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Authentic Storytelling – Kodie Bedford: breaking down characters and worlds

Questions for writers to ask to get to the heart of characters and create an authentic world.

Kodie Bedford headshot.Kodie Bedford

In the Authentic Storytelling series, members of the Australian screen sector share their thoughts on why authenticity is important, challenges they have faced, and how the industry can do better. Subscribe to Screen Australia’s newsletter for additions to the series.

Kodie Bedford is a screenwriter whose credits include writing for critically acclaimed ABC series Mystery Road, NITV/ABC ME children’s series Grace Beside Me, ABC comedy series Squinters, acclaimed SBS On Demand series Robbie Hood and upcoming Blood Sisters. Kodie co-wrote and co-produced the upcoming ABC iview comedy series All My Friends Are RacistKodie’s directorial debut came with 2019 short Scout, which she wrote as part of Screen Australia’s Shock Treatment and is part of the horror anthology feature Dark Place. In theatre, her play Cursed! was staged at Belvoir Theatre in 2020 and developed through the 2019 Balnaves Fellowship. Kodie was born in Western Australia, with strong family ties to the East Kimberley.

Ever since I was 13 years old I knew I wanted to be a television screenwriter. It was such an odd dream for a teenager growing up in the mid-west of Western Australia where the main trade was crayfishing and farming, but I was determined and I had Buffy the Vampire Slayer to blame. Ever since she graced our small screens back in 1997, I began downloading Buffy scripts (which was an effort considering the early days of internet.) And little did I know, that reading these scripts gave me my first insight into television storytelling, breaking down character arcs and the basic rules of plotting and drama.

And I guess that’s the first piece of advice for writers: read scripts. I still go back to the Buffy scripts – just last week I had to dive through the pilot in search of how exposition was hidden and rules of the world were cleverly set up right by Act 3. Revisiting those scripts has helped me crack my own works. But in terms of television storytelling from a writers’ perspective, the writing actually comes last.

Like many other Australian screenwriters, I work as a gun-for-hire in a writers’ room, working on another person’s creation. It means I need to get on the same page fast and we, as a writers’ room, have to use our time efficiently, often plotting an episode over two days in Australia. The objective is to get to the heart of the story fast.

All writers are different in their methods but for me, getting to the heart all comes down to breaking down the character and world.

Breaking of character

I believe this is the most important part of breaking down a story, and for me, is the most interesting part of a writers’ room, where you get all the juicy drama and story. Apart from spending endless time reading psychology articles, I’ll often drill down into character motivations. I’m that annoying person in the room that goes “I don’t think the character would do that,” and everyone sighs. But I’ll fight for it. I love breaking character so much!

Let me clarify, I never went to film school, but my number one rule is a character should make a choice because of character – not because of plot. And on the flipside to that – the external problem should drive the internal character to change, thus creating your arc.

So when doing this process, I’ll ask the following questions:

1. Where did they grow up?

I grew up in a regional town and I can tell you that when I meet someone I know within a minute if they also grew up in a regional town. I’ll get to how the world influences character below, but in summary, your environment should have an influence on how your character behaves and their beliefs – even if it is subtle.  

2. What class did they grow up in?

Class is not really talked about enough in writers’ rooms and I wish it was explored more. I grew up in public housing and I can tell you right now, it affects the way I behave, move in the world and particular attitudes I hold. A character in Succession will behave differently to a character in The Wire. In a world where we’re starting to talk about privilege, class matters.

3. What was/is their relationship with their mother? What was/is their relationship with their father?

Ahhh parental issues. It’s pretty self-explanatory. Parental issues actually make for good drama and if you ever need inspo – go search on sub-reddits that are full of stories of parents shaping their kids’ identity for better or worse. (Recommend: Entitled Parents, Narcissistic Parents, Just No MIL)

4. What is their relationship with the space around them?

Women are actually really good at answering this question because we are ALWAYS aware of the space around us. It’s built into our reflexes and we know when someone is standing too close and when someone is leaning in a little too near. This is a massive generalization, but men tend not to have the same awareness. Consider these questions: Does your character hug when they meet a stranger? Does your character hold eye contact? Coupled with past traumas, parental issues, class environment, your character’s navigation of space can really help you see how they see the world.

5. How old are they? How old are they emotionally?

This is a quick and easy question to ask. “How old are they?” But please, for the love of character, always follow up with “how old are they emotionally?” It makes a difference, believe me.

6. What are they afraid of? And what is their fight or flight response?

A good way to know what your character is afraid of is to ask what triggers their anxiety. Let’s face it, the writers’ room is a deeply personal space where writers share their psychological assessments of themselves (and the rule is to always make sure it’s a safe space before you share). Humans are very predicable in the way we behave and your character’s fears and fight or flight response can give you obstacles across their journey.

7. What are their flaws?

Perfect characters are boring to watch. And it’s funny how sometimes I get feedback that says, “that character is too unlikable and no one will watch”. I always argue ‘The Soprano rules’: they were awful people but we still watched and the brilliance of the writing had us even relating to them. If you do enough work on breaking down your character, you will discover flaws that you can exploit. Instead of the feedback being “the character is too unlikeable”, argue that it should be “is the character relatable enough”.

8. Where will they start and where will they end?

It’s always good to ask this at the start of a writers’ room but don’t be surprised that after interrogating your character, you realise that they are on a different journey. I want to go where my character goes. I want to see how they deal with all the problems of the world. When you put plot over character you get Season 8 of Game of Thrones when fans don’t buy that your hero will suddenly turn evil and destroy the whole of King’s Landing. I’m throwing shade of course, but I guess the lesson is – if you want to take your character somewhere – make sure they earn it!

Still from Mystery Road series 1.Mystery Road

Breaking of world

Sometimes in a writers’ room, a decision will be made that we make the location generic. I beg you not to do this.

I absolutely love leaning into the location because it gives us texture, language, character behaviour – things I call the “colour of the world”. Look at Fargo for example. I’ve never been to that location, but I know it.

Here’s what I ask when looking at a world:

1.  Is this a city or regional area?

Like I said above, I can tell the difference between city and country folk. If you want to set it in regional Australia, lean into it fully with the characters and colour.

2.  Who lives there?

I’ve been fortunate enough to travel all around Australia – to some of the most remote places on earth – and I love seeing what locals do. Like in Wyndham, at the top of WA. It’s remote so there’s a great mix of people who are getting away from something, people who love the wilderness (and crocodiles), backpackers floating in and out for work and people who are quietly longing for somewhere else but don’t have the means to leave. Even having these characters in the background will give your show more depth.

3.  What’s the weather like?

I certainly behave differently in cold weather (I hate it). Your characters will behave differently in wet weather, cyclone weather, sunny weather etc.

4.  Who is the minority?

Every place will have a minority and dare I say this is where the best stories will come from.

5.  What is the danger?

Crocodiles? Fascists? Evil corporations? Mars? It makes great obstacles for drama.

6. What is the time period?

If you set something in the past, you will likely do the research on what it looks like. But setting in a different period can have a drastic effect on character. Obviously an Indigenous person in the 1900s is going to have a whole other set of problems than an Indigenous person now.

7. How do people speak?

In Mystery Road we got to use the standard blakfella Kimberley greeting of “what now” in the dialogue which I think gave the series a lot more beauty. It was a very proud moment for me. Sometimes when putting specific slang language in, broadcasters come back with notes saying they are concerned not all their audience will get it. I don’t believe this. I think it adds to a show.

8. What are the rules?

I don’t like to get down on Game of Thrones because it is actually one of my favourite shows of years gone by (at least the first six seasons) but after setting up the world rule that it takes weeks to travel anywhere and it’s difficult, fans rightly got angry when those rules started to break in later seasons (oh suddenly it took half a day to travel 1,000 kilometres). Rules of the world help gun-for-hire writers get on the same page quickly, give your character boundaries and (if necessary) can give you drama when rules are broken (provided it’s earned and possible!).

I really hope this helps fellow writers when going into a writers’ room. Please keep it fun, keep it safe and go for that character and world breakdown. Lean into it, don’t be afraid and always be that annoying person questioning your character's motive – because your audience will!

Happy writing.

The views and opinions expressed in this article belong solely to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of Screen Australia.