Robert McKee on Character | Magazine | Special Guests | Stage & Screen

By Kristi Thompson

Advice for writers from the legendary Robert McKee

“Creativity is the connection of two things put together in a third way. ‘The fog rolled in on little cats feet’. There was no connection between fog and cats feet, until this writer put them together.” ~Robert McKee

We have all had blow your mind experiences – some hilarious, some *awesome*, some take your breath away, and others so profound it’s hard to express in words. My opportunity to sit one-on-one with the legendary Robert McKee was all. Strike that. It was more.

My brain had to create new pathways in order to absorb even one fully loaded sentence during our two-hour interview. Like tasting a rich spoon-full of a 5 Michelin star chef’s finest French bullion, perfected after days of reducing, and decades of learning, hearing McKee speak about the craft of writing shocks the palette with his flavour and subtlety. His broth has been reducing over a lifetime of research and thought. It will explode your senses.

As you see below, to interrupt McKee with paltry questions felt akin to questioning Homer mid-Odyssey. Because of this, I have broken up the interview into four parts, to be published separately: “Subtext vs. Description”, “Characters”, “Unfolding the Story” and a surprising angle on “History”.

I’m confident you writers are looking for wisdom, and will forgive my lack of personally descriptive interjections to mention that as he spoke I typed as fast as my fingers would allow, or that when we left his London flat to lunch after our interview, he donned a smart dark brown fedora, most likely purchased on the advice of his cherished wife, Mia, who runs the business end of McKee’s worldwide lecutres. These lecture-cum-performances invariably end in standing ovations, much as I expect Homer’s might have in his day. (


Kristi Thompson


Is it necessary to know your character so well that you know where they were last Tuesday at 12:23 am?

Robert McKee: You do all that research as just imagining, to pour it out. Then you research from the real world of the subject. You do all this to give yourself choices.

You don’t pour it all into the book, especially if it has nothing to do with the plot. Don’t be so obsessed and proud of your research that you don’t make choices, not everything is relevant to the story line.

I like work that is in depth. I don’t think humans are shallow. I think they have a public persona, in fact all varieties of public personas. We create various styles of behaviour when we interact. We have a whole set of social masks, then we go home and have a whole set of social relationships.

We have our private self, who is conscious of everything we do, then we realize our body is not us, we are not our moods, nor our feelings. I am not even my own mind.

I can watch my mind think. As I’m going through the day my mind and I become merged. I know there is an unconscious mind that gives me things I don’t want. It gives me fears.

All these things are not me. We live inside a complex of various selves. Most of them are tools that we use to get through the day. The society we live in is a whole pyramid of power, multilayered. Nature is multilayered.  The evolution of living things is a pyramid, with humans at top, and bacteria at bottom.

My life is layered, so I want a writer who can shed light on this huge, layered complex that is the life of a character, and shed light on the things needed for his story.

When someone wants to write in a way that is knowingly flat, in order to express just some of those levels of complexity, that is fine.

But if the novelist just starts writing without knowing his characters, who they are, what they want, where they are, you may get something good, or you may not.

About the author

© Kristi Thompson, December 2011

Robert McKee, a Fulbright Scholar, is the author of the international bestseller STORYSTORY won the International Moving Image Book Award and has been translated into 20 languages. STORY is a required reading in the creative writing courses at Harvard, Yale and major universities around the world. McKee’s UK Television programs have been twice nominated for the BAFTA, winning it for J’accuse Citizen Kane.  McKee lectures world-wide on the art of writing for page, stage and screen and is the most sought after story consultant in Hollywood, NY and all other film making centres of the world. McKee was portrayed by Emmy Award winning actor Brian Cox in the Colombia Pictures, 4 time Oscar nominated film ADAPTATION.  McKee alumni have won 35 Academy Awards, 164 Nominations, Emmys, Pulitzer & Whitebread Awards. In 2011 alone, McKee Alumni won 7 Oscar Nominations & 2 Oscar wins (Toy Story 3 & Inside Job).

“Everything I know about Story Structure, I learned it from Robert McKee. End of Story” Two time Oscar winning Writer/ Director Paul Haggis (Crash, Million Dollar Baby…)

“McKee’s teachings are the law of the land at Pixar”   –The Pixar Touch

Subscribe to our newsletter

Get all of the latest from delivered directly to your inbox.

Featured books