The screenwriting adage is “write what you know” but a successful screenplay or television episode contains a diverse ensemble of characters. How do we find the voice of characters of that may come from different ages, races, genders and backgrounds than ourselves? And how do we bring them to life with authenticity and heart?
On Saturday April 1st WeScreenplay & ScreenCraft assembled a first-class panel of writers and filmmakers at the Annapolis Film Festival to dig into this question for a room full of aspiring writers, filmmakers and film enthusiasts. The panel included feature film writers Matt Spicer and Jordan Roberts, television writer and showrunner Melissa Carter and Penn State Screenwriting teacher Tasia Sossiatis. Matt Spicer is Writer & Director of Sundance 2017 feature INGRID GOES WEST, starring Aubrey Plaza, Elizabeth Olsen and O’Shea Jackson, awarded Walter Salt Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award and soon to be released theatrically by Neon Releasing. Jordan Roberts is Writer & Director of Toronto Film Festival 2016 feature BURN YOUR MAPS starring Vera Farmiga and Jacob Tremblay as well as AROUND THE BEND, FRANKIE GO BOOM and he wrote Morgan Freeman’s narration MARCH OF THE PENGUINS. Melissa Carter, writer and television showrunner, was Executive producer of the FreeForm show FAMOUS IN LOVE and the co-showrunner of QUEEN SUGAR. She wrote the feature film LITTLE BLACK BOOK and then went on to write on “Yes, Dear,” “Mistresses,” and “Jane By Design” and won a Writers Guild Award in 2015 for “Deliverance Creek.”
When starting out, especially when writing new characters such as a grieving mother or a young child in BURN YOUR MAPS, Jordan’s advice is to write from the heart as openly as possible. “I write with no discernment” he says. His advice is that only when he gets rid of the voice of “the judge on his shoulder” is he able to listen to the voice in his heart.
His writing process follows a sequence of drafts. First is the "madman," a free-form draft where he writes the story with no judgment. Then as he adds structure and focus to the story his next draft is “the architect." As each draft progresses, he begins to hone the structure while maintaining the fresh voice of the early “madman.” The last two drafts are "the carpenter" and finally "the judge." Only on “the judge” does he step-back and judge his work.
Melissa Carter, in running a show set in the very specific world of a sugar plantation in Louisiana, relies on personal experience balanced with research and listening. The characters on QUEEN SUGAR were not only distinct individuals but they often spoke with very unique voices. One character, having been raised in Los Angeles instead of on
Louisiana, spoke in a distinctly different way than her local family. Having writers in the writers room who could understand these differences, and actors who could translate them into reality, was the way to make the character authentic and complete.
For Matt Spicer, his last film revolved around an aspirational relationship between two women, played by Aubrey Plaza and Elizabeth Olsen. However he was able to connect because the story’s foundation is about his generation’s unhealthy obsession with social media and the anxiety and envy it creates. This was a topic from his own personal experience and, with Aubrey Plaza’s help as producer of the film, they brought it to life with darkly comedic skill.
While there is no recipe for writing authentic characters, all panelists could agree it comes from both trusting your internal emotional instincts and listening to your collaborators. Write what you know, but try as much as you can to widen your world.