I Hear Voices by Fred Ritzenberg

Fred Ritzenberg shares his thoughts on developing characters during the re-write.

I was sitting in my office at BDFI one evening, when I glanced out the window and saw a kid, with a bent coat hanger, making his way into a car. I didn’t know what to do. Should I bang on the window and get his attention? Should I call the cops? Should I run down the street and chase him away?

As I was gathering my thoughts, a student came into my office and saw me looking out the window. “Oh, that poor guy locked his keys in his car. I did that last week,” she said.

Okay then, we were both watching the same thing, yet seeing something very different. Then, I remembered a similar experience that I had about 25 years ago, when some kid broke into my wife’s car, and took it on a joy ride.

My reality was being filtered through that experience, just as my student’s was by her recent experience, where she locked her keys in her car. Yet, we were both watching the same thing. Who’s to say who was right? In other words, everything we see is distorted. Think about Kurosawa’s, Rashomon. Our perception of reality is filtered through the distortion of our experiences in life.

Okay, so where’s this going? Here’s the answer. In order to write a character, you need to see the world through their eyes… their DISTORTED eyes. So, my best advice is to write a “character bio” about each of your characters. Write it in the first person. That way you become the character and see the world the way they see the world. Try to find a “defining moment” in their lives that made them who they are today.

The object of writing a character bio is to help you find the VOICE of your character. Once you’ve found that voice, he/she will tell you how they will react to any given situation. That reaction defines who they are, not who they think they are. There’s a big difference. “Adversity introduces a man to himself,” said Samuel Johnson.

As you proceed through the writing process, writing draft after draft, you will discover new things about your characters, so keep in mind that your Bios are living documents. They will grow as your story develops.

You will also discover how each supporting character helps build the protagonist’s story. They are there for one reason, and one reason only, to help us learn more about the protagonist. And make sure that each character is at the center of their universe. They are their own protagonists.

My last piece of advice is, “Kill Your Darlings”. I think this may be wrongly credited to Faulkner, but whoever said it was right. It means that we don’t think clearly when we’re in love. Ever heard the expression, “Stupid In Love”? We don’t make good decisions when we are feeling emotional. So, be open to changing the things that you love. You may just give your story the life it deserves.

And remember, when you are killing your darlings, use a scalpel not a hatchet.


Fred Ritzenberg has been in the film business for over twenty-five years, writing and producing motion pictures. He produced and directed the critically acclaimed feature film, Gospel. Ritzenberg has also written screenplays for some of Hollywood’s top name producers, including, Brother Zack, Woody, Office Buddy, and most recently, The Cure. He is currently producing, Zaytoun, and Eran Riklis is attached to direct. Ritzenberg holds a BA and MFA in filmmaking from the S.F. Art Institute, and is also a member of the WGA (Writers Guild of America). He teaches screenwriting at the Berkeley Digital Film Institute, and also mentors aspiring screenwriters in San Quentin Prison at Patton University