I read an excellent post the other day on Carson Reeves' blog, Scriptshadow, on why character backstory is so important to your movie. I won't even attempt to summarize his post as he does a far more fantastic job than I could ever do justice to. So I will let you go straight to the source:
Scriptshadow - Backstory
The reason I bring this up is because it reminded me of a mistake I made at the start of my writing career. My problem was not the fact that I didn't know my characters. My problem was that I knew them too well. I knew where they had grown up. I knew why they were all friends. I knew why there was tension in the friendship at the start of the screenplay. I knew why the characters made insanely stupid decisions based off past hurts in their lives. I knew where they wanted to go in life and I knew what they wanted to say in life. I completely trusted and had faith in my characters and that is where the train started to come off the rails.
I trusted them so much I figured I could take them on this journey, throw them into adversity and just let them react as their characters would. What I didn't realize then is that characters are essentially selfish. They will take up as much scenery as they can. They want to tell you about their fears. They want to tell you about how much they hate someone. They want to brag about their past and what they have achieved. Before I knew it I was 80 pages into a 105 page script and I still had 60 pages to go to tie up the story. Which now means I am in rewrite mode before I have even finished my first draft. There are some authors who believe in writing everything they can think of in the first draft and then narrowing the story down to the essential elements, and they are very successful at it. I am not one of those writers. It is too easy for me to get attached to a certain element of a scene that I don't want to let it go. There was a reason I wrote that scene in the first place.
So I began to overcompensate in the other direction. I dedicated myself to structure and form. I hashed out my eight sequences and dictated not only what would be in them but also how many pages each sequence would be. At first the results were fantastic but somewhere along the line it started to come off the rails again. As I focused more and more and form and structure my characters started to lose their soul. They no longer had the depth they needed and they didn't feel right. I also knew that if I wasn't connecting with my characters I couldn't expect others to.
So I sat down one day and basically said "Backstory, meet Structure and Form. Structure and Form, meet Backstory". I now sit down and write my characters out like I used to but then I take the sequences and map out where the characters go and how they are going to react based off of that backstory. Is it perfect now? No, there are still those wonderful times where I stare at the blank page thinking "How do I do this?". It is just that now I have the tools to get it solved in one page rather than five. And that is worth its weight in gold.