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.
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.
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.
To learn more about developing better stories, check out:
Reports suggest that within the next two decades, robots will take responsibility for upward of 50% of jobs currently handled by humans, who simply remain inefficient and cannot work 24 hours a day.
Already, we are seeing automation in manufacturing and order-entry kiosks in the services industry. It is assumed the next stage will involve a complete takeover of the social media industry, with timelines auto-filled by trivia and rumour bots.
“But after a highly-rated premiere, ratings dropped. The Muppets has done an OK job opening Tuesday night for ABC at 8 PM, with its numbers on par with lead-outFresh Off The Boat, but because of its marquee title, The Muppets has been held to a different standard, so its performance has been considered somewhat disappointing, and there has been a concern about its creative direction.”
I am part of that ratings drop, for reasons I will discuss shortly, but I have several friends and associates within the puppetry community who have struggled mightily to stem the tide, lauding the show’s freshness and energy and chastising its critics. I feel bad that I have let these people down, but I feel it is for good reason.
Briefly stated: The Muppets (the TV series) is a pale, anemic shadow of the Muppets (the icons).
My biggest concern about The Muppets is that the Muppets aren’t leading the way…they are following someone else’s formula. This feels like total anathema to all of what Jim Henson was.
The current incarnation is little more than The Office but with felt-fleshed characters. Look no further than the show’s logo which is presented in the same manner as that of The Office and with an almost identical typeface. And the setting within a late-night talk show makes it a pale imitation of The Larry Sanders Show.
Although parody has long been a staple of the Henson way—consider “Veterinarian’s Hospital” and “Pigs In Space”—The Muppets is not a parody but rather is being sold as original. And ironically, while the new content is supposedly more adult, I would offer that it is not nearly as edgy as it used to be. The humour isn’t nearly as sophisticated as it was in times past. (I appreciate that it is now property of Disney.)
Case in point: References by members of Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem to illicit drugs and rehab have become much more overt in the new series whereas they were only really implied previously. It is as though the showrunners don’t have faith in the audience “getting” the jokes.
“Oh, my God! Did Floyd say rehab? That’s edgy.” No. No, it’s not.
But back to the leadership discussion.
Henson and his gang were innovators. They took an ancient format—the puppet show—and brought it to heights never before imagined. They didn’t pander to their audience but rather challenged them to follow along or be left behind.
[NOTE: Dear purists, I know that Muppets are Muppets and the others are not…I am trying to make a point about innovation here, so please bear with me.]
And, as I understand it, even the now idolized The Muppet Show almost never existed for lack of interest by American networks that couldn’t see the vision and felt variety shows were on their way out—in 1976, only The Carol Burnett Show remained, Sonny & Cher and Tony Orlando & Dawn having ended a year earlier. That’s why the show was created in the U.K. under the financial benevolence of Lew Grade.
From a mechanical perspective, the artists working on The Muppets are doing an admirable job. These are incredibly skilled men and women performing a technically challenging art form that combines the illusory world of puppets and the frailties of human flesh.
But all that skill and effort is for naught without a heart and soul. And these, in my opinion, are what the current show is lacking.
Ironically, when I watch The Muppets, all I see are puppets, characters trying to entertain an audience. I don’t sense the humanity within the puppets, and it was that humanity that made the Muppets so special in the first place.
Perhaps this is just a case of old-man-itis on my part—“when I was a boy…”—but sadly, I am putting down the empty toys that The Muppets represent and mourn the (hopefully temporary) loss of old friends—the Muppets.
I wish everyone the best of luck with the reboot.
PS I love the work of Bob Kushell and Bill Prady, and place no specific criticism on anyone’s shoulders for my concerns about The Muppets. Not saying this is the case here, but sometimes talent and creativity is not enough to overcome a bad match between artist and vehicle.
Although I think the writer (Melissa Henson) has made some valid arguments about the writing of The Muppets, I think her overarching belief that this was intended as family viewing is wrong. Although these are beloved characters from film and television, this show was very much centred on an adult audience. To repeat an earlier point, calling this family entertainment would be to ascribe the same to The Office.
What’s a religious theme without my beloved Toronto Marlies?
While I have always been a strong supporter of human rights in all forms, I have generally avoided Pride Week in Toronto simply because I don’t like crowds. But this year was different.
This year, I was invited to participate in the parade itself by my friends The Toronto Sisters of JOY (Jubilant Order of York), a group of amazingly loving, life-affirming people who seem to work from the premise that to be heard, you must be seen (my words, not theirs).
The Sisters pose with their banner
How could I say no? Hell, why would I say no?
So, early this morning, I pulled together a costume of sorts (not my forte) and headed downtown to meet with the Sisters and some of their other disciples, and into the parade we went (news video).
Two Sisters plan the next few hours
Well, into the court yard to meet, then into the parade to wander like the 12 tribes to search for our place in the parade, to wait in the drizzle to walk a few blocks and wait some more and then past the float until… well, you get the idea.
But once the parade started, it was so much fun. Never have I ever felt surrounded by so much love. Every colour and every letter in the alphabet came out to show their support of just LOVE and FRIENDSHIP. It was amazing.
I am Canadian, too.
Everyone shouted their support.
Drizzly day in Toronto didn’t dampen spirits
And when the parade finally ended, I was ready to keep walking…instead, I went to Fran’s Diner for a late lunch.
I am proud to call myself a friend of The Toronto Sisters and of several communities of people whose only requirement for entry is acceptance. That’s pretty cool.
You’ll see the Sisters a couple of times in this video of Saturday’s TransMarch (language).
I also recommend learning more about the You Can Play Project, which promotes inclusiveness in sport.
Ex machina tells the story of Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a young computer programmer slaving for a large unnamed corporation that we eventually learn is somewhere between Facebook and Google. As the movie starts, Caleb’s computer flashes that he has won a company contest to visit the mountain-retreat home of recluse company founder Nathan (Oscar Isaac).
Upon confused arrival, he is welcomed warmly by Nathan and escorted through a labyrinthine maze of non-descript hallways where Caleb learns he has access to some rooms and not others based on his ID card. As Nathan explains, the austere design reflects the space’s use not as a home but rather as a research facility.
Nathan explains his AI breakthrough to Caleb
Nathan eventually divulges that he has been working on building an AI or artificial intelligence, and that Caleb’s role during his week at the retreat is to apply the Turing Test to the AI; that is, through a series of questions to elucidate whether the interviewer is speaking with a human or a computer.
Which brings us to Ava—played by Alicia Vikander—the ingénue AI that Caleb is to test. As she sits before her inquisitor, Ava is mostly metal and wires, but that hasn’t kept Nathan from endowing her with sexuality in her form, a soft approachable voice, and a human-like face.
Caleb becomes Ava’s inquisitor through plexiglas
Through a series of conversations—between Nathan and Caleb, and Caleb and Ava—the film explores questions of identity, freedom, inalienable rights and love. But therein lies my primary problem with the movie: It is a stage play performed as a film.
Without giving too much away [doing my best to avoid spoilers], the interactions between the characters are almost as sterile as the environment in which they occur. Simply put, damned little happens aside from a series of conversations.
A labyrinthine maze of halls and locked doors
I am confident that this was done on purpose by writer/director Alex Garland—best known for the films 28 Days Laterand 28 Weeks Later. I have no doubt that the minimalism of film is in itself a metaphor for the lifeless character of the AI.
But whereas minimalism is expected in a live theatre, it feels off-putting in a cinema. Ex machina engages the conscious mind but not the eye, unless your eye is drawn to beige. In fact, given the lack of action in this film, it would even work–possibly better–as a radio drama.
Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander and Oscar Isaacs (L to R)
The performances were good, but I didn’t feel like the actors were given a lot to work with.
As I found so ironic with the movie Prometheus, the character of the android Ava was the most deeply developed (compare Ava to Michael Fassbender’s David). You could actually see her character evolve as the movie progressed at its leisurely pace. And full marks to Vikander for being able to imbue so much internal communication through subtle verbal intonations.
Subtle intonations and expressions bring Ava to life.
The character of Nathan showed the most potential, however, as you could see a brooding darkness within him that vacillated between wilting depression and disturbing malevolence. But as with so many aspects of this film, the potential was never really explored and we were left with a subtextual emptiness.
And Caleb proved to be the type of antagonist that I find least appealing—the victim—mostly bobbing like a cork on the eddies and currents outside of its control. He is neither hero nor anti-hero and so leaves me cold and uncaring, and if I don’t care, I am not engaged.
Ex machina is a very cerebral movie, dealing with deeply philosophical questions about humanity and self-awareness, and to a lesser extent about emotional connection. And in many ways, it is only because of Ava that the film does not devolve into an Open University lecture.
There is little doubt that the robotics and artificial intelligence enthusiasts will get a hard-on from Ex machina, a biological function that forms a humorous sidebar in the story.
But for those who like these subjects and want to be entertained by a gripping story, I suggest you take another look at Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, where identical questions are discussed in a backdrop of a film noir story line.
Ex machina is not completely without mystery, and I did find myself asking questions about the characters, including wondering if the audience wasn’t part of some Turing Test. But if I ever opened my mouth in anything approximating a “wow”, it was merely to yawn at the film’s glacial pacing.
There are small moments of tension, but they dissipate quickly and rarely result in any shocking revelations. There are moments that are squirm-inducing to start but do not really linger or pay off.
But for all my complaining, the ending of the story was satisfying. Although, for my money, that’s when the story finally got interesting.
Like Transcendence before it, Ex machina had a lot of potential, but failed to deliver.
I can forgive writer-director-producer Chris Nolan for naming his movie Interstellar as few would be inclined to go see a movie entitled InterOkay and yet, that is what I thought of the movie. It was okay.
Not brilliant. Not amazing. Not a cinema-changing moment. Just okay.
Set in the near future, the Earth has suffered through a variety of crop blights and other unnamed disasters that has humanity at the brink of extinction. As one school principal puts it, the human race has become a caretaker generation, simply trying to manage the status quo in the hopes that something better might show up later.
Failed astronaut Cooper struggles to keep his family whole
Drop into this failed world the character of failed-astronaut now failing farmer Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) who struggles to protect his family—dutiful son, frustrated pre-scientist daughter, sage father-in-law—from the ravages of dust storms and drought. Through a series of odd events, driven by daughter Murphy, Cooper learns of a mission to explore planets in other galaxies in hopes of finding a new home for humanity. They will get there via a wormhole that suddenly appears near Saturn, sent by a mysterious ‘They’.
To get deeper into the plot of the movie here would be to trip all over spoilers and I don’t want to do that. It would also require that I better understand the various plot points, which would likely take a second or third viewing…call me when Interstellar makes it to Netflix.
In an acknowledged homage to every movie that has come before it—Grapes of Wrath meets Top Gun meets 2001: A Space Odyssey meets Close Encounters of the Third Kind meets The Right Stuff meets Waterworld meets Prometheus meets The Black Hole meets…you get the idea—Nolan and his cowriter brother Jonathan Nolan have woven together a vision of human spirit that is broad in scope, deep in meaning and soul-defining in spirit. Or at least that seemed to be their intention.
The ones left behind search for a way out (Jessica Chastain)
On paper, the most meaningful speeches seem to come across as cliché, trite or in the most offensive cases, Pablum. And it is only because the Nolan boys have put these speeches into the mouths of some great actors—e.g., John Lithgow, Michael Caine, Jessica Chastain—that the movie is not laughed off the screen. Only actors of this quality could breathe life into these leaden lines and hoary speeches.
For me, possibly the worst example of this is scientist-cum-astronaut Amelia Brand’s (Anne Hathaway) attempt to explain love as a higher dimension of existence, as something that transcends space and time and should thus be counted as at least an equal in making logistical decisions. I’m not saying that her argument is wrong (or right) but rather that the material comes across as angst-riddled teen melodrama, made all the worse because it’s coming out of the mouth of an adult.
Ferris Bueller with lipstick? (Anne Hathaway)
Where I have to give the movie massive credit, however, is in the visual treatments. (Thank you, Director of Photography Hoyte van Hoytema and Production Designer Nathan Crowley.)
This is a visually stunning film where each image is inspired. You feel parched while witnessing the death of the American heartland and your eyes itch with the approaching dust storm. The other worlds are crafted with such realism that you sense the dampness or the cold. And for all its darkness, a black hole seems anything but black.
Without getting into spoilers, I found the story line challenging in some respects because it felt like the Nolans wrote a relatively short screenplay and then every time they asked someone to read it, they were asked “Yeah, but what about…?”
At least three times during the film, I caught myself thinking that this must be the end, only to have Nolan scream “plot twist” and have the movie spiral in another direction to tie up a loose end. Even as the credits rolled, I had the sneaking suspicion they would get half-way done and we’d have more scenes.
And the very last scene before the credits was either “Oh shit, we forgot about…” or was a ham-fisted attempt to set up the sequel (of which I have heard nothing).
As friend and fellow blogger Danny F. Santos suggested to me recently, he thought the movie might have been better served by converting it to a mini-series and I can definitely see his point. Some aspects of the film seemed rushed, despite its lengthy running time of 169 minutes. (Danny’s blog)
Given the importance of the replacement Earths to the conceit of the story, however, amazingly little time was spent on these worlds. I appreciate that the Nolans may not have wanted to make it longer, but that just lends credibility to Danny’s idea (or they could have done a Peter Jackson-Hobbit impersonation).
To their credit, the Nolan boys have woven an incredible tapestry of plots and subplots, tapping into several deep questions about humanity, the explorer’s heart, interpersonal commitment, abandonment, the purpose of science and complicity in our own demise.
Unfortunately, they used so many strings that they seem to have suddenly found themselves with a lot of loose ends that they either tied off with a bow or tied to another string. For the latter of those methods, I am confident that they wanted me to experience a revelatory “Oooooh!” but too often I was left with a confused “Eh?”
For all my issues with plot points and dialogue, however, I do have to admit that the movie passed my butt test. At no point did I find myself squirming uncomfortably. As the credits rolled, I found myself comfortably rested and satisfyingly entertained.
Unfortunately, for a movie of the scale and scope of Interstellar, “rested” and “entertained” are an indictment, not praise.
Mother, Nehiyaw, Metis, & Itisahwâkan - career communicator. This is my collection of opinions, stories, and the occasional rise to, or fall from, challenge. In other words, it's my party, I can fun if I want to. Artwork by aaronpaquette.net