“A good novel tells us the truth about its hero; but a bad novel tells us the truth about its author.” ― G.K. Chesterton, Heretics
I read this quote when I was a teenager, and I never really got it. I’m not advocating for characters that are obvious stand-ins for their authors, but it’s very difficult to write a spec screenplay of any competency that isn’t at least a little psychologically revealing.
“Writing is refined thinking.” – Stephen King, On Writing.
This is a quote I do believe. If writing is refined thinking, screenplays are like exquisitely engineered dreams, where life makes sense, everyone is beautiful, and even the biggest loser has a chance to be a hero.
“The dream is a series of images, which are apparently contradictory and nonsensical, but arise in reality from psychologic material which yields a clear meaning.” Carl Jung, Psychology of the Unconscious
Carl Jung was a genius, pioneer, and a devastating ladies man, but no one ever accused him of simplifying complicated tasks with glib solutions. Still, I think his theories on dreams (or what little I understand of his theories) are useful to screenwriting, this is the guy who inspired THE HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES, after all.
I had a dream last night. I was at my old high school, my mom was there, as was Wayne Gretzky, Harry Truman, and the mint green ’79 Corvette I so wanted when I was a kid. Everyone was talking so loud and so fast, and there were papers flying everywhere.
My opinion on dreams is much more straightforward than Carl Jung (that’s also why he’s a scholar for the ages, and I’m selling $40 dollar notes on a WordPress blog). Though I had the dream, Wayne Gretzky wasn’t there, my high school wasn’t there, and Harry Truman wasn’t there, my school wasn’t there, and my mom wasn’t there (I asked her – she was dreaming about Israel in the 60’s that night). They were all symbols of myself. The dream came from my subconscious and everything that arose there was a different facet of myself, given the illusion of independent agency for the sake of narrative. Which brings us to screenplays.
Dreams come from the same subconscious that screenplays do. You are the writer, the characters come from you, your mind creates the very protons and neutrons of their existence. You can’t authentically write about things you don’t know about. If you have to write about, say, the experiences of a spaceman from Atlantis, all you can do is give it your best guess. Your settings, your characters, your twists, all come from you, they are externalizations of your very subconscious and can be imbued with whatever values you want them to have.
So what does this mean in practical terms for a writer?
People often ask how they can create interesting characters, how they can ensure that their characters sound different, etc. If we hold that all characters are extensions of the self, you can differentiate them (individuate, as old Jung would say) by going further into the skid.
Don’t write characters like this: HERO (good, charming), LOVE INTEREST (smart, hot), SIDEKICK (sarcastic, cowardly), VILLAIN (evil, smarmy). Rather, connect them to yourself.
HERO: Me as I see myself, but with all my flaws. He’s brainy and friendly, but on some level he just doesn’t get people. He’s sad because he wants to make friends, but wants to hold himself above everyone. In the course of the story, he’ll learn to overcome this, helped by…
LOVE INTEREST: My female side. Tying her to me, she’s smart and self taught, but values success and money over more wholesome goals. Still, she’s imaginative and ironic enough to find her own points ridiculous, and she sees something in the hero, allowing them to clash, mesh and change.
SIDEKICK: Me as I fear I am. Neurotic, off-putting, a cliche nerd who talks tough because he suffered so much rejection in high school. In the course of the story he learns to accept himself and ironically grows to be heroic thanks to the influence of the hero.
THE VILLAIN: Me as I wish I could be, on my darkest day, when bullies steal my girl, liars prosper, and my car breaks down. He’s thought of ever clever crime, every mean thing to say, every psychotic flourish, except he actually does them. Bold, ruthless and terrifying, he must be put down. The hero defeats him with the help of love interest and sidekick, thereby reaffirming my own life choices, my good side wins over my bad.
“Knowing your own darkness is the best method for dealing with the darknesses of other people.” — Carl Jung
Spinning parts of yourself off into your characters isn’t a magic bullet (nothing is), but it’s a good start, and it’ll build your investment in the world of the story and amplify your own self knowledge (important for writing and so many other parts of life). So when you’re stuck for ways to make your characters sing, remember that everything in a dream is a part of you. When it comes to your screenplay, look deep into yourself, take a fearless moral inventory, and dream big.