I was chatting with a fellow script coach about her new client. She was excited about his project; it was a really cool premise; and he seemed open to feedback—always important to ask even though it seems obvious. She was, however, a little concerned about a teeny red flag.
She’d asked why he wanted to write this particular story. He responded that he wanted to prove to himself he could write it. Great. He also wanted to prove wrong all his friends and family members who’d doubted he could do this. Fair enough. Who hasn’t wanted to exceed loved ones’ opinions of our limitations? And—this was the kicker—he wanted to throw it in the faces of all the women who’d made the colossal error of rejecting him.
“Whoa!” I exclaimed.
“I know, right?” my friend sighed.
Didn’t the Isla Vista shooter say something similar? OK, maybe that’s extrapolating too far. I’ve certainly wanted to make exes envious of all I’ve accomplished without them. However, the difference is that he intended these exes of his to be characters in his script.
Often characters are inspired by people we know. The problem is that writing characters (antagonists, usually) based in anger or revenge against someone who has wronged us rarely yields robust, artful creations. Most often, it leaves us with two-dimensional characters who can seem oddly out of place against a more multi-dimensional story.
We need to find love for all our characters, protagonists and antagonists alike, so that we can fully understand and empathize with their motivations. This makes them richer on the page where they can act as bigger challenges for one another. Authentic characters arise from the writer’s empathy for those characters. When a character is based on someone who hurt us or someone about whose villainy we want to be right, finding any empathy can be tricky.
When I have writers dealing with this, I encourage them to do what work they can to find forgiveness. Not for the real life villains. For all I know, they should be in jail. But for us. For the sake of our own health and that of our art.
If you can forgive, you can more easily get to a bird’s eye view of the story. You can begin to see this person as just another character you need to shepherd through your pages. You can begin to see that their actions are consistent with their fears, wants, needs, and goals. Then you can write that character from a much more grounded and authentic place. As an added benefit, you may find you can bring more empathy to the real person or situation as well, and release some of your hurt.
For example, I am currently working on a piece with a character based on someone who I feel hurt by. As I did my character work and the intertwined forgiveness work, I found I could see this person’s choices with more clarity and empathy. As a result, I feel less wronged by them, and I have a richer character emerging as the story develops more depth and balance, thus giving the script more emotional resonance. That’s worth far more than being right or getting revenge.
I wished my friend luck in dealing with her new client. I hope she can get him to see the value of simply writing from the desire to tell a really good story. If you get a little revenge along the way, bonus points for you. But give us a solid story with fully fleshed-out, relatable characters over broadly drawn paper tigers. When you’re walking that red carpet because your work has been nominated, you can strut in the knowledge that an ex or two is watching, thinking, “Dang, I let that one get away.” I know I’m counting on it.
Ready to create characters for the right reasons?