This semester in Stokes Piercy’s screenwriting class, I embarked on a project that has since become quite prominent in my day-to-day life. In fact, I can almost guarantee that if you’ve come in contact with me in the last 2 months, you’ve heard something about a mathematical prodigy named Alexander Milton. He’s the hero of my story, The Mathematician, which I first created as my final project for Superheroes last semester.
Milton, a first year grad student at MIT, becomes a superhero after his uncle, a famous physics professor, is killed in a fire caused by a mysterious villain known as The Spiral. Then Fibonacci shows up, but I don’t need to get into that.
Developing this story and writing the screenplay has had a great effect on the way I look at films and scripts. The tremendous amount of work that goes into writing a good script is incredible. There’s structure, dialogue, action, character development, conflict, the list goes on. Every piece of dialogue is important and every scene has to move the story forward in one or more distinct ways. It may sound simple, but it’s not. It’s like an intricate puzzle. Or in my case, a math problem.
The most important thing to me personally in my script is strong characterization. An interesting character is the bedrock of any good story. Literally every great story is told around a great character. I wanted Milton to be a complex, relatable, fully formed person. And that meant getting into the mind of a mathematician.
I’ve done my best in 2 months to learn everything I can about Milton and his world. I know his favorite bands (The Beatles, U2, The White Stripes), his pet (a chinchilla, Alan), his birthday (October 20th), and of course, his favorite mathematician (G.H. Hardy). These decisions were not random, but instead the product of much research. Then of course I had to figure out Milton’s flaws, habits, wants, fears, needs, etc.
The fact that I’m writing this story is so ironic, because I am absolutely terrible at math. But there have been so many amazing things that I’ve discovered through the process of writing this story, not least of which how interesting the lives of famous mathematicians are, and how much math pervades our lives, in ways we never even consider. I love when things I never thought had anything to do with math turn out to have mathematical origins: Jackson Pollack paintings, Stonehenge, Beatles’ songs, and Alice in Wonderland, to name a few.
I’ve also learned a lot about triangles. And prime numbers. And Euclidean geometry. But most of all, I’ve learned about myself, as a person and a storyteller.