Dr. Linda Seger, an internationally known script consultant, has written a book about subtext and how it strengthens and adds depth to your writing. She says, ‘Subtext is the true meaning simmering underneath the words and actions, . . .Subtext points to other meanings.’ I started to think about how the power lies, like an iceberg, below the surface and how an awareness of this can help us become better writers.
A Walking, Talking, Living Doll
We are familiar with different techniques to create real heart beats in our characters. These personality aids vary from the almost compulsive attention to detail e.g. how Sammy puts water on his toothbrush before adding toothpaste, to the unrounded characters required for cameo roles. Dr. Seger asks us in Chapter 2, to imagine that a character we create is applying for a job in our script. Not everything this person has done goes into the CV, but although some of the traits may stay unmentioned both on the CV and at the interview, in real life they will display themselves in all their resplendent glory and if the character has done their job well, they’ll be visible at work – after safely securing the position.
The Feared Info-Dump when we Get It All Wrong
When I’m creating a character and committing traits to paper I sometimes dump a whole lot of information in the early stages, right at the beginning of the story. I ignore the rule of Show don’t Tell. This helps me dredge my subconscious for who the character really is. This ‘character and plot plan’ works for me, I delete it all on my first edit and the reader never sees the backstory or dreaded info dump, but it steers me to where I need to be. What method do you use? Does it depend on the complexity of the character created? Certainly, there is value in asking and answering questions to create believable characters. After all, it is how we react to things that truly defines who we are.
Attitude Makes us Do What We Do, Say What we Say, Cry When we Cry
Job interviews and journalists interviewing famous people are some of the techniques we use in writing workshops and they help create a more rounded character complete with strengths, weaknesses and occasional full blown dysfunctionality. Another workshop technique is to create a stereo type of someone you kind of know, and then really get to know them by asking how they react in certain situations. This can be done with role plays of famous people and also with real individuals in your workshop once trust has established itself. We also use it with first person Point of View, when our character sees and responds to things in a way that befits his or her character. Woe betide you if having created a certain personality you then have that character do something the reader just cannot believe. Another person could have done it, but not Sammy.
When Subtext Becomes a Cardboard Cut-Out Once More
The power is much diluted when character traits become quick fixes to inject quirkiness and geekiness to suggest intelligence but social awkwardness. Have you noticed how Social Anxiety / Asperger’s Syndrome has become evident in many leading characters these days? It didn’t even start with Sheldon Cooper and the Big Bang. The eponymous Monk got there before him, as did Dr. Temperance Brennan of TV Series Bones and then there was Jerry Espenson of Boston Legal. And I haven’t even got to 2015 yet. Whatever the swamping order, there’s no denying its popularity.
Unique Selling Point – Say No More
One of the many wonders that sets ‘Breaking Bad’ apart from so much derivative script writing is how a secondary character – the son, Flynn, has mild cerebral palsy and the character is acted by RJ Mitte who himself lives with mild cerebral palsy. Yes, ‘Breaking Bad’ is an education in so many ways. The third season of Orphan Black even pays homage to BB’s plot as if emulating its characters’ craziness were not enough. Sometimes it seems that you need a Unique Selling Point to get published, but thereafter you can emulate to your hearts content. It might pay the bills, but it doesn’t break records.
Adding Subtext to Age, True Desires, Wants and Goals
How do your characters feel about their age? That, according to Dr. Seger, is the key that opens the door for director, producer and actor to walk through and make the script their own. This is illustrated with the BBC’s version of Wallander starring Kenneth Branagh. Despite all that life has thrown at him, Wallander still feels, he is hanging by a thread, but continues to cling to humanity. It is this, in my opinion, which sets him apart from cynical, hard boiled cops nearing a retirement pension and time to kill in a world without hope, where dreams no longer surface. In one episode, Wallander’s daughter signs him up to a dating agency. His reaction shows us he really wants it, but he would never have admitted to it. He is ribbed for it in the office and ultimately supported and destroyed by his vision of the world. Nevertheless, his vulnerabilities and humanity surface and Wallander and the world survive to live another day.
Everything entwines and it is not the brash that reveals, but the subtleties of subtext that truly define who we are. Not as perceived by the outside world, but as felt 24/7 by us through our inner hopes, dreams and achievements. If we reveal these hidden depths in our characters and bring them kicking and screaming into the world of the written page, then our work is done.