Trending in the Industry: (Your) Character
A few weeks ago I sat down for coffee with a manager friend to do our regular catch-up about all things writers and industry. She reps writers. I work with writers. She even reps a writer I work with. And I genuinely like and respect this particular manager, on top of everything. So it makes sense for us to get together, have some tea, and discuss where the industry is today. Ever since that morning, I’ve been cultivating the various insights, big and small, collected at that meeting. But instead of going down a laundry list of all the topics covered, I decided to share with you what I considered to be my most important take-away: Right now, in the industry, and in more ways than just the obvious, it’s ALL ABOUT CHARACTER.
What do I mean by that? The character I refer to is NOT the traditional approach towards your protagonist or antagonist, the internal journey or character arc. Instead, it relates to these two specific areas, one writing related, the other connected to your personal presentation:
- Your personal narrative, illustrating pivotal life events that influenced the writer that you have become
- The emotional core in your material
Let’s break it down:
The Personal Narrative
General meetings – meetings in which you are invited to meet an executive without being asked to talk at any great length about a specific project – are all about the personal narrative; your personal story that provides the listener succinct information about what made you the person and the writer that you are today. Even in pitch events, executives are looking for a bit of flavor about the writer behind the work. After all, in an industry where the majority of writers break in through a writing or staffing assignment, the conversations that launch such opportunities usually begin with something like: “Hey, remember the girl who grew up in a cult? I think she would be perfect for this show.” or “What happened to the guy who spent six years in the military? I bet you he’d have a great take on this.”
A single screenplay, be it a feature spec or an original television pilot, will rarely hold the same long-term potential as the writer who created it. The writer who created the work will have endless potential for new exciting work, while any one screenplay will eventually reach its full promise, be it as a box office or ratings hit, an indie or critical darling, or an award contender. Therefore, it’s essential that you are able to clearly tell the listener who you are, and with a few choice anecdotes give the listener insight about what made you the writer that you are today, so that you are brought back into the room long after your last project has completed its journey. If an executive likes your writing and has clarity about your personal story, he will have a strong understanding of what you can bring to any project or work, and will likely consider bringing you in when presented with such opportunity.
Within the personal narrative, executives are looking to hear how the writer, on a very personal level, can connect with the themes, experiences or emotional arc within the work. It’s not for nothing that show runner Neal Baer, who studied medicine and did his first year residency at Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles, got his start writing for ER. We are the culmination of our most meaningful experience, and it is those experiences that we bring into the room or onto the writing assignment with us. In general meetings, you will on occasion hear these questions (or some version of them): “what themes excite you? what sort of characters do you connect with?” While writing is a highly imaginative profession, it is also highly personal, and draws on your wealth of experience. If you can’t bring in your personal experience to a science fiction show, you can certainly bring your point of view and your EQ to connect with and deepen the material.
Time and again, my clients confide in me how much they hate talking about themselves. The big surprise is that this is true for almost everyone who writes. Talking about oneself often feels mechanical, inorganic, forced. Because of this, you have to make sure that you create a cohesive personal story that is as strong as your material to convince the listener that the writer is one with whom he would want to work, or from whom he would be interested in seeing more and new material. Don’t kid yourself: No one comes up with a compelling, focused, contained personal narrative in the room. It is something that you have to consider, reconsider, and practice beforehand.
If you tell every executive a different story from your past to try to illustrate who you are and why they should hire you, chances are you haven’t found the most effective personal narrative just yet. This industry, at the end of the day, is a small place – everyone talks to everyone, and when an opportunity arises which is “perfect for the writer who (fill in the blank)” people get talking, and quick. Your personal narrative doesn’t have to be derived of big stories like running off with the circus; instead, it has to be real, it has to provide insight into the experiences that shaped you, and allow the listener to gain a quick, specific understand of who you are. Once you’ve developed a strong personal narrative, you will repeat it again and again and become “that writer.” Just as you hope the industry will develop clarity about what your script is (or isn’t), executives will be able to develop an unmistakable sense of who you are, and understand the strengths you bring to the table – which go far beyond writing skills – soon enough.
The Emotional Core
No matter how big your story, how expansive the world of your show, right now what both myself and my manager friend are hearing back from our counterparts in network and representation is that when it comes to television specifically, it’s all about the emotional core. If you don’t have a character with a unique wound, an enticing back story and a powerful secret – to uncover or hold – to boot, the concern is that it would be hard to develop the sort of show and runway that would keep audiences engaged week after week.
Emotional core is often drawn from a combination of wound, fear, secret and theme. Ask yourself things like: What does my protagonist fear most, and what situation can I put him in to force him to confront his fears or be confronted by them? When examining characters, more than one screenwriting guru has said before (in one manner or another) that a character’s arc is one in which he or she goes from living in fear to living courageously. Therefore, the writer must understand what frightens their protagonist most, and what situations can said protagonist be put in in order to confront those fears, make decisions accordingly, and experience growth.
I am a fan of all sorts of shows. Yes, like most of today’s viewing audience I enjoy material that veers towards the dark, but even there, be it an action procedural like “The Black List”, or a serialized drama like “Orphan Black” or “Sons of Anarchy”, we find ourselves uncovering the core of our primary (and sometimes secondary) characters from episode to episode. In today’s television climate specifically, that’s what executives are looking to grab onto. While the world has to be unique and interesting, and the plot rife with potential, it is not likely to hold their interest unless it comes complete with a protagonist who is both complex and wounded.
For me, the biggest take-away from the morning tea in which these two issues were discussed was this: Give the listener something to grab onto. Find that personal and emotional hook. Whether it’s a unique character back story or your own narrative, deliver with succinct clarity a specific story that may not be big, but can be specific and memorable. This will go a long way for creating a compelling pilot, drawing the executive’s attention, getting your script passed around, or maybe even landing you a job.