Beyond the mirror – finding characters

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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)

Big Love a big challenge at Toronto Fringe

Big Love

When you first walk into the Randolph Centre for the Performing Arts’ Annex Theatre, you are struck by a musty darkness. One deep breath and you could be forgiven for thinking you’d mistakenly walked into a derelict used-book store.

Tonight was a little different though. Although the smell was still there, the stage was not barren. Rather, it was populated by a half-naked DJ, pumping the jams in high heels and a gold lame mask, ready to celebrate Big Love. And that’s when the party started.

Big Love tells the story of 50 reluctant brides, who escape to Italy to avoid marriage to 50 cousins. As they try to talk their way into an estate, the cousins arrive to claim their women. The battle of wills–both within and between the camps–has begun.

As someone who likes a lot of story in my drama, this very much felt like a 20-minute play stretched out over 70 minutes. The other 50 minutes? Long-winded soliloquies about sex, gender and conflicting agendas for the hard-of-thinking.

50 brides for 50 cousins

50 brides for 50 cousins

There was a moment, however, when I thought the playwright (Charles L. Mee) might reach for something more than a steroidal rendition of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. A couple times, the speeches floated to the plight of refugees and women pushed to the edge, abandoned by their families, communities and countries.

For that fleeting moment, I wondered if the mass marriage was a metaphor for a larger message about slavery and subjugation. I walked away disappointed in this regard.

That being said, the actors’ performances were generally quite good. In particular, I tip my fedora to Matt Lacas (Piero) who I felt did a wonderful job as the perpetual salesman and host, stuck between the warring camps and knowing no one could ever be happy.

I also greatly enjoyed Rosie Callaghan (Olympia) who I felt gave a scintillating performance as a young woman struggling with a personal civil war of self-identification versus the need to be loved.

The choreography feels like a work in progress, however, the many numbers feeling slightly or grossly out of step. And although the women seemed to move smoothly enough, I saw little synchrony in the men’s numbers.

And then the unexplained flinging of bodies to the ground completely baffled me. I can only hope it was a metaphor for something, but goodness knows.

What I thought the actors lacked in coordination, however, I felt they more than made up for in vocal skills. Each of the handful of songs felt like a masterpiece in harmonies, most sung acapella. For me, these were the magical moments in the performance and left me wishing the entire play had been set to music.

Had Big Love been even a third shorter, I might have enjoyed it. But I didn’t feel my dissatisfaction was for lack of effort on the parts of the performers. This fell squarely on the shoulders of the playwright and director.

Case in point was the play’s ending, which felt like a complete cop-out.

Big disappointment

Big disappointment

[Adapted from a review that originally appeared in Mooney on Theatre.]

From tampons to toilet paper

Taxi pads

As of July 1st – Canada Day – women in Canada will no longer be required to pay sales tax when purchasing feminine hygiene products such as tampons and pads. The change comes after many months of Canadians decrying the tax as gender discriminatory, as solely a tax on women (see House of Commons debate).

Having wracked my brain, I was unable to determine an equivalent male-exclusive product and so broadened my thinking to identify products that might be absolute necessities. There are no taxes on groceries, for example – family-size purchases, that is; “junk food” and “individual” purchases are taxed.

And then it struck me: toilet paper.

So yesterday, I launched a faux campaign to remove the taxes from toilet paper, and welcome you all to join what I am calling the #BowelMovement.

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Feel free to * ahem * pass this along.

TP tax

Unintended misogyny

According to the Cambridge Dictionaries Onlinemisogyny (n) Feelings of hating women or the belief that men are much better than women.

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Let me state for the record that I do not hate women, but over the last decade or so, I have come to realize the insidious ways in which I felt (or made it appear that I felt) men to be superior to women.

As a male writer, I have historically written stories from the male perspective. My protagonists were male. My antagonists were male. My peripheral characters were predominantly male. And when I did include a female character, she tended to be rather two-dimensional (see also my blog post For my friend Emma).

Several years ago, I had the fortunate happenstance to take a sketch comedy writing class at Toronto’s Second City Training Centre under the guidance of actress and writer Aurora Browne, best known locally as one of the actors from the show Comedy Inc. and former mainstage performer at Second City. Perhaps not surprisingly, the class was mostly comprised of men. And to a man, we wrote sketches about guys.

After the first couple of classes, however, when we had each produced a few sketches, Aurora challenged the men in the room to either rewrite one of their existing sketches or write a completely new sketch with a woman (or several) in the lead.

It was at that moment that I realized my unintended misogyny.

Aurora was tired of trying to find material with strong and/or well-defined female characters. She was tired of simply playing the girlfriend, the ex-wife, the nurse, the teacher. Not that there was anything inherently wrong in playing any of these roles, but more that they were almost always written as two-dimensional…if they could even be said to aspire to a second dimension.

This was her opportunity to put her heels into the dirt in moulding the next generation of comedy writers.

From my perspective, the task was amazingly daunting and very surprising, as I found myself breaking down walls and obstructions I never realized I had put in place. I had to think how might a woman character function differently in this scene, without getting cliché, and how would that change the dynamics of the scene. Or even would it?

In the years since, no matter what I write—sketch, screenplay, teleplay, poem—I watch for places where I might fall into gender bias. The minute I decide on my main characters, I ask myself if the protagonist or antagonist could be a woman (sadly, I still typically default to males). If the answer is yes, then I take a second run at my idea to see which way would make for a better story.

As a result, I have both dramatically increased the repertoire of characters I can bring to life and greatly enriched my stories. In fact, the two most recent screenplays I am developing have female protagonists, as do a couple of my television pilot concepts—not out of a sense of political correctness or fairness, but because those choices made the most sense for the story.

So thanks, Aurora, for the creative kick upside the head.

(Illustration used without permission.)