Driving Your Character with a Secret

This past weekend I worked on a screenplay with a producer whose list of credits includes Nickelodeon and Disney. He specializes in children and family stories. In fact, we first met when he hired me to direct a children’s picture that went on to win several awards.

More recently we’ve teamed up to write a love story that is bookended by a courtroom drama. The story requires some very intense scenes and humorous relief to keep the audience focused on how the story will end. And yes, the boy gets the girl. But the “how” is unique and worth watching to see it unfold.

This story is very much driven by the three main characters. The dual protagonists are strong-willed and the antagonist has a deep secret that is revealed in act three that drives his passion throughout the film. This hidden secret is the fuel for many intense scenes and the quirky moments that the antagonist needs for relief.

To strengthen weaker scenes, actors typically employ the concept of holding a secret from their peers. The use of a secret gives the mind additional angles to consider during a scene and visually creates depth of character from the camera’s point of view. The subtle facial changes from the mere thinking of the secret during the shoot are actually picked up by the camera. And, since the audience doesn’t know the secret, it reads like there is more to the character than meets the eye, which is true.

Cameras have always been able to detect the real and separate it from the fake or make believe. That’s why actors work so hard to find common ground with their character and play the scenes as honestly as possible.

I recall a chat with Catherine Hicks, known for 7th Heaven and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. She shared with me that during the shooting of Game Time: Tackling the Past, she drew from a time when her daughter was in the hospital as a little girl. This fueled he role as a wife sitting in a waiting room anxious to hear the news about a family member. The use of this technique or secret that the audience doesn’t know brought more depth to her character and created an honest scene for the camera.

Some of the best screenplays infer something unknown in the character’s background that fuels the performance and passion of the actors. This passion or edgy unknown causes the audiences’ minds to fill in the gaps based on their own experiences, which strengthens their bond to the character. Once the bond is achieved, the audience must watch the remainder of the film to understand the character’s outcome.

In the case of my recent script, the person with the greatest amount of integrity carries the greatest secret. The character seems too good to be true until the secret is revealed. Interestingly enough, once the reveal hits, the audience trusts the character all the more, since she has overcome her life’s obstacle and had everything turn out for her good in the end.

What types of real life secrets have you drawn from to fuel your creativity?

Copyright © 2012 By CJ Powers
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