s career?
Parents’ beliefs, prejudices, fears, darkest secrets?
RELATIONSHIPS WITH OPPOSITE SEX
Married, dating, single, divorced, has children/out of wedlock?
Major love interest(s)? Compatible/incompatible?
Sexual preferences: heterosexual, homosexual? Hang-ups, morals?
PERSONALITY / HOPES AND FEARS / PSYCHOLOGY
Whose deaths affected characters? Was there a tragedy in the past?
What or who intruded on or abused them? Good influences? Bad influences?
What kind of education? Intelligence level? Favorite subjects/things hated?
Work or occupation: attitude to work. A slave? Wealthy and lazy?
Skills bank/abilities: adaptable to a new skill? Obsolete skills?
Beliefs: religious, atheist, Zen, philosopher, spiritual?
Believes in luck? Scientist? Ethics or lack of?
Health: fitness to illness. Life expectancy?
Vices? Drugs: medical drugs, illegal?
Hobbies, pastimes, sports, gambler, risk taker?
Major emotional events in life: loss/gain, regret/success?
Judge of character: gullible, astute, a Sherlock Homes?
Position in community?
Major personal obstacle (to overcome or be overcome by)?
Shy? Introverted? Outgoing extrovert (with whom?) Confident? Fear of failure?
Fears, phobias (from spiders to OCD)?
Secret in past, evil, a surprise, unique?
Pessimist, optimist, resigned, defeatist? Sense of humor (or lack of)?
Fashion style (sloppy/fastidious)? Dreamer procrastinator?
Driven, active militant?
Major outside hero influence (sports figure, superhero, famous real person)?
What books/literature heroes influenced by? The Bible? Harry Potter? Time Magazine? Shakespeare?
Who would they be if they could be someone else? If they could be anywhere else, where?
Would describe self as…..?
What characteristics emerge under pressure? Relationship with animals? Pets?
What do they dream? What is in their nightmares?
What animal characteristics do they embody: elephant memory, slithery like a snake, loyal like a dog?
Characteristics of a villain or hero in history that would transplant.
What terrible things happened to damage them.