How Creating a Character’s Family Tree is Like Sudoku

It’s midnight and I’m not sure whether it’s every writer’s dream or every writer’s nightmare, but the little writer’s voice is babbling details about the family tree for the characters in my screenplay.

On one hand, I am a little annoyed because it is a “school night” and I have a busy work day planned for tomorrow. On the other hand, with the heartbreak of writer’s block going on around the world, I really can’t complain when my own writer’s voice is in overdrive with ideas.

I grab a pen and a pad (tucked neatly in my nightstand for just such a literary emergency) and I start sketching out the ideas as they come to me.

Given that this is my first screenplay, this is all new to me, but if it’s anything like my process for writing blog posts, this probably won’t be a linear process from start to end.

The main characters start identifying themselves to me. Then, the main sources of tension between the characters form a neatly bulleted list. The resulting struggles are identified and even the desired end result becomes crystal clear to me.

Now… how do we get from “once upon a time” to “and they lived happily ever after”, while hitting all those marks along the way?

This is where I feel that to build strong dialogue between the characters, I need to know more about them for the story to take shape and to flow organically, which is likely why the little voice decided to walk me through the family tree, current facts and some history. (But seriously, why at midnight?)

To get the brainstorming rolling, the main characters, their spouses and their offspring are committed to paper.

Next are their names. Some are carved in stone, some are still subject to change, but at least I have something to work with and edit later if needed. The point is not to overthink it and just let the ideas come to me and flow through me, without judgement or challenge.

Their occupations start announcing themselves, with full knowledge that their lines of work will factor into the storyline.

The last piece to the family tree is the approximate age of each character.

This is where things get more strategic, as there needs to be mathematical plausibility to the ages of spouses, offspring and siblings. This story is not intended to introduce any contenders for the Guinness Book of World Records.

Similarly, when choosing a setting for the story, for a touch of realism, it really should be in a city where the occupations of the characters are thriving industries and/or communities onto themselves. In this case, for my characters to be gainfully employed, I’ve narrowed it down to Toronto, Montreal or New York City.

This was when I realized that writing the back story to the screenplay was becoming a giant game of Sudoku, trying some possibilities, realizing that they don’t work, erasing, and trying another one until something sticks. In some cases it took a gutsy attempt. In others it was by process of elimination that I found the obvious (or not-so-obvious) answer.

Similarly, where a plot twist will be necessary to the story, I find myself making a list of possible events that could lead the action for the plot twist to happen, with the option to reserve the final decision based on how the rest of the story is flowing. Again, the one to make it to the story will probably be through a process of elimination like a giant Sudoku board.
Next, character traits and codes of ethics that will foster the environment for all of the above to happen, start filling my head.

At the same time, speculation on how certain characters first met, also warrants a few scribbled ideas.

And now that I have my characters and their relationships laid out, ideas for scenes that would add value to advance the action start emerging. Of course, it’s all complicated!

At the same time, I keep an open mind to the idea of scenes that I don’t recall ever seeing on-screen before or things I’ve always wanted to see. If that’s not one of the privileges of being a writer, I don’t know what is.

As the train of thoughts starts slowing down and approaching the station, I look at the clock. I am mortified that in a few short hours I need to be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for another day in the big world.

I also realize that I seem to have more back story than actual story written but I am completely fine with that at this point.

Even though some of the facts I am capturing in the family tree (soon to be family history book) might not actually get mentioned in the screenplay, I think that having a history that informs the characters’ actions, reactions, choices and decisions will ensure greater consistency throughout the story. For that reason, I think this late-nighter is well worth it.

Also, by having a solid idea of who my fictional characters are, where they’ve been and the baggage they are carrying, I think that writing out the scenes will be a much easier process knowing what each one would do from their authentic selves, rather than guessing and figuring it out as I go along.

Of course, as a writer, I can change my mind about any of the above when the actual screenplay is being developed, but the more I know about my characters and their backstories right up front, the more I hope to create an engaging storyline and crisp dialogue.

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Sincere thanks for reading!
Have a great day,

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Filed under Humour, Misc blogs, Writing

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