Biopic: A Character’s Journey

I’ve been reading a number of biopics based on very famous historical personages. They are flat and dry, like cardboard. The feeling I have reading them is that they take a marionette of a historical figure and dance them through the major events of their life. I start off with little or no understanding of who that individual is outside of their historical context and so it’s impossible for me to create an emotional bond with the character that exists within this particular story. If I’d wanted the facts surrounding a historical figure, I can easily pick up a history book and get that information. Storytelling needs to transcend events.

For example, if you are writing about Albert Einstein, to simply construct a series of events and say, ta d aa!, meet Albert Einstein, is not enough for me. When your Albert character hits the page, my sense of him as a character should be just as thorough and rich as my reaction to any other well-written character on the page – fictional or not.

Don’t forget that when you’re writing a biopic – all the more so if the character is in the broad social consciousness – you must still firmly establish that you are writing your interpretation of this character. You must establish who your character is and what you are working with as that character’s arc (how that character will transform and grow throughout the journey of your story).

I think the challenge here is that many writers assume that this historical figure is so well known that he or she has her own character pre-determined within the media, it is already socially defined, so how can the writer set about redefining something that is historically defined? The biopic offers us the opportunity to peel away more layers than simply revisiting the facts of what happened, but we can fictionally step into the mind and character weaknesses of our historical figure – and this then becomes very compelling.

Even if the historical events within an individual’s life are fixed, there is still a need to define that character within your story world for the purposes of creating a character arc. We still want to see emotional transformation on the part of the protagonist despite the physical actions – this is what creates emotional resonance. It is the choices you make around your interpretation of this character’s emotional journey and how you employ the technique of craft that will make your writing unique and fresh.

So, even if you’re writing a biopic about Albert Einstein, someone we all know of, you cannot rely on the reader’s intimate knowledge of him as a historical figure. You should assume that the reader knows little or nothing about your character. Teach me, as a reader, what you want me to learn about your character. Don’t feel restricted or limited by only facts. After all, you’re still writing fiction.

One Response to Biopic: A Character’s Journey

  1. Geno March 20, 2010 at 7:17 am #

    Excellent notes and sage advice. I have a couple of historical biopics in mind and will be watching for this. Could one get away with writing something that no one could prove or disprove (i.e. Abe Lincoln being gay) since the project is probably fiction, but based upon historical events? I also think this advice is fitting for all main characters, bio or not. I already printed this out and put it in my folder. You’re the best!