Do you hover around your characters incessantly? Do you place them in danger – but not enough? Do you strive to protect them from their own foibles and weaknesses? Do you love them so much, that the world’s refusal to embrace them as the perfect idealizations of great screen characters – which you believe them to be – would plummet you into the depths of emotional annihilation? Do you make things too easy for them?
If so, you may have become a Helicopter Writer.
We’ve all done it at one point or another. It’s an early draft obstacle for me – the ability to step back, and let the characters live. To not rush in and scoop them up when they fall down and scrape their knees. To go ahead, let them cry, moan, wail and tantrum as they will – and then to gently remind them that it is time for them to deal with their problems.
“It’s my story. Why shouldn’t I be a Helicopter Writer?” To put it in blunt terms, Helicopter Writers tend to create immature characters, unable to respond to the slings and arrows that life may pummel at them with little more than cliched emotional responses. If your characters have not lived, then your characters will not, at that watershed moment, know how to deal with life. Their actions are predictable; they are not interesting. Characters will come off as a stock characters, members of a very small and badly-done commedia dell’arte troupe running the same Punch and Judy sketch over and over and into the ground.
Not to mention that often, they turn into sniveling brats.
Is there help for the Helicopter Writer? Of course. A little therapy in practice, a combination of SuperNanny, Tiger Mother and the best/worst of Dr. Phil’s advice laden rhetoric, and you are good to go write:
- Address the problem at hand. What is the cause of your over-protective nature? Is it a fear of failure? Are you afraid people won’t “like” your work because you allow your characters to be fully-formed humans? Lack of preparation – do you not spend enough time on your background work? Unrealistic goals – did you think you could hit a home run in a few weeks? Reflect and redress.
- Remind your characters that life is not supposed to be easy. Have you ever reminded a child of this? A veritable chain of actions/reactions erupt forth not unlike those involved in a China Syndrome scenario. Yay. As Hitch reminded us, “Drama is life with the boring parts cut out.” Place some obstacles in their way; raise that cookie jar to the top shelf. Engage them in situations which will take them out of their comfort zone. Challenge them, don’t coddle them.
- Allow your characters autonomy. This is a difficult one, for it is about control. You must set boundaries for your character; otherwise, you might end up with a ragtag group of people competing for the focus of the story. However, your boundaries must allow for them to have their wiggle room. Accept that you must allow them to have their secret places. Secret lives. They’ll come to you when they need to tell their secrets, and because you have not rifled through their closets and their drawers, their revelation will be honest. You may have given birth to your characters, but they are creations in their own right, and should be given the power to make their own choices. There’s a reason that Damien Cockburn bought it in the deep shit. Release your grip.
- Accept them for their flaws, not their virtues. What would have happened if attorney Frank Galvin had stayed on the wagon – or never drunk to excess? He certainly would have had a more thriving practice; most likely, his relationships with others would not have devolved until he was on the brink of living a point of singularity. He would have money. He would not wake up hungover on his floor. He would probably practice overall better personal hygiene.
He also wouldn’t have to work on contingency. He would not have to accept clients of modest means. He would have never met the Doneghys – and, if he had, he certainly would have not taken their case, for he would not need the case.
As a matter of fact, he might have worked for the other side – and he would have won. Whatever the scenario, a Frank Galvin without his flaws is a man without a story.
- Celebrate non-conformity. A 40-year old virgin. An island cop who is afraid of the water. A loving grandfather who is a foul-mouthed heroin addict. A 5 foot tall 88 pound slip-of-a-girl with a dragon tattoo. A man building the machination of his own death. A king who stutters. Devoted friends engaged in a legal bloodbath. Let them live their lives outside of the norm. Don’t make them blend in with the rest of the kids.
- Stop protecting your characters. Let them fall down. Allow them their dreams, their fears, their heartbreak and their joy. Let them get egg on their faces. Allow them to live. They’ll blossom and grow.
Now, go write.
HRH, Princess Scribe
What I’m reading: Thumbed through Karl Iglesias’ The 101 Habits of Highly Successful Screenwriters again. I’ve purged my collection recently, but this is always a keeper.
What I’m watching: Ah, catching up. THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE, THE KING’S SPEECH. THE AMERICAN. Throw in a little classic – M – and it’s a full schedule.
A Royal Shout-out: To Ricky Gervais, for doing what he was hired to do. He’s an entertainer. This is his brand. He delivered full on. Well done.