4 Lessons from Characters Who Made it Out of Their 20s

by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)

A great deal of ink has been spilled about Hollywood’s infatuation with youth. As writers, we can easily fall into this trap as well. Look back at your own portfolio and count how many scripts you’ve written about protagonists under the age of 30. Juxtapose that with the number you’ve written for characters over 30. If you’re like me, you’ve likely rationalized that we are writing for a market that demands scripts around young actors. In other words, it’s really not our fault. However, if we look back closely, there is a tremendous body of work that has been created for characters that have matured into later adulthood. Here are four lessons we can learn from characters who weren’t simply resigned to being the wise old sage.

Alice Kinney (Reese Witherspoon)

In the opening scenes of Home Again, we learn that Alice Kinney is turning 40. While she goes through a variety of humorous scenarios throughout the film, there is one over-arching theme that keeps arising – maturity is a good thing. Her character comes to recognize that getting older has its advantages and is important not just for Alice as an individual but also for those she is surrounded by and loves. It is easy to lose sight of the fact that “adulting” can be enjoyable and not just necessary. Characters like Alice remind us of what a powerful theme this can be for those who are at an age where this lesson becomes reality as well as those who will be there one day soon.

Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington)

Inside Man plays on the archetype of the detective that’s jaded by life and by his job. Keith Frazier is a character used to juggling various forms of stress with an ease that only develops through years of experience. It’s only when he is able to release the hard shell that has confined him that he can accomplish what he needs to in the narrative. Frazier holds up a mirror to those of us who feel like our management of routines will keep us from ever needing to turn from habits that have kept us emotionally safe. This is a process that only comes to us as we age and as we develop as people.

Celeste Wright (Nicole Kidman)

Nicole Kidman’s performance in Big Little Lies earned her an Emmy this week. However, it was not just the skillful acting that drew audiences toward her character of Celeste Wright. Celeste embodied the complexity of life’s decisions. She demonstrated how easily self-denial can creep into the life of even the most intelligent and driven person. This character is only powerful if she is old enough to have carried her problems for decades – just a few years won’t do. Celeste teaches us the power of the “long-term lesson” in character crafting. Her decision near the end of the story is made more courageous by the experience she brings through years of hardship and coping with a problem that just wouldn’t go away.

Don Johnston (Bill Murray)

Lest we believe that every character emerges from their 20s with no sense of humor, Bill Murray has made a career in his later years of proving this not to be the case. In Broken Flowers, Murray’s Don Johnston offers us a mature humor — a humor that arises in the weariness and disappointments with life. Johnston believes he’s seen everything and that life holds no more surprises or charge. His journey reminds us that each day is a gift and that life will always hold surprises if we are willing to seek them out. Characters like Johnston speak to us regardless of our age, since we have all felt disenchantment in our hopes and expectations.

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John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and Master of the Cinematic Universe: The Secret Code to Writing in the New World of Media. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to U.S.  Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his site, tellingabetterstory.com.

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