What to do… when the protagonist is you . . . by Peter Fox [April 2011]

Close your eyes for a moment and pick your five favorite films of all time. Now, from that list, select which lead character is most like you, and in descending order, continue down until you have identified which character is least like you.

From this list, identify the best traits of each character from your top choice down to the last character on your list. Then, repeat the process to identify the worst characteristics of each character. When you are finished, put your lists down for at least an hour.

Now, think of the story that you want to set in cinematic context, the story that you have waited all of your life to tell. It has been inside of you forever, burning, aching to come out and show itself to the world. You have not yet written it, because you want to do it justice. In your desire to be true to yourself as an artist, writer and person, you have waited to gather the knowledge necessary to expertly tell your story. You can’t wait any longer and now it is time to begin. But for some reason, you can’t. What is worse is that you can’t understand why this is so.

When the lead character in your cinematic story is you, or a character based on  you, there is a special dilemma. Time plus distance equals perspective. You go to sleep each night and wake up each morning with yourself. So, in the context of gaining time plus distance from a character in order to gain perspective, the task is most difficult when you are autobiographically writing a screenplay. Deep perilous literary waters. Tough stuff. What can one do?

Before we get back to the lists above, there are several methods that might help you breathe life into your character. I will quickly review them here in order of importance.

1.The first and most important is to not name the character after yourself. This will almost certainly result in your block, which may already be significantly vulnerable from the start, becoming worse. Through the years, writers have come to my workshop with their stories of terrible tragedy, or even comedy, whose characters bear their names. There is a place in the literary mind where creativity is blocked when the character is named after oneself. That time and distance that is so necessary is not available. The solution is to choose a name that is distinctly different than your own.

2.When choosing a new name for this that is based on you, do not chose a name that is remotely close to your own name in any way. The net result will be the same as naming the character after yourself. When you write his or her name, your literary mind will hear your own name. Again, that time plus distance becomes inaccessible.

3. The locale of your action should not be exactly the same as the actual events that you have chosen to write about. Can it be in the same town? Yes. Can the house that the character grew up in be on the same block as the one you grew up in, the one which you are now going to write about? Again, yes. But, you will find that if you attempt to visualize and then write the location exactly as you remember your house, you once again discover that the time and distance becomes more difficult to access. This does not mean that you will be disingenuous about your story. In fact, the effect will be opposite. By giving the character a bit of distance from the actual events (especially if they are painful, or dramatic), you will be rewarded, as the emotional attachment to the material will unfold without being forced. When you revisit a painful experience in cinematic context, the images, when rendered directly from your memory, will not come to you as easily. It is the narrative that counts, not the exact, literal details.

4. When the character is you,  change his or her name as required, but keep your vernacular. This is where the voice your have created, your  voice, a voice shaped by the experiences and trials of your life, will make your character sing. Write your character’s monologue. (These techniques have been covered in prior issues of IMAGINE). When writing doing so, after selecting a name that you find suitable for your character, let your character sing on the page. Give him or her permission to let it fly. It will be as if you now have a chance to express all of those emotions and thoughts that you have always wanted to, but never could, for fear of  being harshly judged by others, or (maybe worse) having your writing harshly judged by others. Your new character is you, but with a fresh, strong, brave outer self. But what is underneath, the soul of the character, will still be yours.

5.  When writing your character history, alter the landscape of your experience. This is not to be confused with number 3. There is a huge difference. The purpose of the character history is to give your character depth of experience, and in the pre-screenplay process, this history ends on the day before the action of your screenplay begins. Following the principle of time plus distance equals perspective, we once again act to protect and support our new version of the lead character, based on you. By just slightly altering the locale of your character’s upbringing, economic status, religion, family, emotional, spiritual and psychological history, you give your new cinematic self room to breathe, to move, to explore and to  test thresholds. Draw on your life experiences. Dramatize them. Create your story from them. But if you strictly report them, the result will often be boring. Remember, you are a cinematic storyteller, not a news reporter!

These are my top five suggestions to help you write the story of you, the one that you have been trying to get at for years, but have had trouble with, until now.  If nothing else, they will help you get the courage to tell the story of your triumph, your stand and deliver moment. That problem of conscience that you overcame in view of no one but God and your own reflection. Or the life or death, man against the mountain, it ain’t fair situation that you conquered, once upon a time.

I almost forgot about that list we made…. Take the two lists and look at them after coming up with your favorite movies. Your favorite characters, listed one to five. Their best traits. Then their worst.

Now, compare these characters to the one that you are about to create. You will find that their traits, both positive and negative, resemble someone very close to you. In fact, if you walk to the closest mirror, there is a good chance that these traits, most, if not all of them, can be found in your own reflection. Now, go over to your sacred space and start writing….

Peter Fox is V.P. of Production at Tripeg Studios in Hamden, CT. He conducts the Inside Track Workshops for Screenwriting and holds an MFA in Screenwriting from the American Film Institute. For more information about this article and other articles by Peter Fox go to www.peterfoxworkshops.com