In the late 1990’s and early 00’s, I fancied myself a screenwriter and an independent filmmaker. To see how that turned out, do a quick search for my name on IMDB. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
Right – and you’ll find the same results for a lot of us who went out and saw The Blair Witch Project and stole a copy of Adobe Premier. That’s not to say I’m embarrassed by the failure – indeed, it was really the wrong avenue for me to explore because the tasks of shooting, editing, and directing cut deeply into writing time. Every writer has to make a choice: to write or not to write, and if you are a writer, you must make your own deep cuts into everything that is not writing time.
But in the 1990’s I didn’t see it that way – I thought it would be a simple matter to wear lots of different hats and fill them all with my gigantic egg-shaped head. In order to make the most of the time I had available, I took some shortcuts with my stories, and the characters in particular, which brings us to the point of this post: your friends are not characters.
Your friends may have character, they may be perfectly interesting people, but it’s an all-too-common young writer mistake to assume that their friends are going to translate neatly onto the page. You and your friends share a lot of inside jokes, a lot of memories, and a lot of communicable diseases – stuff that might go right over the heads of any potential readers, and not in a “wow, too smart for me” sort of way, but in more of a “what the fuck are you talking about?” sort of way.
Because not only are you and your friends in your own little world nine times out of ten, but unless I miss my mark, you have some pretty weird friends. You’re a writer, you’re not normal, your friends are probably nutcases too by the simple extraction of like liking like.
For example, my friends and I enjoy going down into the basement and telling make believe stories about elves and dragons and crap. We can’t just come out and tell these stories to each other, because that would be weird – instead, we use math and dice to tell these stories. Many of us like to paint little toy soldiers for use with our storytelling adventures, and then after a hard day of that we go drink cheap beer in dark clubs listening to repetitive boom-boom-boom beats and dancing. No, none of this is done to impress girls, except for the girls who are already there, who are our friends, and who are no longer impressed by us.
Maybe that actually sounds like fun – I don’t know. But what I do know is that a transcribed conversation between any two of us would make for a lousy read. Why? Because my friends and I (and likely you and yours) have known each other for decades. I can call my buddy Mike and have an entire conversation wherein we simply impersonate old high school teachers, and to us it’s a riot, and I can say “OMG my friends are so hilarious!” but, when I take the time to explain who Carol Kachmar was and why she talked like Dame Edna, and why she had a fixation with telling us we were all going to fail, well, it’s boring me just thinking about it…and I’m not even you.
The urge to write a friend in is powerful, but you have to fight it. At the same time, you can’t ignore the material life hands you. If you have a friend who has a weird hobby and a peculiar way of talking, well, that’s characterful and interesting, and basically the entire premise behind Seinfeld. But, if you are repeating verbatim a conversation you’ve had about the particulars of that zany Judy from the office, well, it’s very possible that only you and your friend find that interesting. If you’re wondering who Judy is, or if you don’t know who Judy is, or if your reading sort of skipped a beat with that weird reference, then you get my point.
The trick is to find the archetype in your friends, because so much of fiction depends on them. Stories need heroes, villains, helpers, teachers, and all of these little character elements that are themselves a hidden and nearly subconscious language. We know who the hero is by page ten, and he’s explained his problem by page fifteen. Can your friend get to the point in six thousand words? Sure, but not if you’re spending all your page space telling me about the crazy wacky things at band camp and, oh man, dude, you totally just had to be there.
Naturally this is hard. Our experience is precious to us, and we want to record things for posterity, to reflect the truth of the event – but if the event can only live in the sealed bell jar of transcription, then of what use is it? If your friend wally is just so totally weird that I’d have to know him to “get” him, why tell me about him at all?
A Look Back – 2 June 2021
Yeah, not bad! I mean, of all the cringe I’ve had to sift through, I am starting to get into the stuff that’s a little more “my voice” and a little less abrasive and deliberately offensive. This is the start of a long ramp up to something resembling readability. It is a long, long ramp. Forewarned is forearmed.
What I was responding to here is reasonably well described albeit suffering from a lack of specifics, and unfortunately in hindsight I cannot remember what it was that had me hoinked off at this point. I had clearly just read something or watched something and this sort of very narrow issue had apparently come to my attention…but it’s also possible I was describing my own corrective.
All the way back in the 1990s and very early 2000s, I had a tendency (as many young writers do) to just write characters as people I knew, and to fail to separate the character from the person. That led to some really confusing over-specifics, some stuff that didn’t age well…everything I describe in this post.
In a way, what this post really is, as are most of the old “unsolicited advice for writers” posts, is a love-letter to the training that ironed out my writing. It was thanks to great professors like Chris Leland, Doug Unger, and Pablo Medina, among MANY others, that I started being able to find my voice and hit the harder notes. It still took me a while to get really publishable, but no doubt that I’m a fine example of education working as designed insofar as writing is concerned.