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Monday, October 6, 2008

Origin Stories

So the Mini-W and I watched IRON MAN over the weekend and we both gave it a big thumbs up. And, as the Mini-W is still in the learning stages of movie appreciation, we discussed the fact that IRON MAN is an origin story. Origin as in the comic book world, not the world of mythology that the Mini-W was immersed in for years, being the product of many years of Waldorf School. To this day the kid can knit while discussing Loki, play the violin and sing ancient Teutonic songs about the coming of winter while laying pine boughs in a pleasing circular pattern.

In the world of comic books, origin stories are the back stories for the superhero in question. How, why and when our superhero began his or her trajectory of internal pain and superhero-ness. You know - Batman and his murdered parents, Spiderman, the radioactive spider and his uncle's death for which he blames himself, Superman and his destroyed planet. Luke Skywalker and the loss of his aunt, uncle and very home. Wait - he's not a superhero. But this is still his origin story, isn't it? The beginnings of a lifelong adventure. A pivotal point in his life that changed him forever.

So all of this got me to thinking - what is your main character's origin story? Regardless of genre, your main character is on an arc of change, right? What was that moment that defined the hole your main character has been trying to fill ever since? What defined them long before your story began? If there was a moment of origin for your main character, your script is then going to be the second most defining moment of their lives, right? Because your script is in some ways the continuation of a story that already began long ago.

Your main character's origin story doesn't have to be tragic - you might be writing a comedy - but the point is that something in your main character's life set them upon a path, positive or negative and now, because screenwriters get to play god, you are going to set a story in motion that will irrevocably change your main character once more. Change the direction of their orbit forever. And it's deeply satisfying, as a writer, because in real life while many do have defining moments, often it's more of a cumulative effect, right? Experiences pile up, one atop the other and slowly shape us, like a rock being being battered by the sea. As we get older, we begin to soften and change.

But movies are life writ large - there are defining moments, pivotal conversations, forced decisions and cathartic, satisfying changes. I'm convinced that that's why we like to go to the movies - to look for patterns, closure and exciting outcomes when in real life, things can seem to move at a glacial pace. Even so - look at your own life - do you have a moment that defined you? Or a period of time? Something about where you grew up, something that happened in your family? A bully at school? A teacher who believed in you? That jerk who fired you and led you to your career today? Were you lucky enough to find the love of your life and that person lifted you up to a whole new level because they love you so? Or did you lose someone and that profound loss lent you a whole new point of view?

We writers have more in common with our main characters than we like to admit. Our main characters live out our fantasies - they get revenge when we were unable to. They speak the truth when we weren't heard. They overcome their fears. They have the perfect come back, romantic gesture or courageous response. They turn heartbreak into triumph, they take chances and they discover the truth about themselves. They overcome grief and find grace. They are us the way we wish we were.

What was your defining moment? Can you name one? Or maybe a defining period of time that led you where you are in your life right now?

Now think about your main character - your antagonist, that's fun too - and explore what his or her origin story is. What defined your character on page negative 50, long before your page one was written?

Origin story - back story - defining moment - they're not just for superheroes. We all have those moments and so does your main character. Be the main character you're writing, slide into his or her skin and feel that pain, joy or loss in order to write a satisfying arc of change in the now.

I often tell writers that because you get to play god, the journey you set your character upon should be exactly relative to the change you want to see in your character. Could Tom Cruise have GONE on a more painful journey of change as he drove his mentally handicapped brother cross country in RAINMAN? Here is a character who needs to reconnect with his past, forgive his father and heal his wounds. They say that the Universe never gives us more than we can handle but often our limits are pushed. And we rise to our potential if we have to. If everything is on the line. Otherwise we lead a life of mediocrity and quiet desperation and our characters inhabit a dull movie. I think living a life of quiet desperation is a kind of living death. And so does your main character. They just won't admit it.

So do some spelunking - find that origin story - that pivotal moment that happened long before your script began and then trace it forward - now your main character has reached some kind of uneasy equilibrium and by page ten, you're going to be the finger of god, upset the balance and set change in motion.

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Anthony Peterson said...

Great post. Theres definately something theraputic about seeing yourself in your main character. Sometimes its a little scary though.

Michael said...

Yeah! You finally saw Iron Man - told you it was AWESOME... Great point about being "God"... you need to guide your character down the right path with all the cinematic zest possible! :)

meg said...

I almost fell out of my chair reading your description of Waldorf education. Funny.

I can't write until I understand the history of my main characters.

A few weeks ago I couldn't write for my one guy-- until I figured out what was going on inside him. I couldn't tap into emotions and get them on the page because I didn't know why those emotions existed. I knew it was tied to an experience as a youth but I tried to write it without figuring it out. I thought it didn't really matter if it was not clarified for me. I thought a simple "his sister died when he was young" would be enough. But it did matter. I couldn't get to the right emotions until I knew. I spent lots of time on it. Then I knew. Now all his actions/dialog seems connected.

Anonymous said...

Sorry Julie...

I hated Iron Man...

But on that note, just found out that two big studios are opening huge departments for Comic book adaptations --

So Julie, let's bring TANK GIRL and CATWOMAN AND BARBERALLA back the Silver Screen....okay at least I tried, wrong avenue maybe?

I think PINK would make a great CATWOMAN!


Anonymous said...

This is an inspired post, helpful in simple and profound ways. Thank you!

E.C. Henry said...

HUGE fan of Iron Man, Julie. I was pleasantly surprised by Robert Downey Jr's performance. The guy is SOOOO GIFTED. I just wish he could have won his battle with substance abuse a little earler, as I feel cheated from seeing what COULD have been a truly outstanding career.

I have MANY, MANY personal origin stories. I'll tell you one. I was extreamly unpopular in high school. I used to hide from my fellow classmates, especially durring lunchtime. When the kids were in the hall, I'd be in the corner, a safe distance away, keeping an eye on them.
Anywho. One day, at a high school assembly, our senior class was called foreward, and one-by-one we were auctioned off to students or staff as part of a senior class fundraiser. Jock laughter filled the air. Outlandish inuendos as to what a senior's new master would task them to do were vollied about. But it came for my turn to be auctioned off the whole gym went silent. I just stood there for what felt like an eternity while Miss Cline tried to sell me for a couple bucks. But then my math teacher, Mr. Gram bid on me, and one of the most embarrasing episodes (and there have been many) of my life came to an end.

I will never forget what Mr. Gram did for me that day. Years later after I accepted Jesus as my Lord and Savior, I kinda equated Mr. Gram to Jesus: someone who saw something of value in me when no one else did. Mr. Gram went on to obtain a surley repution as being a little too friendly with his lady students, and had an affair with another teacher, after divorsing a former teacher from my school. Not an ideal role model -- but if I'm called on to testify on his account on the Day of Judgment I will say nothing but nice things about Mr. Gram. Miss Cline, on the other hand, different story; I have nothing nice to say about her.

- E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

millar prescott said...

Julie - Great post as usual, and great ahaa moment for me. I get to play god and take over the direction of my characters lives after we've been introduced. It may not make sense to others, but it gave me a little tip to work with.

@ e.c. - Dude, maybe you should have taken that hat off.

meg said...

Interesting story, E.C. Mr. Gram reminds me of what I try to capture in my characters. I'm having fun with my latest antagonist. He is going to betry his brother yet he has moments that seem inconsistant with a bad guy. Some people haven't seen that bad side of him so their reactions to him are completely different. Oh, such fun.