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Understanding the Characters, Setting and Time Period

You’ve got the what, why and how. Obviously, that just leaves who, where and when. Who are the characters in the story? Where is your story set? And when does it take place? Again, maybe these seem like easy questions to answer. You don’t even have to answer them in this order. But taking a few things into consideration can make your life less difficult down the road.

Photo: Ken Thomas


Every story has characters. They can be well defined, with a background biography covering every important event from birth to death. Or they can be abstract and representative, standing in for a larger emotion or concept. They can be functional, such as the cop in that one scene who’s just there to raise tension. Most likely they’re human, but they can also be animals, robots, aliens, zombies, etc. – though remember that these entail skilled pets, effects and/or makeup. You also want to take a couple other aspects into account. How many characters does your story need? Great. Now how many does your story really need? For example, do you really have to show a dozen uniformed police officers, or does one plain clothes detective do the trick? Every person who appears in your story pushes the budget up a certain amount. Are there even two or three minor but important characters you can combine into one? Don’t hide behind your artistic integrity, because so-called “true story” adaptations do this all the time. Maybe one of your characters is the kind of precocious child that audiences love. Well, having an actor under the age of 18 means a completely different production schedule, child labor laws and all, which differ from state to state. Finally, if this is a project you’re planning to make completely DIY, it might be a good idea to write parts for people you know will appear in your magnum opus.

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Maybe you have an idea where your story is taking place. Is it in a specific geographic location for an important reason? New York, because the protagonist works in advertising on Madison Avenue; the woods in the middle of nowhere, because your characters have to be massacred by a blade wielding maniac; suburban America, because that’s where you live and plan to shoot this project. Now go a little deeper into the scenes. Are your characters interacting in homes, offices, their cars on a road trip across the country, haunted castles, space stations, etc.? This is your story’s setting, which will also become the sets and locations your story needs. So again, how many locations does your story actually need? Are nineteen different bars really that important? Maybe your characters all have serious drinking problems, but if not, could your characters have a regular pub where they meet. Okay, so how realistic are these locations? There probably aren’t a lot of haunted castles available for filming in convenient, inexpensive places. There are a lot more regular apartments and houses – you know, the kind your friends and family tend to inhabit. Or think about how much money you would need to build the space station interiors, because obviously your project will use old-fashioned miniature models instead of costly, phony-looking CGI for the exteriors. Even something as basic as an airplane cabin, which we’ve all been in, can become a huge hassle for a production set.

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Time Period

Now when is this story supposed to be taking place? Is it set right now? That’s usually the easiest – and cheapest – option according to producers and financiers. But if you like aliens on a space station, that’s probably happening in the future. Maybe you want it to be a gritty thriller about contemporary NASA astronauts encountering extraterrestrials, which could conceivably bring your budget down a notch. Or maybe it’s set a long, long time ago in a galaxy far away – well, expect a call from Disney’s lawyers in that case. Whatever time period you choose for your story, think about what this entails, from the bigger picture of how the period fits your story, characters and overall message, to details like what props and costumes you might need to make it authentic. Let’s say your story takes place in 1980 because of the Lake Placid Winter Olympics and Reagan/Carter presidential election. No problem, right? There are a lot of neighborhoods where new homes haven’t been built since 1980-ish. You found a vintage Atari console on eBay and your parents have kept everything they wore from before you were born. So when was the last time you saw a Ford Pinto cruising the streets? If you don’t have access to those classic cars, your characters will either be spending a lot of time indoors or be doing a lot of walking.

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