Characters with Something On Their Minds: the brilliant writing inside Deep Impact

Recently, I re-watched Deep Impact, one of two “asteroids-going-to-hit-Earth” movies that came out simultaneously (the other being, the poor-in-comparison, Armageddon).  Deep Impact builds slowly, and has amazingly drawn characters.  It’s worth it to watch just to pick up some tips on character development.  These are my thoughts after watching it.

1.  Every character in the movie has their own worries or concerns BEFORE their first scenes.  Jenny Lerner (Tea Leoni) wants to make a name for herself as a reporter and move up faster than the news organization’s corporate ladder will allow.  Leo Biederman (Elijah Wood) is falling in love.  Jenny’s mother (Vanessa Redgrave) is achingly going through the news of the marriage of her ex-husband to a younger woman; and the ex-husband has just married, and in the process, estranged his daughter.  Others are having babies, concerned about parties coming, or debts, or something.

It’s very easy for me as a writer to create characters who come into my scenes to do my bidding and then exit, stage left.  This makes them one-dimensional and cardboard–it also makes them a bit robotic, there to get my plot done for me.  BETTER are characters who have had something JUST happen to them when they come into your story, in other words, they are recovering from a cold, they are dealing with bills, parents passing, daycare that’s too expensive–something.  These scenes were really short, but they helped me care about the characters quicker because they had outside interests, outside agendas besides the imminent needs of the PLOT.

2.  They make CHOICES based on their previous problems or worries.  I was very surprised to see what kinds of choices they made, choices bound by the plot, yes, but could only have happened because of the natural cause-and-effect of the plot.  Someone chooses not to be saved; someone chooses to rescue someone else; someone kills themselves; each new choice brings about other choices–but choices that build on one another.

Sometimes writers (like me) create plots that are heavily structured because of what we want to see but we don’t quite take into consideration the kinds of choices  the characters would make—we make their choices from who they are in the beginning, not who they are BECOMING as the story progresses.  Events change us, and I was reminded that characters in the movies could not have made certain choices without having gone through the events in the movies. It’s a good thing to remember that the events of your story change your characters–and they do it gradually.

Change doesn’t happen because of one event, usually.  It happens because we are exposed again and again with events and choices.

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