Writing about Yourself
Creating a believable character out of a real person
By Erik Bork
They say “write what you know,” right? So writing about yourself should be the ultimate version of that. But is it a really good idea to create a “story” (or series) based on something you’ve personally experienced? What about making the main character you, at some point in your life?
This presents some unique challenges. Probably the biggest is the issue of perspective. It’s hard to create a “character” out of oneself that audiences will understand enough and see as real and compelling. Especially one’s recent self. Why is that? Because we writers understand our thought processes, desires, issues, life situations, etc. so intimately that it can be extremely hard to put ourselves in the shoes of someone who doesn’t, and to clue them into those things, the way we would if it was a fictional story. We tend to leave a lot off the page because it’s so basic and obvious to us. But it’s not to the reader. And then it becomes hard for them to process and engage with the story.
This can be a challenge with true story adaptations, too, if we find ourselves mostly thinking about the true people as we write — especially if we know them, or have read so much by or about them that we feel we know them. I think it’s better to think about the “character” we’re “creating,” who is based on that true person. It helps to remember that those are two very different things.
Just as “history” is not “story” until a writer takes pieces of it and fleshes it out into a coherent narrative with all the elements of structure and characterization that make it comprehensible to an audience, so is a “true person” not a “story character” until a writer has created one out of them.
This requires understanding the elements of character and story that you would need if it was fictional and then doing your best to still provide those. In other words, we try not to rely on the true person or true events to seemingly work as a story — or even to be understandable and relatable for an audience. Viewers need to be led by the hand and given a shaped experience much more than it might seem, and that includes helping them get inside characters, even if they’re based on real people, to understand and become emotionally invested in them.
With true stories and especially autobiographical ones, writers tend to want to write down what really happened, which makes sense, but often that sort of writing lacks the internal motivations and psychology that is necessary for an audience to really connect with it all, and feel something about it. The elements that could help achieve that might even be in the writer’s mind (especially if they’re writing about themselves), but don’t quite make it onto the page, because they don’t realize what the audience doesn’t know and needs to know, to have that experience.
I think it can be helpful to imagine actors when you write, especially with true stories, and especially if you’re writing about yourself. Instead of thinking about what you or some actual person went through, imagine the specific actor you think is the ideal casting choice moving through the scenes, doing and saying whatever is in your story, feeling what they should feel, and drawing the audience into their experience. This can help create some distance, so you’re able to see the character the way the audience would see it, instead of how you see it — from having lived it, known the person, and/or done so much research that you feel like you do.
It can be somewhat easier to write about yourself in a much earlier period in your life, because you do have some distance and perspective on that. It’s not really the “you” that you walk around as every day, if it’s the version of you from decades ago. For example, Cameron Crowe managed to pull this off with Almost Famous.
It can also help to fictionalize the character in key ways, so that while they might have many attributes of yourself (or of some real person you know about), they are clearly not, because of xyz elements that help you to see them from more of a distance and realize what you have to bring to life and communicate for an audience to be able to grasp them and care about them. (And of course, those xyz elements can be things that really serve the goal of making it the best story and character possible.)
I think as a writer that I bring myself to every character I write. Or people I have known well (or thought I did). That’s just part of the job. You can’t help it. You’re always imbuing a certain amount of your views and experiences. And I find different characters have different attributes that I have, but I can maintain enough distance because they clearly aren’t me.
The key attributes I’m talking about are the deepest emotional drives at the heart of any story:
- What they want
- Why they want it
- What’s in the way
- What they’re trying to do to get it
- How they feel along the way
Ideally, those aspects of any main character you’re writing would be crystal clear to the audience and to readers, who can easily grasp and take it all on as if it was happening to them. That’s when you have true engagement. If any of those five things are obscure to you, at any point in the process (or obscure to test readers even though they’re clear enough to you), then there is probably work to be done.
Originally published at https://www.flyingwrestler.com on May 14, 2020.
Erik Bork is a screenwriter best known for his work on the HBO miniseries BAND OF BROTHERS and FROM THE EARTH TO THE MOON, for which he wrote multiple episodes, and won two Emmy and two Golden Globe Awards as part of the producing team. He teaches screenwriting for UCLA Extension, National University, and The Writers Store, is the author of the Amazon bestseller THE IDEA: The Seven Elements of a Viable Story for Screen, Stage, or Fiction and offers one-on-one consulting to writers on his site flyingwrestler.com.
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