Popular 'writer' tropes in films (prepare to be offended)
Did I need an excuse to combine my two favourite things into one blog post?
Am I going to do it anyway?
I’ve picked out a handful of popular character tropes involving writers in films and tried to isolate just why they’re so important to the narrative. Some of them are pretty offensive and some of them are downright laughable.
I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it.
What’s a ‘trope’?
A character trope is a set of ‘universally identifiable’ conventions which can be used to flesh out a character quickly — these are often so recognisable that we (the viewer) can pick them up without even realising. The screenwriter doesn’t need to try as hard to convey information because the character trope does some of the work. Because we’ve seen it all before, we start to fill in the blanks for ourselves.
If you saw a cheerleader in a horror film, I’m fairly confident you’d be able to guess what kind of person she is and what her ultimate fate might be (for more deets, see Cabin in the Woods).
When a screenwriter chooses to use a journalist, novelist or copywriter in a film script, they have a number of handy tropes to lean on. Here are some of my favourites…
Horrors, dramas and thrillers wouldn’t be the same without a nosey journalist or creatively blocked writer. They’re the perfect tool for screenwriters because they’re always digging into shit and triggering chaos. They’ll unearth a horrible secret, unleash a vengeful spirit, or just stir shit for other characters. If you plan to kick off some serious dramz, you need a nosey writer.
Sam Dalmas – The Bird with the Crystal Plumage
Rita Skeeter – Harry Potter
Ellison Oswalt – Sinister
The obsessive time-bomb
The obsessive writer is related to the ‘meddling’ writer. They often have trauma they can’t let go of and, although they use writing to work through their issues, they often lie to themselves about their circumstance. The obsessive time-bomb can’t integrate with society. They have addiction issues, marital problems. You know they’re going to explode at some point or maybe you’ll discover that their narrative has been unreliable all along?
Mort Rainey – Secret Window
Charlie Kaufman – Adaptation
Jack Torrance – The Shining
The idealistic dreamer
Writers inhabit a world made entirely of dreams (I know I do, anyway). We create romantic fantasies which fuel an outpouring of creativity, only to face crushing disappointment which we’ll turn into another story. It’s this ridiculous idealistic trait which screenwriters use to drive coming-of-age dramas and romantic comedies. I chased my dream, only to discover that what I wanted was here all along (*barfs*).
William Miller – Almost Famous
Calvin Weir-Fields – Ruby Sparks
Tom – 500 Days of Summer
The troubled soul
Writing is therapy, so it makes sense for scriptwriters and novelists to use the ‘troubled writer’ trope to tell a story through the medium of a cathartic narrative. The troubled soul is working through deep seated issues or deliberately avoiding work because they can’t face it. After all — the audience knows that writers are ‘creatives’ and creatives are lost souls and deep thinkers.
As seen in…
Justine – Melancholia
Bryony Tallis – Atonement
Miles - Sideways
The ‘mutherfucken rockstar’
Every so often, you’ll come across a film which glorifies writers. They’re painted up as the mother effing rockstars of the piece, and have obsessive fans, oodles of notoriety and command a shit ton of respect for their ability to spin a yarn or report on a story. Sometimes they’re written as unsung heroes, worshipped only by viewers outside the diegetic universe. Either way, they rock.
Paul Sheldon – Misery
Carrie Bradshaw – Sex and the City
Clark Kent – Superman
The ruthless writer
It’s a dog-eat-dog world and sometimes a writer’s gotta get ruthless to turn a profit. It’s not unusual for a scriptwriter to lean on our assumptions that a writer is poor, obsessive or troubled to push the idea that they’re willing to do whatever it takes to tell a story, scrape a living or expose the truth.
Lee Israel – Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Skeeter Phelan – The Help
Paul Kemp - The Rum Diary