We could be heroes

A new day starts, and you rise from your bed. As you head to the shower, your mind drifts to the challenges your boss is having connecting with her 20-year-old son.

As your boss has focused on her career, both her son and husband have come to feel like second-class citizens, the younger adult acting out by joining a gang.

It’s not your place, but as you’ve known your boss for 15 years, you feel drawn into the family drama and spend your morning devising ways to intervene on her behalf while simultaneously coping with the poison-pill clause in the hostile takeover bid.

Hold it. Wait a second. No, you’re not.

Sure, if your boss is a friend and she’s struggling, you’d likely help. You have your own life, your family and your job, however, to worry about.

You don’t merely exist to serve your boss’s life.

Shrek_Hero-1

(Character likenesses are the property of DreamWorks Animation & are used here for teaching purposes only.)

Consider the movie Shrek, for a moment.

Among the characters, we have Shrek, Fiona, Farquad, Donkey, Dragon and Gingie.

Of those, who was the hero of that movie?

Given the movie’s title, it is pretty likely that the central protagonist of the story is Shrek. And given the way the narrative plays out, based on the scenes we watch, Shrek is indeed the hero of the movie.

But do the other characters see it that way?

Did Donkey wake up one morning with a mission to help an irascible ogre find acceptance not only within a community openly hostile to him, but also within himself through his sacrifice for another?

No, he had his own issues.

Did Fiona allow herself to be locked in a tower, guarded by a knight-immolating dragon, so that Shrek could see her example of isolation as a metaphor for his own, and in rescuing Fiona, he rescued himself?

Not so much. Girlfriend had her own agenda.

So, I ask again: Who was the hero of Shrek?

EVERYONE!

(At least from his or her own perspective.)

Shrek_Hero-2

Everyone saw the same events unfold, but everyone saw them differently.

Shrek followed his life course. Donkey followed his. Fiona hers. Farquad, Gingie, the Three Blind Mice, theirs.

And in seeking to fulfill their own wants and needs, they each experienced their own character arcs. They each suffered their own Hero’s Journey.

As a screenwriter—or more broadly, a storyteller—this understanding is vital to doing proper service to your characters. The secondary and maybe even tertiary characters cannot simply be treated as plot devices, or at least not if you hope to make them seem real.

As you introduce your characters to your story, give thought to what their journeys would look like. Consider what they hope to accomplish by spending time with your main protagonist or the other characters. See their various relationships through their eyes.

And then write them with that in mind.

When they react to a situation or another’s action, they must do so with their own interests at heart, at least as much if not more than their counterpart’s interests.

When one character acts, consider the consequences and stakes for each character, and then watch the dramatic tension rise.

Look for those moments when a character must choose between his or her agenda and the greater good, or those moments where another’s behaviour threatens his or her agenda. There lies conflict.

Hear the words a character speaks and consider if those words mean one thing to the larger story and a different thing to that character’s journey. This is the subtext—conscious or subconscious—that you seek.

You may not—likely won’t—accomplish this level of intricacy on your first draft. First drafts are about getting the central story line onto paper (or whatever medium you prefer).

It gives you several starting points, however, as you enter rewrites and search for ways to tighten and heighten your story.

And at the end of that process, you should be able to write a logline for each of the major characters’ perspectives.

Shrek_Hero-3

Award-winning screenwriter Randall C Willis is Story Analyst & Coach at So, What’s Your Story (Facebook page). He also teaches screenwriting in Toronto at Raindance Canada and George Brown College.

Connection

Chickadee-1

From his water-laden branch,

Hidden among protective leaves,

The chickadee stares down

At the strange cyclops below;

His grasp on the limb

Is tenuous at best,

Close enough for details

Distanced for quick escape.

 

The one-eyed beast is calm,

Open to new connections,

Seeking only an audience

With his avian companion.

Words are unspoken, unnecessary,

As a bond is formed

In the hush of gentle rain,

Whispers of waving branches

Broken only by buzz-clicks

Of monocular blinks.

 

For this instant, this

Sodden, frozen moment,

Relationships are formed,

Connections are made,

Eventually to dissolve

Into photographic memory,

But vitally important

Both to he and to me,

Shared in wonder and awe.

Chickadee-2

The creativity is ours

Sparsely

When I have told a story well, I have merely put in place the elements from which you will create your own version of the story.

You meld these elements with your own perspectives, histories, moods and experiences to go places that I can’t begin to imagine.

In this way, Art is a communal exponential experience, and the Universe is as blessed by the one who receives the gift as by the one who first shares it.

Cast of characters

bicycle-repairman3-60pct-crop

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.

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)

Live life, then write

ZoologyFew, if any, writers have practiced the craft of storytelling their entire lives.

Sure, almost all of us have written since we first learned how, but few saw this expression as anything more than personal amusement or a passing phase. And when we completed our last essay in high school or college, most put the quill aside for more socially acceptable vocations.

In my case, it was a life in Science, getting first a degree in zoology and then a degree in molecular biology. Others went to law school or into medicine. Yet others worked a production line or took up a trade.

In any event, we all largely dismissed writing from our lives or at best, saw it as a hobby on par with doodling.

And yet, despite putting our pens away and mothballing our creative tendencies, these years were not lost. Quite to the contrary, these years have been invaluable to making you the writer and storyteller that you are today.

Friends will sometimes ask me to speak to their adolescent and college-aged children who have expressed an interest in writing. They want their offspring to understand both the opportunities and challenges of the lives they desire. And I am happy to oblige.

Where the kids are willing to share with me, I listen to their interests and goals, offering insights where I can. But in almost every conversation, my ultimate piece of advice is the same.

Live a life and experience your world.

This is not to say you should give up on your writing, even for a brief period. Dear god, no.

Write. Write. And keep writing.

My point is more that your writing will be so much deeper, richer and more meaningful when you have life experience under your belt. Your greatest asset as a writer is the time you’ve spent interacting with your world, even when only as an observer.

Ladies who shop

You write the people you know, the lives you’ve led

Life exposes you to the amazing diversity of people and perspectives that populate this planet.

Life teaches you about human interaction, in terms of both relationships and conflict.

Life unveils the subtleties and nuances in communication, and the insane power of silence and subtext.

Life is how you instinctively know what to write next. How your character will respond to an event or statement. Why your stories will resonate with others who have similarly lived lives.

And because my life has been different from yours—at least in the minutiae—we will write different takes on a story even when given the exact same starting material.

As you can imagine, the advice is not always welcomed. Life can feel like a delay to the gratification of self-expression.

And yet, not only is it not a delay, a life lived is the embodiment of the self in self-expression.

Your life lived is your truth, and good storytelling (even fictional) is about truth.

 

To improve your storytelling skills, check out:

So, What’s Your Story? (web site)

So, What’s Your Story? (Facebook)

Bizarre faces

Without a strong understanding of self, there is only empty expression

Painting the night

drizzle

Missing the slush (not my photo)

Stepping up from the drizzling darkness that changed snow to slush at my feet, I climbed onto the bus, swallowed by the jaundiced warmth to join my fellow riders, isolated from the world in their cocoons of rayon, wool and leather.

Taking a seat as the bus pulled away from the curb, I too slowly descended into mental torpor, an oblivious partner on a journey across the east end of town, the warm companionship of time spent with a friend leaching from my body like the heat of a dying ember.

But before I entered my traveler’s coma, a brief flash forced its way onto slumbering retinas, drawing my attention to the window beside me. And yet, I saw little other than the salined grime of the city that blocked my view of the houses that I knew rolled past in the darkening night.

grimy-window

A veil of sodden salt and grime blinded me

And then another flash. Or perhaps it was a splash.

Ready now, I waited and watched, and was soon rewarded with flares of green and orange and red and white. An aurora transportis dazzled my eyes, unheard musical notes traversing my optic nerve to tickle my brain.

And as quickly as those colours had passed, white puddles of light twinkled at shoulder height, blebbing through the mire; abstract art painted from the other side of a translucent canvas for my pleasure.

Reds, blues, whites mingled with greens, mauves and yellows. Or blinked out of existence altogether, only to reappear elsewhere before my eyes. Multi-hued ballerinas and dervishes spinning without purpose; colour without design; existence the only goal.

splash

Image doesn’t really capture the diffractive dance

As my conscious brain finally arose from its slumber, awaken by the visceral tarantella that stomped the grey matter, I began to understand what I was seeing.

The salted matting that covered the bus windows could not hold back the shine of the many porch lights, Christmas lights, headlights and street lights that I passed on my journey, instead providing myriad prisms through which the photons waved their many lengths.

The very mire that weighted and closed my world was the vector through which the display existed to dazzle.

Unfortunately, consciousness came at a price as my understanding of what I was seeing meant that I now saw what I understood. And although the display continued until I reached my destination, it was slightly dimmed as mental clarity broke through grimed windows.

But even as I mourn the loss, I am warmed by the memory, and even if I never experience it again, I have been changed by my journey through a tunnel of light and colour.