There is a usefulness in the written biography for the screenwriter. I will put aside the legitimate and obvious argument that all written histories are subjective to their author, for that does not weigh in on the use of biographies I wish to address. I am primarily concerned with the blueprint a good biography can provide for the construction of characters in a screenplay.
For instance, a biography whose focus is primarily confined to the larger historical context allows a writer to chart a person’s journey from one event to another. The lack of subjective speculation on the biographer’s part allows the screenwriter as a reader to speculate for him or herself, and thus manufacture their own proposed speculation as to the emotional and psychological ramifications the history itself may provide. Once a screenwriter feels that their speculation is fully formed and applicable, this “fiction” may now be transposed to an original character in an original screenplay. However a good book of this nature is difficult to locate, and in many cases may be more difficult depending upon the interests of the screenwriter. For myself I have favored Albert Goldman’s The Lives Of John Lennon, Alex De Jong’s The Life & Times Of Grigorii Rasputin, and Jeffery D. Wert’s General James Longstreet among others.
But there are times when such a formulaic approach to charting a character arc is simply not applicable. There are times when one has the arc already charted out but lacks the internal make-up of a character. It is most helpful in these instances, when turning to biographical material, to have some knowledge of historical figures of interest. An obvious example would be to read the autobiographical works of Bukowski, particularly Women, if one were writing a script about alcoholism. The insight into the psychology of the subject, who in this case is also the author, may prove pivotal to understanding the subtexts and motivations of an original character that may otherwise prove two-dimensional. Other autobiographical works of interest may be Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas In Wales, Kerouac’s Big Sur, Frank Harris’ My Life And Loves, Henry Miller’s Sexus, Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast and Peter Manso’s Mailer.
Though biographical works in literature may be of some use, I am personally of the belief that one must write material about what one knows, even if only conceptually. Here one is the author of all aspects of the source material so to speak, even the author of the experience that prompted the composition of the supposed screenplay. I suppose, after some reflection, that any combination of these methods may work. That in the end one just has to find out for one’s self.