The blank space at the center of your script is YOU

After years of reading scripts, I have come to a stark conclusion. Though we are told again and again to "write what we know," many writers just plain suck at writing themselves. It is easy to spot an autobiographical protagonist, even if you know nothing about the writer. That self-representative protagonist is always the dreariest, least compelling, least appealing and least understandable character in the script. Even when the plot requires drama and difficult choices, somehow the self-representative protagonist sails through with little more than mild angst and a furrowed brow that could be mistaken for peevish indigestion.

Is it because we can't bear to inflict harm upon ourselves and therefore allow the characters that represent us to avoid the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune – even though, dear g*d, that makes them dull?

Is it because we are too close to our own issues to understand that the difficult choices in front of us are difficult – or even choices?

Is it because we are so close to our character's issues and they're so freakin' obvious (to us) that they require no identification or explanation, even though they do? They really do.

Whatever the reason, please take warning. If you get back comments that the protagonist seems unlikeable and you love him, or comments that the arc isn't clear even though to you it's the whole point of the script, be aware that you might not be experiencing the script in the same way as anyone else. You might not think your lead character is all that autobiographical, even though he is a twenty-eight year old former fireman with commitment problems, and hey – so are you. Try the following exercise anyway. Write a sample page as if that fireman were the villain – or at least, someone who absolutely, positively isn't you. Change the race, the sex, the hopes, the dreams, anything, everything. Study that new character's motivations closely. You might find they are stronger – and closer to your own unspoken truth – than anything you could have written for yourself.


Cognitive dissonance

I have been uploading the massive 170 CD box of everything Mozart – thanks again, Record Surplus – to my mp3 collection one careful disc at a time over a period of weeks. Why do I believe 170 discs won't overwhelm the collection if I upload them s..l..o..w..l..y instead of all at once? I'm still planning to upload the whole box. It's so well thought out, and so not rational.

I'm not sure what this has to do with writing, except as an example that otherwise intelligent people can believe silly things, even when they know the things are silly. Scientists can be superstitious. Insurance agents can play Internet poker. Doctors frequently smoke. It's also an example of what Michael Shurtleff (yes, him again) calls "opposites" – the thorny way most of us fight desperately for the things we need, while also clinging to the things that make the things we need impossible. I love my balanced music collection; yet I can't resist the acquisitive urge to grab all that Mozart, even if that means my shuffle play now includes way too much harpsichord.

I probably don't need a balanced music playlist or 170 CDs of Mozart; I just like the word better. Which reminds me of my cousin's two year old. She recently discovered the word "need" and decided it is always preferable to her previous favorite word, "want." Shurtleff would agree. Need is always a stronger choice. Go for it, kiddo!


What's in a name?

I love this website. It's one of my favorite writing research tools. Few things date a character so indelibly as their name. We all know that certain names become attached to certain eras and certain ages. We live now in the era of Jayden and Emily. Jazz babies lived in the age of Walter and Lillian. Times change. One might want to avoid the obvious first few choices, but about halfway down the site's top twenty list for any birth year, one can find a gem of a name that places a character effortlessly in time.

Though here's an interesting warning: audiences seem to prefer heroes and heroines with names popular in their own era – not in the era when those characters would actually have been born. Stephanie became a HUGE name in the 70s and 80s – remember Saturday Night Fever? But when the character Stephanie in that film would have been born, say in around 1960, the name barely cracked the top 100. Of course, popular characters and actors can catapult otherwise unpopular names to the top themselves. I read an article once that suggested the catalyst of the final switch from masculine to feminine of the name "Kim" came after Kim Novak became a star in 1950s Hitchcock films. Checking the SSA site... hey look, masculine Kim peaked in 1955, then pretty much dropped out of sight. Might be something to that theory.

So yes, you can completely ignore the actual popularity of a name, and create a wild sensation with something unique and different – or something already popular in your era but totally out of place for the actual character. But go forth with a warning. You can succeed ahead of the curve, or right on the curve, but don't ever wind up behind the curve. If you call the present day 30 year old protagonist's mother "Edna," you are waving a giant red flag. You are no longer writing a real person, but rather a character based on an elderly stereotype. Which is to say, not just the character is elderly – the stereotype is as well. Edna peaked in popularity in 1912. Moms in the 1950s may have been called Edna, but I don't want to see any 1950s moms in your present day script. Okay? (Unless you're writing a script about 1950s moms in the present day, and that's a whole other thing.)