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Posts Tagged ‘Brad Pitt

The Greenhorn Novelist Blog – Post Three – Making People

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Brad Pitt as Tyler Durden from Fight Club, arguably one of the greatest literary characters of recent times

Brad Pitt as Tyler Durden from Fight Club, arguably one of the greatest literary characters of recent times

Something ain’t right with my novel.

The big bones are in place: the main characters, the plot lines, even the climax and denouement. Seen from a distance, it certainly looks like a novel. But up close, you can see that it’s just a simulacrum of one; it’s canvas doped over a frame, like a dummy aircraft to fool the high-flying enemy. A book prematurely abridged.

A good start, I hope: now the simple process of filling in…

Ah:  here’s the rub. It’s this close-up work, the real flesh of the story that refuses generaisations and synecdoche that I’m having trouble with. There are scraps of the real stuff, passages and pages I adore, but I am having trouble joining them into a consistent and cogent narrative.  It’s not quite firing, quickening, whatever metaphor takes your fancy to describe that mojo quality that is life.

It’s tricky. This writing, in fact, is positively hard. Those that have actually achieved this act of sustained imagination (or perhaps more accurately, these millions of small acts of imagination) ascend higher in my estimation every day.

The main problem lies with the characters.  It’s not about them yet: it’s still about events, and the characters just happen to be the vessels through which interesting happenings happen. The tension between plot and character is of course fundamental to all stories. But I want both to be vibrating, pulsating, symbiotes feeding and thriving off the other.

And the core reason for this problem? I simply don’t know my characters well enough. Even the main characters have not got the depth of history, of complexity, that makes me believe they’re real. I am often at a loss as to what a character will do in a situation, how they will speak, react, move about. I can’t hear them. Their voices are muted.

Or, if the problem is not a lack of biography, it is they have too many, all equally tempting and interesting, all antipathetic to one another.  Choosing a particular path for a character involves destruction as well as creation, the slicing away of a host of possible past and futures. Of all the shiny scraps of the world that I have collected- the interesting stories and happenings squirreled away in notebooks- only a small proportion will ever be realised in a character. Try to get too many in, and a character becomes a shapeless hold-all.

So sit your characters down and interrogate them.  Ask them fifty questions. Start off with the major biographical details: name, sex, age etc. But then range on, to favourite foods, pastimes, memories, to their hopes and fears. Concoct strange questions and situations, and see how they react. Examine their webs of relatives, friends and enemies. How do they sit within these networks? Are they popular or disliked? Powerful or downtrodden?

Physical appearance is essential. What do they look like exactly? Sketch them. Find photos that could be them.  How do they walk, and sit and laugh? What do they sound like when they talk to you? Hopefully when they answer your questions, they’ll begin speaking in their own voice, complete with their quirks of accent and idiom.

Running parallel with getting to better know our peeps, we have to make sure they are worth knowing.

A bad story, in a film, play or book, invariably lacks strong characters.  Forget the setting, the special FX or bodycount. It’s how alive the characters are, how much the audience can empathise with them (not always, please note, sympathise). We’ve got three million years of DNA programming forcing us to want to pay attention to what people are about. Even if cinema audiences bumble on about wanting to see explosions and full frontal nudity, what they would really like is that but with great characters.

So what makes a great character? A trawl through my own fiction reading, and various handbooks on writing, offers some consensus.

Falstaff, one of the greatest Shakespeare characters

Falstaff, one of the great Shakespeare characters

  • Characters should be vibrant. They push against life. Something is wrong in their lives and they set out to change it, whether an external event forced upon them or an internal problem revealed through self-examination.
  • Like real people they should be full of contrasting, even contradictory emotions.  Surprise the reader with how a character acts and reacts. Complex people are interesting people. External conflict often reveals the internal conflicts, the mental fault lines along which a character splits.  The character is forced to make choices.
  • A mix of characters brings realism and contrast. They shouldn’t be interchangeable with one another: the “Bad Guy No.4” in the credits. Humour and sadness ,  for example, whether expressed by a single person, or in a group, become sharper when next to each other.  A wacky character can act as a foil for the more realistic. Or a character can be contrasted against the environment; the city boys in the country; the airhead in a high-powered job.
  • They are often good at what they do, whether it be cutting wood or being a lawyer. Even if they are bad at something, then they are the best at being the worst.

Of course, these guidelines are by no means definitive or binding. Not all these characteristics need to be included in each of your creations. But I think they certainly provide some direction.

With the details set down in black and white, with ambiguity taken away, the characters start to have to make decisions for themselves.  These concrete details are the foundations on which intricate structures can suddenly be built. New, more subtle plot suddenly presents itself.  Cards can be placed on these foundations- and then, as time goes on these lower layers seem to harden and fuse themselves, capable to sustaining structures upon them too, all the while developing in unexpected ways.

In the light of this discussion, it is perhaps telling that my two favourite stories of the moment, Anna Karenina (read the full text here), and the various series of The Wire (The Wire dedicated Guardian Blog), use their respective equivalents of the omnipresent, omnipotent narrator to peel back the inner lives of their characters.  With the same unblinking eye, we see the conflicting, and often contradictory, emotions in all parties. All are understandable as human: all suddenly become rational beings, no longer easily summed up and dismissed by race, wealth, gender or sexuality. The reader is forced to confront the tragedy or blessing of chance: that could have been me.

Vividly imagined, vital characters can help us be better people.  To crawl, waltz, crash out of the hot confines of one’s head, and into another’s: to forget one’s body and become someone else, if only for a moment, and then to return, slightly changed, more sensitive and subtle, is magic and art itself.

Just for your information and my fun, here are my top five characters:

  1. Captain Yossarian (Catch 22 by Joseph Heller)
  2. Sydney Carton (A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens) (Full text)
  3. Harriet Dufresnes (The Little Friend by Donna Tartt)
  4. William Brown (Just William by Richmal Crompton)
  5. Falstaff (Henry IV Pts. I&II, The Merry Wives of Windsor by William Shakespeare) (Full texts)

Watch Captain Yossarian collect a medal in the nude below:

Discussion:
Have you been finding Richard’s posts useful? What are you going to take away from this instalment? If you’re doing some writing how have you found the obstacle of fleshing out your characters? Comments and debate always welcome below.

Words: Richard Walsh

Graphic novelist not phased by Hollywood calls

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Mark Millar with some of his comicbook creations

Mark Millar with some of his comic book creations

Celebrated Scottish graphic novelist Mark Millar has revealed he’s just as at home on the set on a Hollywood flick as he would be filming a Scottish soap.

Speaking exclusively to The Daily Record today the creator of Wanted the writer said he’d be just as happy working with esteemed Scottish actor Johnny Beattie on the soap opera River City as he would be adapting his novels for big-budget movie deals.

Following the success of Wanted, starring James McAvoy and Angelina Jolie, production companies in LA are poised to invest $1billion for the screenplays of six Millar stories.

Like the novels currently in the centre of a Hollywood bidding war, Wanted is an action packed rope that took more than £200million at the box office and looks set to pull in even more from the DVD release, which is out this week.

Modest man Millar

Amidst all the hype and promise Millar remains ever modest with his feet positioned firmly on the ground, declaring he real ambition is to hang out with Scottish TV veterans.

“Every now and again, I pinch myself that Wanted, my first film out the gate, has done so well,” said the 38 year-old, from Coatbridge, Lanarkshire.

“Instead of doing two years on River City and working through television into films, I’ve done an apprenticeship writing comics.

“At the same time as being involved in Hollywood, I am really sentimental towards Scottish actors. I would love to work on River City. I would be as thrilled meeting Johnny Beattie as I was meeting Nicolas Cage on my new film, because to me guys like Johnny are the real deal.”

Staying close to home

Scottish actor Glen Michael has been given a walk-on role in Millar’s next film, Kick Ass, starring Cage, but Mark still wishes TV duo Jack Milroy and Rikki Fulton were still doing their Francie and Josie show.

“Jack and Rikki were stars throughout my whole life, whereas Nicolas only became a star when I was in my twenties.

The cover of Kick Ass

The cover of Kick Ass

“Scottish actors are more exciting to me.  With Glen Michael being in Kick Ass, I was thinking, wouldn’t it be brilliant to grab these guys I grew up with. I wish Rikki and Jack were around so I could get them in the next movie, a £150million war film.

“We start shooting next Easter. My plan is to get work in Hollywood for all the veteran Scottish actors we know and love.

“I was talking to the comedian Frankie Boyle about this. He said everyone around the world would just see them as actors and everyone in Scotland would be thinking, ‘What the hell?’ because the last person you expect to see in a Hollywood film is someone you saw on the Hogmanay show 25 years ago.

“Sadly, a lot of the greats are dead. I loved that whole Seventies generation. Fran and Anna used to be my next-door neighbours in Coatbridge. Sadly, one of them passed away a few years back. I don’t know if she would be fit for it, but I would love to have Anna in there as well. Wouldn’t it be great to have her in a Hollywood movie next to Robert De Niro.

“Kick Ass is costing a couple of million a day to shoot and Glen has a day filming. He plays a New York hot-dog vendor. Even if it just lasts 20 seconds on screen, it will still be great. It feels good because I had never heard of superheroes until I saw Spider-Man on Cartoon Cavalcade. If Glen had decided not to do Cartoon Cavalcade, I would be doing a different job now. So I told him it’s my thank-you for him getting me into this.”

Glen, 82, made his last film appearance as PC Dixon of Dock Green the 1950 classic The Blue Lamp, starring Jack Warner.

“Glen is a member of the public who goes ‘Oh my God’ when Jack gets shot,” said Mark.

Young British actor Aaron Johnson plays Dave Lizewski in new film Kick Ass. His character, a shy, retiring student and comic-book fan who decides to become a super-hero, despite his lack of powers.

The success of Kick Ass is so foreseen that a sequel has already been penned.

The next chapter

Wanted 2 begins production next year, along with War Heroes, about a US military experiment to produce super powered soldiers. The plot is a more pessimistic take on the War on Terror with further terrorist attacks on the US mainland leading to the invasion of Iran and the imposition of martial law in the States.

An image from War Heroes depicting the flying soldiers

An image from War Heroes depicting the flying soldiers

“The idea is that the conflict in the Gulf is going on for another generation but nobody wants to sign up any more. America has gone bankrupt and the only way they can get kids to sign up is to give them super powers. It’s Full Metal Jacket meets X-Men,” said Millar.

“These 19 year-old soldiers can fly or move at super speed. It’s a very commercial movie.  Super-soldiers versus super-terrorists.”

Mark admits the novel has unleashed an unhealthy interest in the current US election. He said: “It sounds awful but, as much as it would be nice for the world if Obama got in, part of me is rooting for John McCain because I wouldn’t mind seeing them in Iraq for another four years just so we can establish this franchise.

“War Heroes comes out in 2010. Kick Ass is going to be two movies. I have written a sequel to the Bible called American Jesus, which Matthew Vaughn and I are going to make.

“Wanted became a trilogy as soon as the first one made $340million. But I’m going to relax until spring, then create three movies.”

Said with such ease.

Mark is the envy of most Hollywood writers. Unusually he has complete control of his stories thanks to his own venture into the realms of film production, Millarworld.

“It helps being a producer. I can control who gets the property. A lot of writers are hired hands. What I am doing is retaining creative control, which is what JK Rowling did.

“I’m the person who makes the call to people like Angelina Jolie, Nicolas Cage and Brad Pitt. All my friends are egging me on to find out who is a bitch. But they are all dead nice. I’ve yet to see a tantrum.

“When you are paid $25million a film, it’s because you are good and just come in, do your job and go.”

Early developer

Mark talent with a pen was apparent at the early age of five. “I knew I wanted to do something to do with superheroes. When I was young, all my pals were into it. By my teens, they all grew out of it but I didn’t. I learned to keep it quiet. They’d talk football and I would want to ask if they’d seen the new Spider-Man.

“It was a 15 year overnight success story.  Comics were what I wanted to do and I was the biggest comic writer, so the movie guys asked me to work with them. I consulted on Iron Man with Robert Downey Jr. and it was suggested I set up my own company.”

Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark in Iron Man

Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark in Iron Man

His involvement in Iron Man was no small part either. It was he whom reportedly suggested bringing in Jeff Bridges villain, Iron Monger, into the first film, when originally writers had him drafted in to make an appearance in later installments.

“My brothers are all in their fifties and have kept all my early drawings in school jotters and on A4 paper. They say they are going to shove them on eBay if I ever get really famous.”

Tinseltown socialite

Aside from the glitz and glamour of writing for Hollywood Mark is married to Gill with whom he has a nine year-old daughter, Emily, and remains surprisingly unperturbed about his success.

“I still hang out with my primary school pals and they find all this hilarious. They ask me what I have been up to at the weekend and I tell them I’ve been having a curry with Angelina Jolie and they just laugh. It sounds so made up.

“Brad Pitt comes to Glasgow regularly but he doesn’t let anybody know he is there. After people finish filming, they go back to their hotels, then we text each other to go for pizza. We hang out in pubs.

“Jonathan Ross is a close pal. This week, Emily and I will go to see the Hannah Montana film with Jonathan at his studio, and the other week she met High School Musical star Zac Efron.

“She has an ordinary school life, then every now and then gets to hang out with Zac or someone like that.”

Watch Mark Millar talk about the movie adaptation of his graphic novel Wanted below:

This episode of the cult internet show iFanboy features Millar talking exclusively about his War Heroes novel, soon-to-be-Hollywood blockbuster starring some very big names:

Words: Dean Samways