5/25/10

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.

3 comments:

Concentrationally Challenged said...

A fascinating observation. I suspect there are many reasons why this kind of writing happens, some of which I'm sure you've named accurately.

Two others that come to mind are based in fear. One might be afraid of seeming vulnerable, incapable or weak. So their alter ego is unflappable, stoic. Or one might be afraid to reveal their inner demons, desires, and fears to the readers closest to them (friends, family, etc.). In short, they aren't writing what they know. They aren't writing the truth. They're writing the character/persona they wish to appear to be.

Think so maybe?

ermengrabby said...

This is a good reason to write with a co-author.

eamenes said...

Concentrationally -

Absolutely, one gets scripts where the flawless hero/ine is clearly an idealized version of the writer. There are two popular versions: the "uplifting" script, in which the flawless hero battles oppression of some sort before everyone realizes he has been right all along; and the "tragedy" in which the villain kills the hero moments before everyone realizes he's been right all along. Both are dull and typically written by obvious amateurs.

But then there's this other type of script -- the script that would work perfectly well if the protagonist weren't such a cipher. These scripts are often well-structured and well-written. The self-referential heroes in such scripts aren't so much flawless (which at least is a definite statement, if a dull one) as they are... oddly out of focus.

It seems sometimes like talented writers are less able to shine light on themselves than talentless hacks -- who get themselves wrong, but at least make the attempt. Weird.