Marilyn Atlas was a panellist at the 2017 Florence Writers Publishing Day and we caught up with her before the event to chat about characterisation and writing in the TV & film industry.
Marilyn Atlas is based in Los Angeles and brings to our event a wealth of experience as a literary manager, award-winning producer, writing instructor. She is particularly passionate about the portrayal of women in non-stereotypical roles and can help authors focus on creating credible characters in their stories. Marilyn has placed first-time novels with “Big Five” publishers and is always on the lookout for fresh material for the entertainment industry. She is co-author of ‘Dating Your Character: A Sexy Guide to Screenwriting for Film and TV’.
How can writers make sure they avoid using stereotypes while writing characters?
Stereotypes in writing are born from laziness and ignorance, but sometimes they’re used in jest as a parody. A character can also be sneaky and deliberately act like a stereotype and later undermine that perception for personal gain. For example, the Reese Witherspoon character in “Legally Blonde” starts out as a very limited character, but then she transcends how other people regard her, and even surprises herself when she decides to direct all her energy and attention to law school. When I speak to writers I talk about “cultural coding,” which is the conscious manipulation of stereotypes to defy expectations. It’s a way of putting the audience at ease and then blowing up the ground out from under them.
Avoiding stereotypes is to take the road less traveled. Every character must be well thought out and have an inner and an outer self which the writer is intimately in tune with. It takes work to flesh out an authentic, well rounded character with unique quirks and habits. It’s easy to slap a stereotype on the page and call it a character.
I’m a firm believer that characters are what make stories memorable. If you don’t care about the person driving the story, then why would you care about the scrapes they get into? If a character isn’t compelling or relatable, then that character who is featured in a dire set-piece – a sequence that builds on the tension and excitement of three action scenes – will still ultimately leave the audience indifferent once the dust settles.
My book Dating Your Character is rooted in how binding plot to character results in taut and visually arresting stories.
How does writing for the screen differ from writing for the stage and how does this affect adaptation of a piece?
I’ve talked to my writer clients about how inspiration strikes them. An idea comes … like a whiff of smoke. They chase it … sometimes it vanishes in the wind … they turn one way, then another, and it’s gone: there’s nothing there. A week is spent mulling over the premise. Then, they spend time with the character in the hope they will start to reveal themselves, listening for snatches of dialogue, probing for their deepest needs, then lastly thinking about their physical characteristics.
(Though, I should note here that every writer’s process is different.)
They start picking at the central question that keeps driving and pushing the character, like it’s a self-protective scab that’s grown over an issue they’ve been avoiding out of a sense of denial or self-delusion. It’s here then that they have to decide: What are they writing? A play? A movie? A book?
Can that central question and the other problems in the character’s life be contained within a play that is propelled by a dissection of their interior and moments of explosive dialogue? Or would it benefit from a cinematic treatment, detail-rich environment and dynamic external forces of action that arise out of the character’s choices and state of mind as the stakes progress? Usually the answer is incontrovertible and just announces itself.
How can writers and people in the film and TV industry encourage more diverse characters and themes in productions?
You can’t do that and be effective if you’re coming from a place that’s PC. Merely trying to capitalize on what is currently a popular sentiment for inclusion is crass and people can sense if you’re just being opportunistic. You have to earnestly want to open up the playing field to people who haven’t been actively sought out before.
And I say that, because some well-intentioned executives, when they do fling open their door on “free-for-all Friday” one day a month, they’re not sitting back and letting a powerful storytelling voice wash over them. They have a preconceived idea of the kind of story they’re expected to be pitched by the person in front of them. That kind of constricting categorization and level of expectation may not permit the listener to absorb the merits of the story objectively. Objectivity is key in determining the saleability of a project, but so is empathy. You can’t immediately tune out the person pitching if they’re simply interested in sharing a slice of life that you weren’t preparing to hear about or hadn’t previously associated with a person from that background. Thankfully I do find in the last several years, executives have been buying projects that reflect social inclusion and diversity. And as later noted, TV shows that reflect diverse characters are in the zeitgeist and doing very well both critically and ratings-wise.
Because I suffer from major wanderlust and have traveled extensively, I’ve personally always gravitated to writers from various countries. And what resonates for me is a writer’s ability to create unique characters and worlds where I can find a little bit of myself in.
I was one of the producers of “Real Women Have Curves,” a small HBO film about a young Latina who wants a different life from the life of her immigrant parents. What really led me to invest years of my life to bring this to the screen was the complexity of the main character, Ana. She has divided loyalties and is wrestling with how to choose to self-identify. These are questions everyone deals with, but the story is also set very specifically in the barrio and what the harsh conditions of working in a sweatshop — even one owned by your own family — is like. It felt at once very particular and yet universal, too.
My associate Elizabeth and I always talk about what draws us to the writers we want to represent and the projects we’re developing. Elizabeth feels that writers, who know their characters “as fully-fleshed beings completely separate from themselves,” tend to forge new paths and tackle story issues that put the creators themselves on edge — and that freshness, when you find it, we find immediately arresting. That was the main impetus of the book that I co-wrote with Elizabeth and Devorah Cutler-Rubenstein.
It’s precious when you discover a finely honed, authentic voice that is both self-assured and cognizant of the marketplace. That’s probably the reason why we have such a small client list, we’re incredibly picky!
But, consciously, as a long-time advocate of diversity, I’ve always made a special effort to welcome and listen to viewpoints that are different from my own, because seeing the world through a different lens and listening to the stories that people have to tell broadens your own perspective.
Why do you think television and specifically streaming websites like Netflix are able to produce film and TV with more diverse story lines?
Netflix and the cable channels, both advertiser-supported and subscriber-based only, have niche audiences that are willing to pay for interesting stories that bring them out of the routine of their own lives. Netflix has also chosen a business model that doesn’t spend money on development. They don’t incubate a pilot idea, shoot it, and then throw it away if it doesn’t work. They commit on a gut instinct to one season. So, they don’t splash their money around in the kind of lottery system that the TV networks do. They hold onto their poker chips, then selectively decide to go all in. Another smart tactic that Netflix is employing is that they’re buying shows based on books, which provide a built-in audience for them.
Find out more about Florence Writers.
Interview with thanks to Shelley T Martin.