Writers in Movies
I suppose this could really be an essay about writers portraying writers in any medium, but I think for now I'll focus in on movies.
When a character in a movie is introduced as a writer, I almost always groan. Usually inwardly, but sometimes audibly. Why? Lots of reasons.
First of all, it's just an overused cliche. I don't have any real data to back this up, but I'm pretty certain that the number of characters in movies that are writers probably is right up there with lawyers, doctors, and cops. Which is ridiculous. Even if I'm wrong, but it's even close to those professions in number, it's way off the mark. There are certainly far more writers in movies than, say, CPAs, and again... completely not reflective of reality. But screenwriters use "writer" as shorthand. Make a character a writer and supposedly you've already said volumes about him or her. Writer in movie-speak means someone who's creative, inquisitive, observant, and usually witty. Also sometimes neurotic, but not as often as they probably should be. It's the same with other professions. Stock brokers are usually greedy and vacuous. Fashion models are vapid and vain, nurses are long-suffering and nurturing, etc. There are plenty of exceptions, but certain professions allow the screenwriter to skip over a lot of character development if they have to.
If you still doubt that writer is a lazy shorthand for a certain type of person, consider this: how many movies can you name where writers (not journalists) are bad guys. There are a few, but very few.
Second, the portrayal is usually not at all realistic. Not just because there are too many in movies, but because, ironically, movie screenwriters don't know how to portray actual writers. Writers sit in a room and type all day. That's what we do. We're not interesting movie characters. I rarely explore the Amazon rain forest or chase drug smugglers in Paris as a part of my job. (Maybe I'm doing it wrong.) Most writers have "day jobs," because it's tough to make a living at it. For many, writing's not really professional at all, but a hobby that occasionally pays them money. Harsh but true. Those that do write full-time are rarely gallivanting around exotic locales. Most do it full time in addition to being a stay-at-home parent because again, writers are by definition stay-at-home types.
Also, it's often used as kind of a drop-out profession. In movies with college students about to graduate but unsure if they want to join the workforce, or movies with people unhappy with their lives or their jobs, characters state they want to become writers as though it's some kind of luxurious non-job. An escape. A back door out of an otherwise humdrum life. That might be all well and good, I suppose, but writing's hard work. It's long hours and not great pay. It requires passion, not resignation. It's not something that's out there for everyone who doesn't know what to do with their life. Ask a successful writer how he or she got into writing and it's pretty unlikely that they'll say, "well, I was graduating from school and didn't know what else I wanted to do, so I figured, 'eh, I guess I'll write.'" or, "well, I was a high-paid lawyer but I got tired of the pressure, and writing sounded like an easy way out."
There are a few movies that do a pretty decent job of handling what it's like to be a writer. I just re-watched Wonder Boys with Michael Douglas, for example, and it's not a bad example. Being based on a book my Michael Chabon, a real writer's writer, if you will, helps. A more recent example,The Ghost Writer, is not bad either, although I think we need to assume all the political intrigue is likely the exception for the main character, and not the rule.