Jeanne Veillette Bowerman is the Editor of Script Magazine and a screenwriter, having written the narrative feature adaptation as well as the limited series of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Slavery by Another Name, which was honored in the Top 25 Tracking Board Launch Pad Features Competition. Follow Jeanne on Twitter @jeannevb.
Time to have one of those raw, brutal, hit-you-upside-your-head moments about your writing. You might want to get comfortable. Maybe lay down on my therapy couch… go ahead. I won’t bite… but I can’t promise it won’t hurt.
Oh no, don’t worry, I didn’t mean physically hurt. Chill.
Now close your eyes and relax. No peeking.
Tell me about the protagonist in your current script?
Ah, a nice girl, huh? Sure, I know the type. Girl next door who’s a little socially awkward, but so damn cute the boys can’t resist her.
Oh no, nice is good. Unless it’s boring.
You heard me. B-O-R-I-N-G.
I don’t want to follow the girl next door for two hours while she tries to figure out if she should part her hair on the left or the right, or worse, only part it the way Johnny Stud Muffin likes it.
What’s that? But you like her, and it’s your story?
Then maybe we need to explore why you are writing someone so safe.
When I think of the girl-next-door character, my mind moves to a quote from Heavyweight Champ Tyson Fury, “You have about as much charisma as my underpants.” Never heard of Fury? He’s a kick-ass boxer with no filter on his thoughts, a “traveler” – the Gypsy King. He shaves his head, so there’s no part to worry about.
He’s not boring. Him, I want to follow. Sure, he’s an unpredictable, misogynist jerk, but that’s precisely why a story with a character like him in it would keep me turning the page.
What would he do? How would he react in any given circumstance? I haven’t a clue, and that’s the point. That alone would make me keep reading.
So, why aren’t you writing someone more interesting than the girl next door? Maybe you are. Then bravo. But are you pushing her far enough? Are you pushing her to the point she might just jump off a cliff at any given moment?
If not, why not?
Whenever a writer protects their characters, it’s really them protecting themselves. Sure, we’ve created these fictional people, but every character carries a little part of us inside. We identify with them, even our villains. So if we push them, we’re pushing ourselves, and poking at wounds, sometimes so fresh they’re barely scabbed over.
I have a story like that. One so sinister, twisted and painful I had to let it simmer for a couple of years until I was ready to take it to the darkest places imaginable. But in order to do that, I have to rip open my own wounds so far my guts will hemorrhage all over the page.
Scary? Hell, yes. But my point is, if we as writers can’t tap into our own issues and push our characters to places we are uncomfortable going, what’s the point? We write to make people FEEL.
You can’t make an audience feel if you are hiding behind the therapy couch, afraid of your own feelings.
So let’s take the little girl next door. Who is she? What is it about her you relate to? What’s her wound? What emotional scar does she need to get past in order to succeed? What do you need to get past in order to write her the way your story deserves?
Come; sit on the therapy couch. Explore your mind and heart and find a way to be brave enough to push that girl off an emotional cliff into the unknown.
Think of it this way; TV and film today pushes boundaries like never before. Take the pilot episode of Game of Thrones (SPOILERS ahead for those ten people who have never watched it). That last scene, when little Bran Stark spies twin siblings Jaime Lannister and Queen Cersie having sex, what did you think would happen next? Maybe Bran would sneak back down the wall, unseen? Or Jaime’s humanity would outweigh his fear of his affair with his own sister being discovered and he'd save Bran from slipping off the wall?
But did you expect this…
Jaime Lannister is no girl next door. He is ruthless. That scene hooked me into the series. That one scene. That one character. I needed to know what Jaime Lannister would do next, why he was so heartless, why he’s having sex with his twin sister, and if Bran Stark would survive the fall. If George R.R. Martin was willing to toss an 8-year-old boy off a wall, what else would he do to his characters?
Gives me chills just thinking about that split second his mind came up with that scene, sitting at his keyboard wondering, "Should I?" Damn. He must have had a moment of being pretty damn uncomfortable.
Do that. Be uncomfortable with your choices. Push the boundaries. Push your characters farther. Create a world for them that keeps a reader turning the page. Push them off a cliff. That is your new bar for writing.
- More articles by Jeanne Veillette Bowerman
- Jeanne's Screenwriting Tip: Writing Character Descriptors
- Balls of Steel: Working with a Screenwriting Mentor
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