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Scott Lax Blog

What Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly Can Teach You About Character Development

If you're in college or graduate school or otherwise taking a creative writing fiction course, and you're trying to understand character development, you'd be better off studying Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly's rendition of "Little Drummer Boy" on YouTube than listening to an unpublished instructor try to explain it to you.

Watch Ferrell and Reilly. Then watch the original David Bowie and Bing Crosby version from 1977. Both are sort of insanely brilliant, both sort of just weird. But here's what you can learn from closely watching (facial expressions, voice control, set design, movement) both versions.

Ferrell and Reilly, two superb comic actors - if not geniuses - don't imitate the originals. They don't do impressions. They get to the truthfulness of the essence of that wonderful, freaky performance by Bowie and Bing.

That's what character development is. You get inside the skin of the character, and then you make that character your own. Do you see? That's why simply "observing" the human condition and "listening to real dialogue" and all those other clichés of writing teachers are not what creates good fiction.

Watch Ferrell's face. He's not Will Ferrell, yet he's not David Bowie. He's this other thing, a third thing. He's one plus one equals three. One (Bowie) plus one (Ferrell) equals a third thing, an original character. He and Reilly create characters. That's what you need to do in fiction. Create characters. Don’t get wacky, but don’t imitate. Get inside the character and run with it. He - just as your characters should be - is barely in control, yet perfectly in control. He appears on the verge of doing anything at anytime, but the reality is that he, as the author of that character, is completely in control.

Never once in that sketch/song do you see either actor "be clever." You see them "be." What are they being? When you know that, you'll know what it is to create a character.  Read More