In his famous collection of essays entitled “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” the late great navel-gazing author du jour, David Foster Wallace, said the following about writers:
“Fiction writers as a species tend to be oglers. They tend to lurk and to stare. They are born watchers. They are viewers … This is because human situations are writers’ food. Fiction writers watch other humans sort of the way gapers slow down for car wrecks: they covet a vision of themselves as witnesses.”
He was undoubtedly referring specifically to fiction writers, writers of books, but we needn’t maintain such a narrow viewpoint.
The plain truth is that authors are becoming less and less culturally relevant as another breed of writers, namely screenwriters, have continued to become significant cultural figures, having a huge influence on how mainstream audiences view certain situations and characters.
Screenwriters enjoy observation just as much as any other variety of writer. As Wallace points out, observing human interactions provides story fodder. Writers won’t recreate people or situations exactly, but real people and real situations serve as guidelines for how to make their own work more believable.
For many of us out in the audience, it remains a mystery how we can become so deeply invested in the actions and travails of people and/or creatures who aren’t real.
But the power of these characters is undeniable. I can personally say that I have been moved to tears a number of times by fictional characters in some of my favorite movies. I’ve cheered and gasped and my heart has dropped through the floor when it looks like all is lost.
So how does it happen? How do these stories and characters wind up feeling so completely real?
Well, that question requires a long list of answers. It depends on a director, talented cast members, and editors. But the foundation of a character rests with the screenwriter.
If a script doesn’t communicate the inherent value and sympathy of its characters, then it probably won’t be produced. That’s the simple reality of the entertainment industry.
Despite the many, many books that have been penned on the subject of screenwriting, it still takes real talent and a deep understanding of human nature to succeed in creating an effective script.
Overall, screenwriting is a craft worth exploring. Consequently, that’s exactly what we’re going to do here.
Insight from Across the Pond
Sammy Sultan is a screenwriter originally from Manchester, United Kingdom. His journey to screenwriting was a long one, from studying law to hosting his own interview show to working as a stand-up comedian.
But through it all, he found time and time again that writing was what he truly loved.
His storied past has given him a well of experience to draw from when penning his own works. Humanity and realistic interactions have remained a focus for Sultan, regardless of medium or genre.
I had a chat with Sultan in Los Angeles to get a better sense of what screenwriting really involves, and perhaps more importantly, what makes characters believable, all in the hopes of sharing my findings with you, our readers.
Without further ado, let’s take a look at the findings.
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As I mentioned above, Sultan didn’t actually start out working in the entertainment industry. At first, he was pursuing a career in law.
His studies were progressing just fine, but a specific assignment led him to take that creative pang in the back of his mind more seriously.
“So much of my law degree was lost on me because my heart wasn’t in it. Though in my final year, a professor handed us an unorthodox assignment: to write a stage play about jurisprudence. For the first time in three years, my curiosity was piqued, and I ended up writing a period piece about draconian British lawmaking. I received my highest grade of the class, which was proof positive that it’s all about doing what you love.”
This kind of professional transition is quickly becoming more common. Many young professionals are moving from job to job with some frequency, on a constant search for valuable opportunities and roles.
But shifting industries entirely is less common. For Sultan, the choice to shift to writing full-time was unavoidable. Not only did he enjoy writing more than anything else, but he also had an obvious talent for it.
However, this moment of epiphany was far from the end of his transition; it was really just the beginning.
A Chat in the Back of a Black Cab
The next step on his creative journey was to create an interview series. At first, Sultan tried a very traditional interview format, one where he and his subject sat across from one another and talked about creativity, career, and the challenges inherent to each.
But it just didn’t feel fresh or exciting, at least not to Sultan.
This led to a much more stylistic approach, one that involved speaking with subjects in the back of a moving cab.
“My business partner and I developed Black Cab Back Chat, an interview series set within the confines of a black cab. I interviewed a gamut of emerging creatives. With luck, we managed to grab the attention of Boxnation TV. They commissioned us to interview ten of the elite boxers who fought on their station. Seeing the show air in 2014 represents one of the highs of my career to date.”
Sultan quickly found that the change in venue encouraged his interview subjects to speak more candidly. This wasn’t just another talk show in some radio studio, this was a space that allowed for a more relaxed and honest conversation.
The Power of Conversation
Now a creative in his own right, Sultan still uses those conversation and communication skills as a way of networking with others in the entertainment industry.
“A lot of relationships in entertainment start with initial meetings over coffee. Given that an interviewer’s natural inclination is to ask questions, it can be a flattering way to disarm whoever you’re talking to. This is still a people business and expressing a genuine interest in someone else never does you any harm.”
Once again, Sultan’s insistence on being genuine and personable with professional contacts speaks to his ongoing interest in people from all walks of life.
Yes, each person he meets may influence his writing or his characters in some way, but while speaking with Sultan myself, it was clear that he has an undying interest in fellow human beings.
He just likes talking to people and hearing what they have to say. It’s hard to say whether this is the secret to forming believable characters, but I certainly can’t imagine that it detracts from that goal in any way.
Awards, Doubt, and Motivation
For better or worse, another common feature among writers, and indeed many other kinds of artists, is a prevailing sense of self-doubt. The temptation to compromise one’s own creative vision is ever-present.
I was curious whether Sultan’s many awards and nominations have helped limit that self-doubt in favor of self-confidence.
The answer? Both yes and no.
“If a doctor tells a hypochondriac he’s fine, he may believe it for a time. But he’ll undoubtedly come back a few days later and ask, ‘Are you sure?’ Winning awards is nice. They keep the self-doubt at bay for a time, but after a while, a writer will always ask, ‘Are you sure? Are you sure I can write?’ I can only speak for myself when I say the return of self-doubt is always enough to make me work harder.”
I was reminded of a tidbit from a scientific study conducted several years ago. Researchers found that both the ultra-wealthy and those with low incomes have essentially the same mindset when it comes to their situation.
In other words, both groups see their situation as normal. They adjust to their circumstances. The study implied that, regardless of your level of success and your living situation, you will remain essentially the same person.
In Sultan’s case, a writer is still a writer at heart, even if he has several accolades under his belt.
If you lack self-confidence now, you’ll probably be in largely the same boat even after finding success and recognition.
From Books to Scripts
Let’s move on to the meat of the matter: the act of writing.
Sultan’s first stab at writing full-time was in the realm of fiction. He sought to write a novel when he was still in his early 20s. But it quickly proved to be a real challenge, not in terms of the characters, but rather the scope and accessibility of the story.
“Something about distilling all that work into a consumable story felt overly cumbersome to me. Screenplays, on the other hand, have clear rules, which, once you learn, are easier to apply. Screenplays might not give a writer the room to delve into characters’ psyches or craft beautiful prose, but there’s a beautiful challenge about distilled artforms. Every scene is crucial. Every word counts.”
There’s an excellent parallel here when it comes to purposeful limitations to inspire creative freedom.
Jack White of the now-defunct White Stripes has always been a bit of a stickler when it comes to limiting himself creatively. More specifically, he enjoys limiting the circumstances in which he can be creative.
The band’s 2001 album, White Blood Cells, was supposedly recorded in just 3 days. Limiting the amount of time they could spend in the studio inspired a great deal of creativity and innovation.
Sultan thrives on the limitations inherent to screenplay structure, from page count to story beats.
What’s the Worst that Could Happen?
While discussing characters and how to make them feel real, we stumbled on an apparent contradiction, or what may seem like a contradiction to general audiences.
Screenwriters need to respect and care for their characters while also putting them through some horrible trials and challenges.
This can make for a difficult writing process. In film and television, nothing can feel forced. Screenwriters need to have their characters deal with some very heavy situations and still come out the other side.
“Screenwriting books always preach about making life difficult for your protagonists. That involves throwing obstacles their way. That’s easier said than done. In order to really move an audience, they need to be invested in characters who are digging as deep as they ever have before, particularly towards a film’s climax. The key is to make those moments feel organic, not contrived.”
As an audience, we need to be able to believe that the characters are in real trouble. When it comes to stories that involve immediately violence or other physical harm, this may be a bit easier to communicate.
But when it comes to dramas and even comedies, the characters’ problems need to feel like problems we’ve experienced, even if there are no direct parallels to things we’ve experienced.
As we said at the start, creating convincing characters is a team effort. The writing needs to be near perfect, and those involved with the production in any capacity need to understand those characters.
Sultan has spent his creative career looking for ways to tell the most human stories possible, with great success.
At the risk of sounding preachy, we need stories that we can believe, that speak to who we are as a people. These are ultimately the stories that change lives and inspire others to create stories and characters of their own.
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Sammy Sultan is an award-winning screenwriter and the creator of Black Cab Back Chat.
You can find links to Sultan and his work here: