Deep Background: Screenwriting lessons from D&D players
My friends and I hold a weekly, Zoom-based game night. It’s rowdy, competitive, and truly awesome. Not only has it been a quarantine sanity-saver these last many months, but because I happen to have some pretty cool friends, it’s also provided valuable insight into the creative processes behind everything from podcasting to 3D printing to role-playing games.
Recently, two of these friends revealed just how much time they devote to creating backstories for their Dungeons and Dragons characters. (Picture at left: what I assume my friends look like on D&D nights.) They spend hours taking notes and devising their characters’ personal histories — sometimes for a character that they only end up using for a less than one evening of play!
Color me impressed. As not only a screenwriter but also as a screenwriting competition judge, I have the opportunity to “meet” quite literally hundreds of characters each month. And believe me, it is all too rarely evident that the writer has put nearly as much time into developing their characters as my sweet nerd friends do for their evenings of D&D. Too often, characters manifest as vaguely humanoid plot devices, rather than deep, complex portraits. Here’s how you can push your characters past plot facilitation and into new, rewarding territory (even if they are a bit more ordinary than Lord Hammeron, Ruler of the Seven Elven Realms of Gibberish).
Work off the page
Let’s start with a simple question: how many files do you have saved on your computer relating to your current project? If you’re just working within your one Final Draft or Celtx file, chances are you’re moving down the wrong path. It’s time to open a new word doc (or grab a notebook and indulge your Luddite tendencies, like I do) and start working outside of your script itself.
There are likely as many ways to go about character development as there are writers in this world, so I’ll keep my advice simple. Just think about three core ideas: needs, wants, and fears. Even a vague idea of these three interlocking concepts will flesh out not only who your character is, but how they operate in the world you’ve created for them. Take Lakeith Stanfield’s character Cash in Sorry to Bother You as a (grossly reductive) example: he needs money to pay rent, he wants a greater purpose in life, and he fears losing his sense of self. These coalesce compellingly with the film’s larger, anti-capitalist themes and inform Cash’s trajectory from telemarketing peon to corporate superstar to (spoiler alert!) vengeful equisapien.
Needs, wants, fears: it’s a trifecta that informs the inner tension of a character as well as their outward behavior. If you look at your own life, you’ll surely see how your needs and wants can fall out of alignment all the time (I need to hit this deadline but I want to keep watching Netflix), and how fears can inhibit the fulfillment of both. Fear is especially important for horror scripts, and while you may think it’s absurd for me to point that out, I think it’s absurd that I’ve read so many horror scripts where the protagonist never experiences a moment of profound terror, so there.
Yes, when implemented correctly, this strategy results in side stories and background information that never directly appears in the script itself. Does this mean you’ve wasted your time? Of course not! This is all a labor of love, anyways, right? Right?!
Expand your notion of “character”
We’ve examined how character development can benefit hugely from a bit of brainstorming outside of actually writing your script. Now, let’s look at why your story’s setting, time period, sociocultural norms, and any other non-character element of your script that manifests as a driving force behind the narrative or tone deserve the same treatment.
Think of yourself as a pilot, landing a crew of adventurers on an isolated island. You have a limited amount of time to let them know what it takes to survive in terms of geography, language, technology, etc. Give them an impression of what this “island” is like (western frontier, apocalyptic wasteland, high-tech space station), even if it’s just for the sake of subverting this image later. Don’t drown readers in exposition, but do establish a sense of expectation early in your first act.
This advice doesn’t just apply to stories set in exotic or fantastical locales. Take, for example, a film like American Psycho. It’s set in 1980s New York, a place and era that many audiences will have a degree of familiarity with, and yet it takes the time to establish its specific world: the suits and business cards, the drugs and women, and the depravity of the rich white guys who somehow wound up in charge of it all. The film doesn’t make a lot of assumptions about what the audience does or does not know, and instead offers a clear perspective right from the start.
I’ve read many screenplays that functionally have no setting or sense of place, as if the writer expects the production crew to leap in and make those decisions for them. To some extent, they will; selling your script will more often than not mean handing your creative vision off to someone else. Before you even arrive at that stage, however, you must convince someone that your story will translate effectively to the big screen. That persuasion is almost always predicated on a fully rendered vision that includes robust depictions of narrative, character, setting, tone, and more.
In the end
Can a vibrant setting make up for a weak narrative? Absolutely not. Full character biographies and a functional-fictional language can’t either. As is always the case in screenwriting, even perfection execution of one element can’t mask the weak execution of another. It can be time-consuming and even arduous to develop each element of your script to the same level, but this work is pretty much a prerequisite for success.
And anyhow, it’s got to be easier than learning how to play Dungeons and Dragons, right?