Cast of characters

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Discovering characters who aren’t THE HERO (thank you, Monty Python)

When you are developing a story, how do you construct your characters?

With the possible exception of the hero, it can be challenging to build characters that populate the universe you have created.

As the universe (and your concept) revolves around the hero, we often start with a very clear idea of what that character is up against and how he or she will respond. But in the myopia of storytelling, the other characters are often fuzzier.

In some cases, we do not know who these characters because we haven’t met them yet. We haven’t gotten to the part of the story in which they enter. They are nebulous possibilities.

Alternatively, until our hero has explored his or her world some and maybe faced a challenge or two, we don’t know what the hero requires in terms of an antagonist, a sidekick, a mentor, a love interest.

What if we create a character only to determine later that he, she or it is ill-suited for our hero?

Then you rewrite that character…or perhaps you don’t, and the character lives with its flaws within your story.

It would be supremely wonderful to have everything completely mapped out in your story before you uttered or typed the first word, but creativity simply doesn’t work that way.

Like life itself, stories evolve as our characters live them, and even the hero may undergo profound change from your first impressions when you formulated your concept.

To my mind, that is actually the exciting part of storytelling. I am just as surprised by what my characters do as my audience is…I just get to see them first.

So, when you are first developing your characters, take the pressure off yourself. You are not going to get it perfect, so don’t try.

Kang

Find your placeholder

Cast your mind’s eye

Cast your characters like a film or stage producer and director might cast their projects. Invite characters in to audition and then go with your gut until you know better.

When I wrote my animated screenplay Tank’s, I didn’t have a great handle on the antagonist of the story, so I stole The Lion King’s Scar (Jeremy Irons) until I did. Mentally seeing and hearing Scar whenever my antagonist appeared allowed me to keep writing without worrying about getting it right.

In a few comedy sketches I wrote, I would see and hear Mad TV’s Stephanie Weir (see YouTube clip below). In fact, I worked as though I was writing my sketch for Stephanie. Because I knew that wonderful comedian’s style, I immediately knew how my character would respond to a situation, what words she would use.

Four Kates

The four Kates

If I have a female role I am trying to fill, might I consider the four Kates?

Is the character a Kate Winslet; strongly independent but coming from a place of softness and wonder?

Is she a Kate Capshaw; the hapless victim, eternally floating with the current until pushed too far, who then comes out swinging?

Is she a Cate Blanchett; internal strength incarnate but with an intellectual prowess that cuts a foe down before anyone knows the fight is on?

Is she a Katherine Hepburn; fierce brawler one minute, playful kitten the next?

Choose any one of those four (sorry Katherine Heigl, but I don’t see me writing parts for you) and I never consciously have to consider that character again…the words, actions and reactions are obvious to me.

 

Isn’t that cheating?

No.

First, all story and character is based on what has come before it. What makes the story unique is the writer, then who ever works on it next (editor, director), and then the audience who takes it in.

When I use Scar, Stephanie Weir or Cate Blanchett as a placeholder and guide, I am interpreting those characters/people through my personal lens.

And ultimately, I am fitting those visions into the story I am developing, demanding different things of them than others have or might. It is simply a starting point.

My antagonist Kang is not Scar, although there are overlaps as there are with pretty much all Disney villains (not implying that Disney is interested in Tank’s…but I am accepting calls).

The point here is to remove or at least temper the roadblocks that stand between you and the completion of your story.

Remain open to the possibilities with your characters and I think you’ll find they will ultimately tell you who they are.

And who knows? Maybe your character will be so wonderful that the three living Kates will vie for the role.

 

If you’re interested in learning more about story and storytelling, check out:

So, What’s Your Story? (web)

So, What’s Your Story? (Facebook)

 

Note: Until I assembled this piece with its images, I hadn’t noticed how monochrome my experiences were. I want to leave this post as is, but will give greater thought moving forward.

Valerian – Movie of 1000 disappointments

Valerian-1

I am told that Luc Besson is a great filmmaker, with credits like The Fifth Element, Leon, La Femme Nikita. Unfortunately, the only Besson movie I had seen to date was Lucy (my review), and so I was a bit reluctant heading out to see Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.

Based on a graphic novel, the movie tells the story of two young military operatives—Valerian and Laureline—sent on a mission to recover an eternal replicator (too hard to explain), but who get embroiled in an ever-shifting landscape of political and military intrigue that may involve an extinct alien race.

Woven throughout this action-adventure-mystery-thriller is a hormone-riddled romance between the leads that is so execrable that Harlequin and most YA publishers would turn it away.

I walked into this movie expecting almost nothing in terms of story; Lucy lessons learned. And that is precisely what I got.

The story is pretty easy to follow, but gives you little reason to follow it.

The action sequences aren’t particularly thrilling, and the dialogue is cliché if not outright ham-fisted. That said, I am sure the scripts were printed on very nice paper…maybe with watermarks and all that.

But whereas I had few expectations of the story, I held out some hope of being dazzled by visuals of alien worlds.

To its credit, the movie started that way, presenting us with the alien paradise of Mül, a pastel portrait straight out of a 70s acid trip.

Mul

Once we leave the wonder-world though—primarily to the space station/ark known as Alpha—the sets quickly degenerate to things we’ve seen a million times in other films.

Each of the visuals is as two-dimensional as the screen onto which they are projected, offering zero depth to the two-dimensional characters that flit across the screen like dying fish. The irony of seeing this movie in 3D is not lost on me.

So, no story and no stunning visuals, but the actors, am I right? Wrong.

I cannot put the blame completely on the actors, but they certainly earned some of it, as pretty much no one was able to imbue the wooden script with any emotion or pathos.

Dane DeHaan’s Valerian and Cara Delevingne‘s Laureline had zero chemistry, and so every attempt at love-making or wit fell flat. And if anything, Valerian comes across as a petulant child with multiple personality disorder.

Valerian plant

One of these is a sedative. The other is a plant.

No sooner does he completely thwart the military hierarchy with his own brand of pseudo-macho anarchy and independence than he delivers a grandiloquent lecture to Laureline about being a soldier who follows a code.

One of my friends suggested that Valerian should have been a film series to allow for better world building and character development. I can’t say that he’s wrong.

That said, if you asked me to watch even ten minutes more of this movie, I’d laugh in your face.

 

Okay to be unhappy

https://www.facebook.com/plugins/video.php?href=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2Frandall.willis.376%2Fvideos%2F10159043585685367%2F&show_text=1&width=560

In keeping with my recent focus on happiness and passion, I want to let you know that it is perfectly okay to be unhappy.

Really. I promise.

If you’re unhappy, you have every right to feel that way AND to express your unhappiness.

Social pressures

We live in a society that is terrified of unhappiness. Our consumer ways are designed to give you everything money can buy to be happy.

When we see someone who seems unhappy, we try to get them to smile. We ask them what’s wrong.

And in more extreme cases, we try to medicate the unhappiness out of them, the premise being we would rather that you be an emotionless zombie than unhappy.

And rather than face being unhappy, many take to self-medicating whether through narcotics or alcohol, food or sex, or other social mechanisms to display an artificial happiness to the world.

We can be afraid to express our unhappiness with the world for fear the world won’t accept us, that they will take offense at our unhappiness as though we were blaming them for it.

Will my partner think I am blaming him or her? My family members? My co-workers? My friends?

If I tell them I am unhappy and can’t explain why—and often we can’t immediately see it—will they abandon me?

In some cases, with some individuals, the answer may be yes, and that is unfortunate. But in my personal experience, the answer is no.

My unhappiness

I worked for several years with friends on a sketch comedy show. It was a labour of love all the way around, but at a certain point in the project’s development, long after my creative contribution culminated, I became unhappy with my involvement in the process. But I was afraid to say something.

How could I tell my friends I didn’t want to do this anymore, that I didn’t want to participate in our dream project? Would they hate me? Would they tell me to fuck off and die?

I eventually worked up the balls to discuss this with them, to lay out my dilemma. They saw that I was serious and that I was struggling. They asked a few questions for clarification. And then they accepted my decision and continued to love me (and do to this day).

Knowing I was miserable working for one company, another friend got me a position in her company (we had previously worked together). My new coworkers were wonderful, the job was what I had wanted. But six weeks in, I realized I didn’t want to do this job anymore…I wanted to move on to a different dream.

How could I turn away from a wonderful job? How could I betray my friend who introduced me to this company? How I slap these amazing people in the face?

I told my friend I was unhappy and wanted to explore my new dream. She was delighted for me and knew I would be brilliant. I told my new bosses that I loved their company but had to follow my heart. They were thrilled and agreed that I had to pursue my passion.

We often don’t give the people in our lives enough credit for wanting what is best for us. We let fear get in our way; fear of rejection, fear of the unknown.

It’s okay

We are repeatedly told and have come to believe that unhappiness is wrong; it is an aberration; it is an affliction.

It is none of these.

It is a feeling, an emotion, a sign. And we must give it the same respect that we give our other emotions, from anger to joy, from sadness to elation, from frustration to fulfillment.

There are not positive emotions and negative emotions. There are no good feelings and bad feelings.

IT IS OKAY TO BE UNHAPPY!

Until we accept and embrace that we are unhappy, we can never figure out why we are unhappy or what we want to do about that feeling and those circumstances.

Love yourself enough to listen to yourself. Feel what you feel. Share what you can.

Ironically, being unhappy may be your first step to being happy. And if it isn’t, that’s okay, too.

See also:

Happy as a verb

Living happiness

Tales from the Other Side of Freedom (Effortless Alpha)

The Expansion Project

Living happiness

In February 2018, an organization called The Expansion Project is hosting a men’s retreat in Barbados as part of their efforts to help men and women find their ways to personal transformation and happiness.

I am hoping to speak at this retreat, and as part of the submission, they asked us all to do short videos, introducing ourselves, our proposed talks and how our subjects align with The Expansion Project’s mission.

The video above offers my thoughts on the role of passion in happiness, somewhat stemming from my recent blog post of Happy as a verb.

The fundamental premise is that happiness resides within us from our earliest days and simply awaits us to remove the layers of muck and mire that have built up over decades of living a life we may not have chosen, doing what was expected of us rather than what we longed to do. Reconnecting with your passions is the first step to removing that mess and uncovering your dormant happiness.

Please watch the video and give me your thoughts.

At the very least, in the comments section, please list your favourite charity, as The Expansion Project wants to donate some of their proceeds back to the community.

P. S. The Expansion Project is also hosting a similar retreat for women in the Cayman Islands in November 2017.

See also:

The Expansion Project on Facebook

Randall C Willis on Facebook

Individual or traditional – Breaking the mould

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Blazing your own trail can be rewarding, but comes with risks. Photo by David Valuja via Pexels (bit.ly/davidvaluja)

If you read enough—screenplays, novels, articles, poetry—your mind can go numb to the sameness of storytelling, whether in subject, structure, narrative style or innumerable facets you no longer see.

As a storyteller, I dread the idea that my work falls into that category, and yet I know some of it does.

The urge, therefore, is to come up with ways to surprise the reader, to give their eyes, minds and souls something they have never experienced before.

We are creatives, so why should we not be creative?

How can I shake things up in my storytelling to dazzle the reader?

What if my characters all spoke in limericks? What if I wrote my action descriptions as music? What if I named my characters using the military alphabet (see M*A*S*H)?

Yeah, what if you did any of those things?

 

Novelty and expectation

The biggest challenge in going with your own style is that it absolutely has to work. There is no middle ground.

Out of the gate, you are going to piss off traditionalists: 1) they expect to read things in a certain way and don’t embrace change easily; and 2) they see your decision not as innovative, but rather as the act of a storyteller wrapped up in his or her ego.

Who are you to think of yourself as above the law?

(Very melodramatic, these traditionalists.)

Even with readers willing to go on a ride, however, you’re going to need to prove that your method is worth the effort, that it brings something to the storytelling experience that a more traditional approach does not or cannot.

In a recent Go Into The Story blog post, Scott Myers looks at how the writers of Wall-E used a very unconventional, almost poetic style for their scene descriptions. Offering examples from the screenplay, Myers shows how simplifying the descriptions allowed the writers to focus on what the heart felt rather than what the eye saw. In the process, they created a very fluid and impactful read.

wall-e script

Descriptions more poetry than prose. (Wall-E, written by Andrew Stanton & Jim Reardon)

Up for the challenge?

So, should you rush back to your manuscript and do the same thing? Or do an equivalent that best suits your specific narrative?

The answer to those two questions is unfortunately two other questions.

Is there an appropriate equivalent? And can you pull it off?

Even if there is an alternative way to present your story, you may not yet be ready to effectively execute it.

Your writing skills may yet require some seasoning until you can effectively pull off non-traditional approaches to storytelling.

Alternatively, you may be approaching this challenge with the wrong (I hate to use that word) mindset; that you’re seeking novelty for the sake of novelty and not because it will enhance the power of your story.

That said, if you really want to try something new, if you really want to challenge yourself, then go for it.

 

Go for it

Nothing is permanent. Versions can be saved. You can always retell the story in a more traditional manner.

Even if it doesn’t work, you have improved your storytelling skills for the experience.

And ultimately, to counter my earlier point about others’ reactions, most of us tell stories because we have a passion for storytelling. The business of storytelling is secondary.

I welcome and encourage you to continue to explore that passion, both for your own happiness and because that is how you will create the truly remarkable.

 

To learn more about effective storytelling, as well as the power of story analysis and story coaching, visit:

So, What’s Your Story? (web site)

So, What’s Your Story? (Facebook)

SWYS-Facebook-Cover

Happy as a verb

Happy yoda

We experience joy (n). We are joyous and joyful (adj). We act joyfully and joyously (adv). We enjoy and rejoice (v).

Our lives are marked by sadness (n). We sadly (adv) sadden (v) into sad (adj) feelings.

But to happily (adv) greet our happy (adj) world in the hopes of finding happiness (n), what do we do?

What is the action that instills happiness?

Self-help bookshelves and an internet of blogs and podcasts roll back and forth across the happy landscape, and yet for so many of us, happy is an elusive creature.

It is all well and good to say that the first step to happiness is choosing to be happy, but I have yet to see any evidence that this is the only step in the process. What comes next?

Happy

Even within our political and social doctrine, our language is vague.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

No one can rob you of your life! No one can rob you of your liberty! Good luck with the last one.

Happy is such an elusive concept that our language completely fails us by refusing to give us a verb explaining how to reach this state of Nirvana.

We grieve. We love. We anger. We frustrate.

We elate. We bore. We amuse. We abash.

We envy. We lust. We frighten.

In conferring with colleagues, it seems French and Spanish suffer the same fate.

Are humans so determined to be miserable that we are willing to idealize happiness but never expect it will happen? Talk about your negative feedback loop.

If you have yet to find happiness in your life, perhaps you can take solace in the idea that no one in human history truly expected you would.

For an end-state of such wondrous simplicity, the achievement of happiness seems monumentally difficult, which makes me wonder…

“Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.”

—Sherlock Holmes (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)

What if the absence of a verb for happy is not a failing of language, but rather is a clue to a failing within ourselves? Perhaps Yoda was right.

What if happiness is not a state to be achieved, but rather is a ground state waiting to be rediscovered like some great monument buried by centuries of sand?

Perhaps happy is who we are, and for whatever reasons, we as individuals and as communities have simply buried our happiness under the detritus of our lives and society’s expectations.

Perhaps the first step to achieving happiness is not deciding to be happy. Rather, it is deciding not to be everything else.

mosaic floor

Excavations at Chedworth Roman Villa, Gloucestershire, UK. Property of National Trust, used without permission. (www.nationaltrust.org.uk/chedworth-roman-villa)

At the outset, this may seem like an insane challenge, but at the very least, everything else (the non-happiness stuff) is something we understand. It is something tangible in our lives. It is something we can tackle one step at a time to reveal the beautiful mosaic of happiness beneath.

I don’t know about you, but I find greater hope in

“Life, Liberty and the recovery of Happiness.”

Change without and within

viaduct

Photo property of Iejano (www.flickr.com/photos/lejano/). Used without permission but undying appreciation.

There is a bridge that crosses Toronto’s Don River—the Queen Street Viaduct—that is itself bridged by an arch inscribed with the message:

“This river I step in is not the river I stand in”

The sentiment, I have learned, is an adaptation of the teachings of Heraclitus as handed down in Plato’s Cratylus:

“Everything changes and nothing stands still. You could not step into the same river twice.”

It is a concept that I have come to embrace deeply through my many walks around and across Toronto, my camera firmly planted in front of my face.

Although I regularly seek new routes to follow in the hopes of discovering previously unknown treasures (at least unknown to me), I also revisit well-trodden routes to explore the changes that occur from visit to visit.

As Heraclitus suggested, our world is one of constant transformation if we but seek to see it.

Every nature walk brings me new species of plants and animals to photograph and opportunities to better appreciate the ones I see regularly.

Every lane way and alley along the grid of thoroughfares that cross my city, offer me windows into the temperments of street artists and social commentators who splash their messages and visions on every surface in dazzling colour.

Grime

These displays and their constant revision is one of the reasons why I will never be bored on any of my walks. But there is another reason that resonates within me much more deeply.

I am constantly changing.

Just as Heraclitus suggested that the river flows and so is not the same from one minute to the next, my life and my experiences continually flow and so I do not greet my world in the same way from one minute to the next.

The same yellow warbler might sit on exactly the same branch at the same time tomorrow and I might never see it. And even if I did, I would appreciate it in a completely different manner for reasons I cannot begin to fathom and recount today.

Yellow warbler

Every experience—regardless of whether I am conscious of it—changes me and influences how I frame and absorb my universe. Acknowledging that helps ensure that I am open to all of these new experiences within supposedly familiar ground.

Thus, to paraphrase the Queen Street Viaduct:

“These eyes I look with are not the eyes I see with”

Believing this, I live in an amazing world and embrace every moment for its wonder.