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.

The most dangerous F word

Fear

Hate is fear rationalized. Hate is fear acted upon.

Hate is the belief that fear is finite; that if I bestow some of my fear on you, I am unburdened.

But that is a lie.

Fear isn’t of this universe. It doesn’t live by the E=mc2 paradigm. Fear has limitless potential for growth.

Any more than I can relieve myself of a pestilence by giving it to you, my fear remains and may even grow when I pass it along.

Surely a little fear is okay, keeps us from stepping off cliffs or traveling dark paths.

Fallacy.

Fear doesn’t keep us safe. Knowledge does.

Vista

Knowledge keeps you from stepping off the cliff. Fear keeps you from seeing the spectacular view.

Knowledge removes darkness from the alley. Fear keeps you from seizing new opportunities, from discovering new paths.

Fear doesn’t come into existence of its own accord but like a virus, is passed from person to person.

The newborn infant has no fear until startled by a parental “No”, the opening dose of fear.

infection

We do not naturally fear others until given a reason. And rarely is that reason the other we have chosen to fear, because fear rarely approaches face on.

Fear is the demon that eats us from inside, a parasite that controls our minds for its own perpetuation.

But what is worse, what makes it so insidious, is that fear is easy, demanding little of us other than that we close our senses to the truth.

And it is the facility with which so many of us are willing to do this that makes fear the most dangerous F word.

Burden

Inside definitely Out (a review)

poster

Earlier today, I had the opportunity to see the latest Pixar movie Inside Out in the company of one of the film’s writers and its story supervisor Josh Cooley (a very nice man). And aside from receiving a lovely lecture about story development at the famed animation house, the connection afforded me an opportunity to appreciate the movie much more than I did on simple viewing.

To briefly bring everyone up to speed, Inside Out tells the story of the emotions that rattle around inside the mind of 11-year-old Riley as she struggles with a move across the country. Although we are introduced to 5 main emotions in Riley Headquarters (get it?)—Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust and Fear—there is no mistaking that Joy is numero uno in this space.

Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler) sucks the oxygen out of any room she’s in and proves that even the best intentioned of assholes is still an asshole. Her goal in life is to make every moment of Riley’s life a happy one and is not worried about shoving aside the others (ever so happily) to ensure that.

But where Joy has developed a respectful détente with Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and Fear (Bill Hader), she firmly but gently has no use for Sadness (Phyllis Smith), practically ostracising the poor creature to the periphery.

With the upset of the move from Minnesota to San Francisco, though, Sadness seems to want to be more involved and in a fracas with Joy, the two get sucked out of headquarters and into the long-term storage hinterlands of Riley’s brain.

At this point, the story basically turns into the Odyssey as the two emotions struggle to return home before Riley falls completely apart at the hands of the others. (To say much more would be to offer spoilers.)

Joy and Sadness wander the hinterlands of long-term memories

Joy and Sadness wander the hinterlands of long-term memories

The challenge I had was in trying to figure out exactly at whom Pixar was targeting the movie.

Superficially, this is a pure kids movie (ages 6 to 10, maybe), unlike many previous Pixar concoctions, which had elements for both kids and adults. Inside Out doesn’t have the depth of Toy Story or The Incredibles to truly speak to adults, much as the most mature 11-year-old isn’t ready for the adult world.

I’m not saying there aren’t adult-focused jokes interspersed throughout the film, but rather exactly that. They are interspersed, like small granules of sugar designed to feed the parents accompanying the kids to the theatre.

Up talked about loss and aging

Up talked about loss and aging

There is no real adult storyline to this film to touch adults as there was in Up or Wall-E. Instead, the film has sweet, adorable moments of baby bums and first goals that might tug at a parent’s heartstrings but never engage the soul.

But as a friend suggested, it is not strictly a kids flick either because it touches on esoteric aspects of the psyche that kids that age would never be able to comprehend, such as abstract thought and the concept of forgotten memories. The problem is these aspects are more conversations of the mind and not the soul. So even here, the adult is largely passed over unless they have an interest in neurology and psychology.

Wall-E dealt with issues of love and environmental destruction

Wall-E dealt with issues of love and environmental destruction

And as a writer, perhaps the biggest sin with Inside Out is there is no sense of what’s at stake.

Sure, Joy is losing her cool as she fights to get back to headquarters. For her, Riley having a down moment is a disaster.

And Sadness isn’t exactly having a picnic as she is routinely sideswiped or ignored by Joy in their efforts to get home. If anything, she increasingly takes the blame for everything onto herself.

But what’s at stake? What if they don’t get back to headquarters?

Does someone die? Is life no longer worth living?

I don’t know because that was never a question on the table. And without stakes, I find it difficult to root for the hero.

And this challenge is made all the more difficult by the fact that the hero (Joy) is also the villain, albeit passively. She is truly her own worst enemy, and so I quickly find myself irritated by her with no great concerns about the outcome.

The six hour conversation and lesson with Cooley helped me see a lot more of what the writers, animators, editors, directors and producers were trying to accomplish. And that did help me understand the movie better. The thing is, few others were going to get this kind of help.

The movie will do well at the box office. Of that I have no doubt. It is a wonderful vivid distraction for young kids.

But it won’t have the staying power of Pixar’s earlier efforts and likely won’t be spoken of again in a few years other than in possibly hushed whispers.

In other words

Word up!

Word up!

According to a Global Language Monitor survey from 2014, there are 1,025,109.8 words in the English language. (Not sure what the 0.8 word is.) And based on further research, this tally makes English anywhere from 5- to 10-times larger than most Western European languages.

Depending on who you ask or possibly where, a native English-speaking adult has a functional vocabulary of anywhere from 10,000 to 75,000 words. Thus, on a regular basis, we use about 1-10% of the words available to us.

Many of those words have similar if not identical meanings and can often be used interchangeably with slight variations in implied meaning or significance. Hell, a British clinician with a list-making fetish famously went out and tried to catalogue these word relationships, offering encyclopedic lists of alternates to the most commonly used English words.

A man with a list (or maybe that's just how he sits)

A man with a list (or maybe that’s just how he sits)

So, given this profusion of synonymic wonder, why am I seeing an increasing number of stories—novels, screenplays, etc.—that seem only capable of the low end of the vocabulary spectrum?

And I’m not even talking the big words here. I am talking the simple words we use every day and yet which hold little more meaning than their strictest definition. Words like “said”, “walk”, “enter”.

Now, I am not suggesting people necessarily have to write with a copy of Roget’s Thesaurus next to them, something of which I have been accused on occasion. But while exsanguinating your latest cerebral machinations into the fibrous folds of the human record—sorry, I digress—why not make the most of the words that are at your disposal?

For example:

Hearing a cry from the other room, Cecily walked through the door.

Now, Cecily may indeed have “walked” through the door, but that tells me absolutely nothing other than her transitional geographic location.

What was Cecily’s emotional state and how eager was she to discover the source of the cry?

There are so many other words—common words—in the English language that will tell us so much more about Cecily than the fact that she moved.

What about strutted, strode, skipped, crashed, bolted, dashed, raced, blasted, crept, snuck (sneaked?), sauntered, staggered, bounded, tripped, stumbled, inched, crawled, or fell?

Each of these words tells us so much more about Cecily’s relative state of confidence and sense of urgency, and any one of these in place of “walked” prevents the writer from having to later explain her emotions with a second sentence.

In some cases, people will append adverbs to offer greater insights into the emotional state of a character, but again, even this can often be avoided through use of more descriptive verb.

For example:

“You’re crazy,” Philip replied angrily.

Definitely better than just “Philip replied”. But what if Philip did more than reply? What if he screamed, shouted, barked, bellowed, screeched, roared, or cried?

Again, each word offers a slightly different take on Philip’s emotional state and gives us a sense of whether he is angry at his target or terrified by her.

All the kids are doing it

All the kids are doing it

And what holds true for verbs, also holds for adjectives, and particularly as some of the simpler ones can be relative.

The precise height of a tall man varies significantly between someone who is 5 ft 2 versus someone who is 6 ft 1. And again, the adjective has an opportunity to add an emotional or psychological angle to the description.

Rather than “tall”, what about towering, mountainous, tree-like, statuesque, cloud-scraping, looming, or neck-straining?

Or instead of a specific age (unless the precise number is vital), what about world-weary, worn down, spry, vivacious, ancient, wizened, infantile or cadaverous?

Got your back, kid!

Got your back, kid!

Again, I don’t think we need to discard the presocialized anthropoidal biped with the bath water, but particularly in our writing, I think we need to make better use of the wealth the English language affords us and open ourselves to more precise and effective word choices.

Together, we can strut the walk and hallelujah the talk.

A Poetic Proposal

A Poetic Proposal

‘A Poetic Proposal’ by debut author Julian Froment is a journey of love. Dedicated to that one special woman.

This is a collection of poems that plumb the very depths of that deepest of emotions, LOVE. Running counter to this is the on-going theme of angst and heartbreak that is present when two beings that are destined to be one are separated by distance, and in this case a rather large, wet ocean.

This collection progresses chronologically from initial meeting to final proposal of marriage, taking the reader on an emotional roller-coaster ride of highs and lows. The reality of the author and his intended living half-lives, together, then apart, together, then apart, is clearly evident throughout the course of this collection.

On Gossamer Wings

On gossamer wings,
On gossamer wings,
My heart it flies to you.
To be together,
‘till the end of days,
Is all that’s left to do.

Flying high,
‘cross the ocean blue,
To where it now belongs.
Cradled within,
A soul so true,
Amidst angelic song.

And soon now,
Oh, so very soon,
The body shall be along.
To join the heart,
To fill the void,
Back where I belong.

‘A Poetic Proposal’, which is available in both digital and paperback formats, can be obtained here:

Amazon UK

Amazon US

 

Follow the author:

Julian Froment’s Blog

Twitter

Review Highlights from Amazon

‘Reading this collection of poems made me feel like I was eavesdropping on the world’s most romantic marriage proposal’ … ‘If you are looking for love poems to share with your own lover, these are just the poems’ … ‘After reading this collection, I was ready to say ‘I do’ myself’ – Pamela Beckford

’The poems in this book are very romantic, emotional, well-written, and thought out well’ … ‘This is romantic poetry at its best’ – Chris McMullen

‘The poet freely admits that this is about his love life and dedicated to his lady, so you know you’re getting an insight into something private. That brings an interesting dimension to the poems because you know there’s a living, breathing story behind them’ – Charles E Yallowitz

Brain of a thousand voices

Hairy

Do you become the characters you write as you write them?

Please understand, I’m not asking if you’re writing a serial killer, do you go out and take a few lives in the neighbourhood simply to get in the right frame of mind (or at least, I’m not asking you to admit it here). Rather, do you inhabit the thoughts and moods of your characters as you type/write?

I’ve often wondered what it would look like if I video recorded me writing my screenplays or novels. Do my body language and facial features reflect the inner turmoil of my characters? I know my typing does.

If I am writing people who are angry, my poor keyboard takes an absolute pounding as I act out all of the aggression that’s flowing through my characters’ actions and words. Likewise, if I am creating a scene that starts slowly and then builds to a crescendo, I find the mood of the scene is reflected in the tarantella of my fingers across the keys.

I have also noted some physical cues. The more tense a scene, the more my jaws hurt from all that clenching. My libido shifts in a love scene (sorry if that is TMI). A smile lights my face in humourous scenes. And I have actually achieved tears in particularly emotional scenes.

For the moment, I will assume that I am just emotionally in tune with my characters, but I cannot yet rule out a slow nervous breakdown.

Thus, I would love to hear other writers’ experiences in this area.

Clean