Screenwriting Tool: The Character Board
Getting from the initial germ of an idea to 100 pages of properly formatted screenplay is no small feat. We all have our tricks and tools that help us keep momentum and organize our thoughts along the journey: outlines, note cards, etc. One of mine I’d like to share with you today is a Character Board.
In early stages of pitching to a client, I’ve seen advertising agencies use a mood board. It’s a collection of images that convey the tone of an idea in a way that words would not. (Quick! Describe the Mona Lisa‘s smile! Wouldn’t a photo do a much better job?)
A Character Board works like that. Write the names of each of your major characters, nice and big. Optionally, add a phrase or two of description, perhaps a profession or defining personality quirk. Now, next to each, include a picture to represent each character.
Where do you get the pictures? Anywhere. Clip people out of magazines. Being someone who does production, I’ve thumbed through stacks of headshots. (I always wonder if the actors would find it flattering or insulting to know that they’re holding a place in my screenplay.) Probably the most effective technique is to pull images of celebrities off the web. You can use more than one picture, too. You might find that three different actors sort of “average out” to the actual core character you’re trying to create.
Pictures are worth a thousand words, and they bring with them nuances that your most thorough descriptions might not. Pictures of celebrities might be worth more like a million words, since they conjure memories of performances and—fake or otherwise—personalities. These details start to fill in gaps that your verbal descriptions can’t cover.
This technique is sort of like building a paper machete piñata around a balloon. If you start with nothing but wet newspaper, you won’t get very far. But if you build it around a base you can get somewhere. You’ll take your celebrity pictures away later, like peeling the popped balloon from the center of the piñata, but by then the words will have dried. (OK, maybe I worked that metaphor too hard.)
Don’t dwell for even a moment about any of the practical realities of casting, producing, or selling your screenplay some day. That’s a long time from now, and this exercise has almost zero to do with those eventualities. (Odds are you won’t have any say in them, anyway.) For now, pretend you’re the most powerful player in Hollywood and can afford anyone you want for every role. “Cast” the actors who are most right for the part.
You’ll discover things right away, as you start to match faces with names. Perhaps some of the most valuable insights are about who’s NOT right for the character you’re creating. For example, I’m doing one right now, and I had pasted web images of Kristin Bell and Mila Kunis into the role of my female protagonist. But as I placed other characters and massaged the details, I replaced them with Ellie Kemper and Allison Brie. I learned that while I wanted confidence, wit, and beauty in the character, she doesn’t work without a certain vulnerability and innocence that those latter actors might bring. This tells me that when I start writing scenes involving these characters, I’ll need to include vulnerability in the dialogue, so that everyone gets that feeling I’m going for. Pictures got me to that realization.
Final tip: If you spend more than an hour, you’re not writing any more; you’re web surfing. Just get some placeholder pictures set up for each character, and then get back to laying down words. You can always make adjustments later, once your words start to tell you more about what your characters should look like.