Beyond the mirror – finding characters

SONY DSC

Despite being a single species—Homo sapiens—humanity is a diverse and eclectic group of individuals. And yet, so often, when writers develop characters for their stories, they tend to stick pretty close to the mirror.

Sure, few of us have likely committed murder or adultery. Perhaps a handful have fought in war or garnered celebrity status. And I am confident that none have visited another planet or lived in the time of dinosaurs.

Despite this diversity of action, however, the main characters of these stories continue to largely reflect what the writer sees when he or she looks into the mirror or scans his or her living room. And because the majority of working writers—at least in the West—are heterosexual white men, our stories are largely told from the heterosexual white male perspective.

Mirror

I am a heterosexual white man, and for the longest time, my lead characters and the perspectives of the stories I wrote came out of that mirror. I know my glass house.

In the last couple of decades, there has been a move by women, by visible minorities (I hate that phrase) and by the LGBTQ community to create more stories from those perspectives. I think that is wonderful.

But it doesn’t have to stop there, particularly as it risks promoting the same problem, if from a previously underserved voice.

What if, instead, we all took the time to look beyond the mirror when developing our characters?

You don’t have to write a woman’s story to choose a woman as a lead character.

You don’t have to write a story about the gay community to choose an LGBTQ lead character.

You don’t have to write a story about race to choose a black, East-Asian or indigenous lead character.

You can already have a story clearly established in your head that fundamentally has nothing to do with those themes, and still make those choices for your lead characters.

We’re all looking for interesting characters. We want voices and thoughts with depth and texture.

And it is entirely possible to do that looking in the mirror.

But if that is all we do, we miss out on so many interesting voices and our texture risks becoming monotonous.

diversity puzzle

So many facets inform a character.

You have to ask yourself:

How, if at all, does the story change if my lead character is a woman—protagonist or antagonist? Even without becoming a women’s issue story, how does the choice of a woman influence action, themes, dialogue or plot?

What about a character of a different race or culture, reminding ourselves that there is heterogeneity within racial communities? Without falling into stereotypes or turning your concept into a race story, what impact does social experience bring to a character’s actions and reactions, dialogue and style?

That story is universal suggests there is a common thread that holds us all together in this world, a thread that intercalates our DNA.

But as much as our characters are about the Every Man—note the phrasing—characters are about nuance and individuality.

Looking beyond the mirror will necessitate some research to avoid the prejudices and erroneous beliefs to which we are all prone (see, I just judged everyone there).

But that is what writers and storytellers do.

We seek the truth of the moment or the situation in hopes that we skim but the surface of the greater truth.

And to do that, we must explore the whole of our universe, not just what we find in the mirror.

Diversity

To learn more about developing better stories, check out:

So, What’s Your Story? (web site)

So, What’s Your Story? (Facebook)

See also:

Why screenwriters should embrace the Heroine’s journey (Ken Miyamoto, ScreenCraft)

Colin Quinn kills w/ The New York Story

new-york-story-poster

I can only assume that Colin Quinn spends the hours before his comedy shows scarfing down industrial-scale oxygen tanks. This has to be true, if only to explain how he can spend an hour hilariously recounting the history of New York City without ever inhaling…although perhaps projectile vomiting the Big Apple’s history is more accurate.

Ask pretty much anyone who knows me and you will learn that I am a comedy snob. It takes a lot to make me chuckle, let alone laugh out loud.

I not only laughed out loud at Colin Quinn’s latest Netflix special The New York Story (trailer), I actually clapped while laughing out loud at several observations…and this was from my futon, not sitting with a theatre audience.

And before the laughter from one bit reached its crescendo (forget fading), you were already two bits behind, such was the ferocity with which Quinn delivered his perspectives of New York.

quinn

The first two thirds of the show were the best, as Quinn explained and contextualized the arrival of each ethnic group to the city as a way of explaining why the attitudes of New Yorkers are unlike those of any other city in the world.

The last third, where Quinn took shots at political correctness and white guilt, was less funny but still had its share of laughs. This was the part of the show that seemed more like every other show I have seen that touches on race and ethnic relations.

But it is when Quinn becomes the people he describes, taking on mannerisms and recalling each culture’s absurdities, that he is at his best. His is less the vocal mimicry of a Russell Peters and more a distillation of their essence.

And his portrayals were made all the more engaging by the stage itself, which was decorated with settings familiar to New Yorkers—a deli counter, the docks, a front stoop, a corner bodega, an Irish bar—Quinn inhabiting each as he told the story of another group’s arrival in the city.

Colin Quinn Comedy Special

Quinn’s special was directed by long-time friend Jerry Seinfeld

This choreography makes The New York Story more a one-man stage play than a stand-up comedy routine. Not surprising, given the show first got its legs in a run off-Broadway.

In broader terms, whereas I have thought for several years that Quinn is funny—in particular, I miss his panel show Tough Crowd—I think he has really hit his stride in the last couple. What this special did for New York City, his last special Unconstitutional did for American politics, and with just as much humour and wisdom.

Perhaps, however, it is less that Colin Quinn is just now hitting his stride, and more that I have finally reached a place where I can appreciate him and his humours more fully.

Either way, I am glad we have reached this place and I hope we stay here for a while.

 

See also:

In The New York Story, Colin Quinn looks to stereotypes for wisdom—and finds some (A.V. Club)

Immigrants put the new in The New York Story for Colin Quinn’s newest Netflix triumph (Decider)

Facing the gap

super-dark

With 6 weeks until my 53rd birthday, I think I finally understand the concept of the generation gap.

You know when you’re with a group of people and two or more share a joke that isn’t funny? You stare blankly as they laugh and laugh and laugh. And when they finally catch their breath, one of them looks at you and says “You had to be there.”

That’s the generation gap.

It’s being faced with events or concepts for which you have little or no context. It simply fell outside of your life experience. And truthfully, it isn’t necessarily about age.

As an example, for months now (and possibly years), I have been struggling with comic book movies. They bore or bother me rather than entertain me, and yet I am surrounded by friends who adore them. Given my childhood fascination with comic books and Saturday cartoons, this just didn’t make sense to me.

Today’s comic book movie characters seem so dark and angry and violent that I leave the movie theatre depressed about the future of the world, not hopeful. Superheroes don’t inspire me anymore.

As a child of the 1960s and 1970s, my Batman is funny and my Superman is pure (for lack of a better word). And the only superhero that experienced anxiety was Spiderman, but he at least met it with self-deprecating wit.

[Note: Speaking of wit, I have an incredible soft spot for Robert Downey, Jr.’s Ironman, who for my money is 1000X funnier than Deadpool.]

ironpool

Today, to my eyes, Batman is psychotic. Superman kills people. And Spiderman is neurotic to the point of paralysis.

What I am quickly discovering from my gob-smacked friends is that I completely missed the graphic novel phase of these characters, where shit went south very quickly. My view of these characters is like the classic memory of “the old country”, a snapshot stuck in time.

I have also had a lot of friends rave about the new Netflix series Stranger Things. It hearkens back to classic Steven Spielberg or The Goonies, I hear. It is the 80s, they proclaim.

stranger-things

That must explain why it is only vaguely interesting but not particularly gripping to me. For all my love of and respect for Steven Spielberg, the 1980s wasn’t my decade and so the references and throwbacks hold much less significance to me than they do to my friends a decade or more younger than me.

So now what?

Well, for one thing, I can stop complaining about this stuff…which is good because I don’t have a lawn to tell kids to keep off of. If it doesn’t talk to me (whatever it is), I need to just accept that and move on. It is nobody’s fault. It is simply a generation gap.

I had to be there, and I wasn’t.

And more importantly, there are plenty of other things that I can enjoy, stranger or otherwise.

Central lodgings for intrepid explorers – review of Hotel Le Roberval

Graffiti

Hotel le Roberval centres an eclectic mix of neighbourhoods

Conveniently located within a short walk to Montreal’s Vieux Port, the Village and the restaurants of St. Denis, Hotel Le Roberval offers affordable, clean lodgings for people who like to explore the city on foot or with a quick jump on the Metro (Berri-UQAM).

The rooms are quite spacious and well-maintained, offering a kitchenette space that included a bar fridge, microwave, coffee maker and two sets of dishes. The Queen-sized bed was firm and comfortable, and the television was hi-def. And for those needing to work or wishing to keep in touch via social media, the free WiFi was very reliable and allowed rapid upload of photos to Facebook.

Parking is a bit of a chore, however, as you need to store your car in a shared lot less than a block from the hotel. Unfortunately, you need a room key to access the lot, so you have to check in before you can park. That said, you can leave your car on Rue Berri for up to 15 minutes while checking in.

The free continental breakfast leaves something to be desired. There is no hot food, the entire spread limited to croissants, cellophane-wrapped half-bagels, yoghurt, pastries and a couple of dry cereals, as well as milk, juices and coffee. Like the small dining room itself, however, the buffet is well-maintained and the staff who work the room are attentive to everyone’s needs.

Although the hotel is located on the corner of two busy streets (Boul. Rene-Levesque & Rue Berri), bound by government offices and the Universite du Quebec á Montréal (UQAM), there are several restaurants within a short walking distance (mostly in the Village) and a couple of depanneurs (convenience stores that also sell alcohol) if you just want to relax in your room.

As comfortable and accommodating as Hotel Le Roberval is, the lodgings are really just a place to store your stuff and rest your head as you explore what Montreal has to offer.

Let go(al) and let…just let go

Mountain

Don’t have to climb the mountain to admire its beauty

Where do you see yourself in five years?

It’s a common question at job interviews and often creeps in silently when people reach age or career milestones.

Rephrased more broadly, it is asking: What are your goals?

In most Western societies—the only ones I really know—we are told it is good to have goals; that you need to set your sights on a destination and follow that path to its conclusion. It is how you get ahead. It is how you find happiness, or at least the stuff that brings happiness.

I have spent my life working this way.

Checklist

Life goals complete

I tell you this not to present my resume—you can find that on my LinkedIn pages (yeah, I have two)—but rather to explain the pattern of my life (and probably yours) in contrast to where I am today.

You see, for the first time in my life, I have no goals. And I am finding it incredibly disconcerting.

Sure, like everyone else, I have daily, weekly, monthly and yearly obligations.

I need money to pay for rent, food, bills, hockey tickets, beer. I have editorial deadlines and the odd gift to buy. But I have no long-term goals. I am living my life without my next destination in mind.

Five years from now? Hell, I sometimes don’t know where I’ll be five minutes from now.

In some ways, I am as close to living in the moment as you can get without living under a tree or in a cave (basement apartment notwithstanding). And it’s freaking me out.

Having a goal is a hard habit to break after 50+ years.

Butterfly

What if I had missed this moment?

To be clear, I’m not looking for a goal—floating freely has some lovely benefits—but I struggle some days to know what the point of my day is or was.

Simply being is really simple—it requires no preparation or gear—but our society has taught us that it is wasteful; that it is selfish; that even our “free” time must be productive.

Having no goals, I find, is entirely selfish. I can only affect change in myself.

But I’ve come to realize that “selfish” isn’t bad in and of itself; only when it negatively impacts others, which I don’t believe I am.

Still, like a good Pavlovian pound puppy, I sometimes find myself whimpering at the window, waiting for someone to throw the stick of destiny, to give my life meaning and purpose.

Is it okay or desirable to lead a purpose-less life? Is that my purpose? [Never met-a-physics that didn’t hurt my brain.]

But then, it’s 7:30 a.m. and the alarm goes off. I turn it off and go back to sleep.

Life without goals definitely has its upside.

Race in writing

One race, many peoples (from mediadiversified.org)

One race, many peoples (from mediadiversified.org)

I’ve spent a few months now reading dozens of teleplays, and one thing that stood out as a new trend for me was the phrase “mixed-race” when describing a character.

“Attracted to the noise, JOANNE (27, tall, mixed-race) looks up from her laptop. A smile blossoms across her face.”

Now, lest anyone take offence, I really don’t care to what race a character is attributed. Nor do I care if the character has parentage of different races or even different species (looking at you, Spock).

Instead, what struck me was that in only one of these teleplays did the fact that the character was mixed-race in any way influence the story and/or the character’s worldview. Which begs the question:

Why mention race at all?

In a screen- or teleplay, you should only be telling me things I need to know to understand the story or interpret a character’s behaviours and attitudes. Unless being 7 feet tall means a character can do something no one else can do and the plot in some way turns on that ability, then I don’t need to know the character is 7 feet tall.

Likewise, if a character is a Korean-Italian and the only thing this fact influences is possibly his or her name, who cares? Where are the subtextual or textual influences of this genetic melange?

Spock was every bit his warring human and vulcan sides

Spock was every bit his warring human and vulcan sides

In the case of Spock, entire stories were built around the internal and sometimes external conflicts arising from his mixed heritage. He fought constantly to suppress his human side and that influenced his relationships and reactions with everyone else.

In the single teleplay I read where the character’s mixed lineage did matter, the character struggled with being treated as an outsider by both communities. Thus, in being ostracized by both cultures, she built the defence of being a rebellious loner and responded to her world thusly.

American father, Chinese mother, Kwai Chang Caine lived conflicting cultures

American father, Chinese mother, Kwai Chang Caine lived conflicting cultures

In none of the other teleplays was anything like this even remotely the case. In none of those scenarios, did the writer use the choice to inform the character. In fact, in almost every mixed-race teleplay, the writer never specified what races had been mixed.

That’s how unimportant this fact was to these writers. And there’s the real shame.

Although I don’t know what the writers intended by making their characters mixed race, I suspect it was simply to make themselves look socially conscious.

What they achieved, at least in my eyes, was the exact opposite.

Blood and name calling

He ain’t half heavy, he’s my half-brother – The Adopted Hollies

If you haven’t got a penny, then half a penny’ll do. If you haven’t got a ha’ penny, then God bless you. – some British thing (not the Hollies)

I read an article this weekend that described the murder of a man by his half-brother. Normally, I don’t read these kinds of stories, but I was drawn to this one because of the phrase half-brother, which made me wonder why this phrase was still in common use.

What the hell is a half brother? (Shawn, Scott, me)

What the hell is a half brother? (Shawn, Scott, me)

I appreciate that historically there may have been a reason to keep track of who one’s siblings were from a legacy perspective. Family homes and farms (and for the wealthy, estates) possibly hung in the balance when Dad died…although I question how often this was a concern. And no self-respecting Shakespearean comedy or drama would be complete without an evil half-brother. But why now?

To quote the Bard:

What’s in a name? that which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet;

Likewise, to quote Merriam-Webster:

Blood (n): the fluid that circulates in the heart, arteries, capillaries, and veins of a vertebrate animal carrying nourishment and oxygen to and bringing away waste products from all parts of the body.

So again, I ask why the fixation on a surname and the concept of blood ties?

The last time blood ties mattered

The last time blood ties mattered

I never knew my father—not something I take personally; just a fact—and so I have no particular attachment to my last name aside from convenience and familiarity. I feel no compunction to continue the family name. Other people have the surname of Willis…let them continue it if they want.

And my brothers and I only share one common parent—our mom—and so have different surnames. Does this make them any less my brothers, however, than a pair of siblings who shared the genetic legacy of the same pair of parents (pairents)? Not for me (you’d have to ask them their perspectives on this).

For the famous, an argument can be made that sharing DNA somehow opens doors from one generation to the next: Ken Griffey Jr., Drew Barrymore, Robert Downey Jr., Robert Kennedy Jr., Paris Hilton.

Not sure how that last one works

Not sure how that last one works

But in most of those cases, sustained success comes from inherent talent and drive, not simply DNA. (I still don’t understand why Paris Hilton is famous.) Likewise, for every case of possible nepotistic success, there are hundreds or thousands of cases of success despite lineage (no disrespect to parents anywhere).

Perhaps I am the anomaly on this, but I simply don’t understand the importance of the nomenclature to who I am as an individual or how I respond to a family member versus a close non-genetically linked person (aka friend).

Agah, Nicholas and Marsha are my siblings despite the lack of genetic links

Agah, Nicholas and Marsha are my siblings despite the lack of genetic links

Scott and Shawn are my brothers more for our shared experiences than because of any genetic connection, much as Agah and Nicholas are my brothers and Marsha my sister for our shared affection and experiences.

Call me Ishmael, for all I care…if we are good friends, you have likely called me worse.

In the meantime, I’ll use my bloodlines to circulate oxygen to tissues and white cells to fight infection.

Brothers...no half-measures

Brothers…no half-measures

My preferred quote:

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition: