In the final session of my summer rewrite class, Henry, a talented student who was struggling, said to Lucinda, who wasn't, “Your parents must have really loved you.” When I asked for an elaboration on this comment, Henry said rather bitterly, “It’s so easy to tell who has the natural self-confidence that allows success. These are people who had support and approval from their parents, as opposed to people like me, who were criticized and doubted. I am not making an excuse, just pointing out that as with a painting, the frame influences our perception of what’s inside it.”
Lucinda nodded. “Yes, I agree. My parents totally approved of me, so I never doubt myself.” When I pointed out that the way to increase self-confidence is to perform tasks well and to meet deadlines to prove how good you are to yourself, Lucinda laughed. “No, the dark side of parental love is that sometimes you never feel that you can be good enough.” Henry looked surprised that there could be a dark side. Lucinda continued, “At least, if you succeed Henry, you don’t owe anybody anything.”
Since this early experience greatly influences our own ability to succeed, why should it not be the same with our characters? How their parents treated our main characters is one of the critical choices that we writers must make when trying to find the “heart” of our characters.
The conversation inspired me to create a character exercise that I hope you’ll find useful. Performing it for both your main character and your obstacle or villain may produce a helpful and revealing scene that will really make your screenplay “pop”.
Here's the exercise:
1. Get a mental picture of your main character in relationship to his or her parents. For example, in the film, The Godfather, imagine the scene at the wedding where Vito wants Michael to put Kay in the wedding photos.
2. Set a timer for 5-15 minutes
3. “Speaking” as your character, in the first person, write a story about a childhood experience that illustrates his or her relationship with either or both parents. Try to take the story a little further than where it naturally ends.
For example, in the film, Ordinary People, when Conrad won’t eat his breakfast, his mother throws it out angrily. Instead of ending the character’s rendition there, continue writing what might have happened next. “I left angrily, and heard them arguing about me as I slammed the door. Until that moment, I had no idea she wished that I had offed myself.”
4. Try to incorporate this story into a scene with the goal of having the character reveal his or her self-opinion. For example, consider the scene in LA Confidential where Budd White reveals his brutal childhood after making love with Lynn Bracken. This scene not only reveals why he became a cop, but also allows the film to move forward, because he confides that he feels there was something wrong with the case but is too “stupid” to figure it out. Lynn points out that he is actually very smart, and gives examples. This conversation inspires him to solve the case.
5. Now focus on your obstacle/villain. Imagine a scene between him and her and their parents.
6. Set a timer for 5-15 minutes.
7. “Speaking” as your villain/obstacle, in the first person, write a story about a childhood experience that illustrates his or her relationship with either or both parents. Try to take the story a little further than where it naturally ends.
8. Try to incorporate this into a scene and see what you learn.
In summary, the amount of approval we received as children sharply affects how we feel about success as adults, and this is also true of our characters. By including these experiences in our character’s development, we cannot help but to improve our screenplays.
Good luck and happy writing!