Last night I held my monthly salon where I facilitate writers to have the opportunity to talk with each other and compare notes about their work. I break the attendees into groups based on their interests and experience level, and I work with the students who are having serious challenges.
On this occasion, I worked with a student who couldn't seem to finish her script. Her screenplay was about a young woman married to a soldier who had recently completed several tours of duty in a recent war and was suffering from traumatic experiences. He was plagued with nightmares, fits of rage and often drank himself to sleep.
The screenwriter was on her eighth draft and had been told repeatedly that she "didn't seem to know the main character very well." She admitted that she didn't understand why she kept getting the same complaint.
I have worked with many screenwriters who have wrestled with a similar problem. I asked the screenwriter if she knew what her character wanted so badly that she was willing to risk everything to get it. Of course the writer knew: her heroine wanted to be loved by the soldier. Why wasn't it coming through in the script?
Based on my experience, I suspected that the problem was not what it appeared to be; that it had nothing to do with the screenwriter not knowing her character. Rather, it had to do with a natural reluctance to raise the stakes by allowing her main character to suffer to the necessary degree.
We love our fictional characters as if they were our children, so of course we want to protect them. We find ourselves in a paradoxical situation: In order to succeed as writers we must be willing to allow our characters to suffer, but as people we want to keep our characters safe.
"Do you love your main character?" I asked the writer. She nodded, close to tears. A few moments later, she smiled because she now understood that this was why she'd been unable to move forward.
This is the dilemma that keeps many scripts from reaching their potential. How can we put our characters through the horrors necessary to tell the story? The solution is to understand that a fictional character's turmoil can actually prevent real people from suffering by showing them the consequences of the choices they have made.
I asked the scriptwriter if she could be sure that if one woman saw the film and understood how to end her own actual suffering, would the torments the writer put her fictional character through be worth it? Of course it would!
There was a happy ending: the screenwriter left hurriedly, intending to go home and finish her script.
So, If you are stuck, revisit your script and ask yourself if you are being too nice, and if so, see if the idea that your character must suffer so that your audience can avoid it gives you a reason to do what you need to do.