The best film plot will fall flat if it’s not populated with engaging, colorful characters. Stephen Beresford, BAFTA winner and Golden Globe Best Picture nominee for the 2014 film Pride, never skimps on character development. He admits that he cannot begin the writing process until he knows his characters’ desires, emotions, and relationships explicitly. “They are always the starting point,” he says.
Script Lab was in London recently to speak with Beresford about his award-winning perspective on character exploration. Find out his methods, and thoughts on creating realistic characters that audiences and critics adore.
JM: Crafting thorough characters can be difficult. In our previous interview, you mentioned that characters are “your thing,” your starting point. How do you begin? Do you create detailed character outlines?
SB: I don’t. What works for me is to have someone I trust interrogate me [about the characters]. They’ll say ‘who is she? Why is she like that? What is it they want?’ I have a friend who is a script editor. I can bounce things off her, or my agent. She’s very good at this stuff. They will ask key questions, normally just out of interest and then you find yourself having to refine [the character], or be specific. With something like Pride where you’ve got characters based on real people, but you fictionalize them it’s easier in a way. You have a template. With a play or film that I’m making up from scratch, I find that the central character will be a bit of a blank and the rest of the characters are much more vivid. The last thing that I will fill in richly will be the centre.
One of my weaknesses is dates and ages. I tend not be very specific about how old people are, and I find myself giving them knowledge of things they couldn’t possibly have experienced. So sometimes I work out how old someone is, that the person was born in 1968, and another person was born in 1974, and they can’t traverse those character boundaries. I give them a vague outline of their lives, but I don’t go into any detail at all, no. All of that stuff comes quite naturally.
Quite often when you start a project you do a general wash in terms of character. It’s like colors in a picture. You think this person needs to be very vivid, this person needs to be quieter, and this person needs to have this quality. Often those things come as a surprise to me as I write.
JM: Since you don’t create detailed outlines, do you improvise with your characters as you go?
SB: Yeah, but I live with the characters all the time, long before I would start writing the play or film, the characters will be in my head. It’s a long time. Ten years, five years, it’s never been less than two years so far, but it could be months.
JM: By the time you start writing, you know them explicitly.
SB: Yes. If a character comes into my mind and I don’t recognize them immediately and I don’t know who they are, they’re of no interest to me. Usually I think of a single character or a world, a world that I’ll start to populate. And as soon as the world makes it self clear, then I start to think who are the people in this world and they suggest themselves. I don’t have to do any work at all. They just appear.
For example, [my play] The Last of the Haussmans – I wanted to write about people who were new money in a sense, upper middle class who made a lot of money in past generations, and have now lost it all. Think of clogs to clogs in three generations, a British saying. I wanted to write about that experience and that world. So as soon as that world suggested itself those characters sort of appeared. Some immediately, some slowly, but they appear and present themselves. Only the really important ones survive. I get better as I go on, culling anyone who is superfluous to requirements.
JM: When you’re mulling over your characters’ behavior and traits, do you place them in everyday situations to figure out how they would conduct themselves in such scenarios?
SB: Not quite, but I think of them all the time. My relationship with the characters is complicated because they are in a sense real to me. How can I put this without sounding completely sectionable? I have a sort of respect for them. I say sort of respect because in a way I’m god, and I’ve made them, I can do what I like with them – and I do – and I intrude horrifically on their private experiences, but by the same token I do have some scruples. Anything scenic, anything big or emotional is in the play or film. If it’s not in there, I don’t know about it. I do think of very mundane things like smoking, having a drink, or walking down the street, but they’re tiny little snapshots. I don’t go completely off message because I don’t find that helpful.
JM: Do you put a lot of thought into naming your characters?
SB: Yes, I’m obsessed with it. Sometimes I think they tell me what their names are. I give a huge amount of thought to it, far too much, but I can’t write unless I think I’ve got their name right. I don’t think it’s possible to be a British writer and not have questions of social power, and class as part of your DNA because those issues are important. In the same way I think you can’t be an American writer and not have race be a question that’s part of your writing tool kit. For that reason a name reveals a huge amount about a character. It gives some social background and it’s nice to play with those things, so you can slightly defy expectations. Names also have a certain sound to them that can seem to be right. We go to this enormous amount of trouble as writers and then audiences will say they like the girl in the green hat. People won’t pay much attention to it, but I do.
JM: Do you stay away from certain names such as names of people you know?
SB: Yeah. I think people would say ‘is that me?’ Having said that, I have named people after people, so that’s a complete contradiction. I’ve done that on purpose though. I do that quite often as a joke for myself. The name of my first bank manager appears in certain things. The character Mark Ashton meets, an ex lover on the stairs in a nightclub in Pride, I named him Tim for someone I knew. He didn’t die from AIDS, but he died very young so that seemed an appropriate tribute. In terms of calling people the names of someone I know I avoid it if I can, and with surnames particularly, which is difficult with the plays that I’ve been writing because they’re set in my hometown and there’s a certain surname in that area. It’s difficult to choose the surnames that sound like they’re from Devon without sounding like I’m talking about specific people. Not that I should worry about that, but I do.
JM: Are there types of characters that you enjoy writing?
SB: I love drunks. I sympathize with anyone who seeks escape. Somehow I write a lot of alcoholics. At one of the early previews of my play The Last of the Haussmans at the National Theatre, I went to get a drink at the long bar and one of the bartenders said to me ‘did you write the play?’ and I said yeah. He said ‘well, as far as we’re concerned it’s a winner’ and pointed to the staff. And I said ‘that’s terrific, thank you very much, that’s very kind of you.’ And he said ‘plays about alcoholics are brilliant for takings.’ People come out of the theatre and run to the bar. It’s true. If you see a play by Tennessee Williams you think I could just murder a martini.
JM: Do you think all characters should have a secret, or a major flaw?
SB: All characters have secrets, but they’re not always going to be revealed. A lot of time when people are writing they try to create a character with a secret or a flaw because they think that’s what we’re looking for. I’m not sure it’s beneficial. If you look at someone like Chekov he’s able to write characters that are assholes without you feeling that they’re assholes. You think they’re awful people, but I like them. The problem with secrets is that they lead to revelation, and revelation isn’t drama, really. As one character says to another ‘you don’t understand but I am your mother’ so, so what? You don’t want things happening in the past. You want things happening in the present.
Characters have to interest me and I have to feel like I like them, or even love them. Sometimes you have to write characters that you really dislike, but it’s like being a parent. I know he’s a shit, but he’s my son. Like Maureen who is a fictional character in Pride, it was a very difficult part to write and play because in such a huge crowded landscape with something like 91 speaking parts she had to carry an awful lot of the prejudice and bigotry and that could make her a bit two dimensional, but she’s also Cliff’s sister-in-law, she’s lost her husband, she’s got two children and she’s brilliantly played by Lisa Palfrey. There’s a scene where you see the miners marching back to work and she’s stood on the doorstep with a picture of her husband. I wrote that scene to show that the community hasn’t shunned her and that was her story. It’s a bit more complicated. I would always try to write characters that I like, that I would spend time with which is why I write alcoholics obviously. They’re good people to spend time with.
JM: What are your thoughts on villains?
SB: I don’t really believe in villains. I mean Maureen, having said that is a villain, but like I say she’s only a villain because she has an opposing point of view. Characters that you present in the story to be antithetical to the heroes, or whoever the main people are, are always my favorite people to write. People who are mean-spirited, small hearted or cruel are always extremely easy to write and quite enjoyable, most particularly people who are petty or snobbish, rather than a grand wickedness. Somebody who is a bit of a bitch or stuck up, snotty or obsessively clean or has some minor thing, those things are much more interesting to write.
JM: Do you ever have a problem giving negative traits to a character that is the good character, the hero?
SB: Not really. If it’s a real person like Mark Ashton in Pride it can be difficult to find that stuff out. Mark died tragically young and he’s a hero to people, so I found it very difficult to unearth real character information about him that wasn’t heroic. But eventually you will find the people who will say he could be arrogant, or high-handed or whatever. It’s not difficult if you’re making up a character from scratch. That’s quite easy, in fact if anything I tend to go the other way a bit and make them too flawed.
JM: How do you avoid controlling your characters too much?
SB: From my experience if you do that they go on strike. The page dries up completely. If I manipulate them into situations they wouldn’t be in they simply stop. They’re not talking anymore. I’m not writing, I’m typing. That’s when you know. As you get more experience you realize you can’t manipulate characters. You think this scene has no drama, so I’m going to give that woman breast cancer, but it’s cheap. In some cases things like that can work, but you’ve got to be careful.
When I see characters they sort of float around in the ether, some of them never change from the minute they appear to the minute they’re on the page, and some change quite a lot. The ones where there is potential for change are usually the ones in which the plot is going to come from. It’s about balance. All these people are in the same world and they all affect each other so you start to feel a color change. If you apply one thing to one character all the other characters will subtlety, or very strongly change their color.
JM: What tactics do you follow when you’re having trouble with a character behaving or acting in the appropriate manner?
SB: It’s happened where I’ve thought a character wasn’t working or earning their keep. [Sometimes I’ll have] three characters, and they will wander around aimlessly for a long time until I join all three into one person and then I think that’s what it is. As much as possible I try to reduce and condense it down and the same with the scene. A scene that has one purpose is a poor scene. If I have a scene where one thing happens, I always feel like I’m watching an episode of Highway to Heaven. It’s just simple. This thing happens and then we move on. We should have one thing happen, and then another thing happening underneath – at least – and then another thing, so it’s a rich meal that keeps the audience on their toes. You should always be ahead of the audience.
JM: What are your strategies for writing realistic dialogue? Do you need the actors to say your words to know they’re realistic?
SB: I don’t need to wait [for the actors]. I’m fortunate that I can tell what is good and what is bad, and I can always change it without being asked. You learn as you go along. I just recently revisited something that I wrote a long time ago because I was asked to see if it might be broadcast. I had written it when I was about 30. There were bits in it that I thought were really nice, but there were other bits that I’d never let through now. It’s interesting. A journey has been taken. I’ve learned how to make dialogue feel better. One’s style improves.
One of the most important things I learned about being on set all day and every day with Pride is don’t change things in the heat of the moment. It’s very easy to go, why don’t we just change that because we haven’t got what’s written in the script; they’re actually on a staircase so why don’t we change those three things to make it make sense on a staircase. And you think that’s good I’ve solved that, it’s worked for the day. And then 16 scenes later, a month into shooting and you’ll realize the three things you changed were actually plot points or important in some way. It happened in Pride where I nearly changed something in the description of the book that Joe takes off the shelf where he hides all his stuff in his bedroom. There seemed to be a witty visual gag with a book of fairy stories we thought was quite funny. Fairies, gays – why don’t we use that? Of course later his sister browses the shelves and takes down a book called Book of Verse because she’s looking for something to be read at a christening. She wouldn’t have pulled down a book of fairy stories. If I had given into the temptation on that moment, we would have had a shoot two weeks later that made no sense. I think it’s very important that writers hold to what they wrote and why they wrote it, and it’s the same with dialogue.
JM: Do you ever steal words, sentences from people? When we talked last time you said that you follow people if they’re having a really good conversation, or you would listen to people in restaurants. Do you ever take material like that and squirrel it away to use later?
SB: All the time. If it can be taken, I will. I was at the Olivier in the National Theatre watching Emperor and Galilean and at the end of the first half the stage is full with hundreds of soldiers and they’ve just sacrificed a bull and there’s blood pouring down the revolve. A lot of high drama and the two women in front of me, one turned to the other and said, “in the end we went for cork flooring.” And they started their conversation. I can’t use it now because I’ve given it away, but you always think you want to find a place to put that in because there’s something wonderful about the fact they could sit and watch animal sacrifice and incest and pick up their conversation exactly where they left off.
I absolutely shamelessly steal and so should all writers. Talent borrows, genius steals. Anything I hear that is good, I take it. I’m not even ashamed. If it’s good and completely relates to what I’m working on at the present time then it goes into the script somehow.
People tell me things about their lives and I put them wholesale into stuff. I’m not ashamed of doing it and I’m completely brazen about it, but then when the people who told you those things come and see the play, or movie, I’ve got enough decency to feel slightly shame faced when I see them. They never seem to mind, and even if they did I wouldn’t stop doing it.
Most of the time when you put people wholesale into something they have no idea that it’s them. Somebody who really was in The Last of the Haussmans said, “those dreadful people; no self-knowledge.” They had no idea they were in it. No one has challenged me and with Pride there were real people and I changed them. I was ruthless about that and no one minded. They might do in later years. I’ll be dead by then with any luck.
JM: Some female writers have problems writing male characters while some men have problems writing female characters. You don’t have that problem. Hefina and Sian in Pride, Judy in The Last of the Haussmans – they’re all strong women. What informed that ability for you? Or does gender not matter?
SB: I don’t really believe in gender in the sense that there are no metaphysical differences between men and women. There are physical differences, but physical differences don’t manifest themselves in drama. Only one type of character can give birth, but apart from that, I don’t really recognize it. There are social truths about men and women, but they’re already there in the fabric of the story. I do enjoy writing women and I don’t think about it as ‘here I am writing a woman.’ I just write them like I would write a man. I just imagine being a woman and seem to be able to do it.
I grew up around women who were very funny, my mum particularly. I drift towards the female sense of humor part of the spectrum and maybe for that reason I’m comfortable writing women. I’ve never found it difficult. I think it’s got something to do with that I don’t really see gender in dialogue terms in any way important.
Jane Austen never wrote two men talking to each other in private because she said she didn’t know how they would speak to each other which is a bit of a fucking cop-out if you want to know what I think, Jane. I think she could’ve worked it out, but she’s that kind of a writer, bless her. And to be fair to her, what she’s saying is that she’s got a suspicion that men are much darker than I can write and she was bang on.
JM: Have you received any advice on character development that made a difference to you?
SB: I remember being told – but I can’t remember by whom – that if something occurs to you too easily, it will occur to the audience as easily so be careful about reaching for those easy conclusions. If this character’s husband is going to leave her, how does she behave? The immediate answer is she cries, she pleads with him, she bargains. And that’s where we go. We see the scene; we see the wardrobe, the open suitcase, blocking the door. It’s easy. Then think of the second thing – she behaves with absolute indifference towards him, and won’t speak. She sits down in the corner of the room and watches him pack and makes him justify himself and he just stares at her. That might not be the answer, but it’s more interesting than the original idea, so always go one ahead because audiences will have already done all that work, audiences are very bright. I think that’s good advice. Don’t go for the most obvious thing. Woman has abortion. She feels guilty. Go somewhere else with her character.
Director Max Stafford-Clark is a very brilliant man on script and definitely someone I listen to. He once said when I was an actor never point unless it’s there. I’ve never forgotten it and I apply it now to writing. By which I mean, don’t introduce something that doesn’t help, that doesn’t bring something to the party. There is no need for extraneous information. Be wary of the tragic back-story.
JM: Who are your favorite characters from film, or television?
SB: I love Jane Fonda’s character Leona in Newsroom. It’s a brilliantly written part. It’s very Aaron Sorkin. It’s interesting and unusual. She gets stoned, she drinks, she’s powerful, and she’s aggressive.
In movies I loved the twin writers in Adaptation, and both the guys in Sideways. I love Noah Baumbach, and The Squid and the Whale as well. I thought both Laura Linney and Jeff Daniels as those two narcissistic parents were brilliantly done. I love Baumbach’s work. It’s something I’ve sort of copied myself or thought that I’m on the same road, which is writing characters where you are not afraid to make them unpleasant.
When writers try to make characters sympathetic that’s when I lose interest in them. I like unsympathetic characters. There are so many. Alan Bennett who wrote Prick Up Your Ears, Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell. I thought he did an incredible job of bringing those two real people to life in a way that was amazing. He’s a great writer and his films are very underrated. Maggie Smith’s character in A Private Function, a class obsessed podiatrist’s wife. “Don’t bring feet to the table, Gilbert.” She’s a fantastic character.
JM: Do you have any parting advice about characters that you would like to share with Script Lab readers?
SB: Think about the quiet. Your characters live as much in the quiet as when they’re speaking. One of the things that helps to develop characters in a sophisticated and truthful way is to think about them in solitude, and to think about how they would behave in a quiet moment. Talking about Max Stafford-Clark again, years and years ago he did a very brilliant production of The Recruiting Officer, a play by George Farquhar, another good character writer. Ron Cook portrayed a character called Captain Brazen. He’s a captain in the army and he’s kind of strange and eccentric, an odd comic character. This particular production was a farcical play, people are running on and off stage and there’s a moment when Captain Brazen finds himself alone on stage, and he just stood and let his shoulders drop. And then someone came on stage, and he carried on. That little moment of showing that Captain Brazen found it stressful and exhausting to keep up this constant stream of eccentricity was a fantastic window into making him a real person.
That would be my best advice, when you think of your characters don’t think of them in a plane crash. Human beings generally behave the same in crisis, there’s very little difference. People scream, they pray, it’s all the same whereas on a long gray afternoon in an almost deserted railway station people behave in very singular ways. The best way into the character’s soul is to think about the quiet not the talking. Think about what they are like when they don’t speak. That’s my best advice.