Some time ago I did an interview with Academy Award-winning screenwriter Alvin Sargent, whose most recent credits are Spiderman 2 and 3 (3's in the works). I thought you might find his comments on character and story interesting:
Do you begin with the emotions of the characters rather than the dynamics of the plot?
Well, I think about what this story means to me, how I am affected by it, how I want to project that on paper. Paper is the great enemy. Getting something from your head onto the page is the hardest part. New writers get ideas and can tell you what they want. They can describe some dialogue in a scene that’s very good, they have a sense of character, of what the scene is about, of how it moves. But then—and this happens to me, too, sometimes—something will happen between the time that you know what to say and decide on how to put it on paper. The problem is that transition to paper somehow or other has to be eliminated. It has to be, I think, as if it were a Xerox machine so that the image moves directly onto the paper. I guess that’s the way I work. I structure later, after I have all this goop from my mind down on paper, just exactly as I feel it, immediate acceptance, not edited and polished in the mind. Don’t prepare something before the paper gets it.
What’s in this goop?
People talking to themselves or with each other, without necessarily any connection to the story. I do a great deal of free-associating. Talk, for pages and pages, I don’t know what’s going on. Several months go by, suddenly you’ve got a big pile of stuff as if it were a basket of material, pieces ready for the quilt. I find something alive—I hope. I think too many people are too organised; they’ve got it all worked out, instead of hearing their characters
What I’ve admired so much in your work is the ‘realness’ of your people. It sounds as if the process of free-association you’ve described really puts you in touch with them.
Over a period of time, I begin to understand them, to think about them not only in terms of where they are in the story. But I’m sure this is the case with most writers. I think about where these people are today, even when I’m not writing…Sometimes I’ll go to bed at night, wonder where they are, how they are, think about the fact that I’ll see them tomorrow. Trouble is, sometimes they don’t show up for work. [Laughter] You go to the typewriter and you say, ‘Where are they? What time is it? Why aren’t they here?’ Sometimes they never come back, so sometimes I fire them.
Do the characters ever surprise you?
Oh boy! You write somebody that you can trust but you don’t know them so well that they can’t surprise you. It’s wonderful! Hopefully, it’s more unpredictable than an audience is prepared for. …If you don’t allow yourself the pleasure of working at it—and that doesn’t mean you have to be as disorganised as I am—then you don’t give yourself the freedom to find the surprises.