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)

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.

Hot Girls Wanted documentary (a review)

Hot_Girls_Wanted

Watched Rashida Jones‘ documentary Hot Girls Wanted about the amateur porn industry and can honestly say I have no idea what I think of it.

Part of the challenge is I have no idea what the point of it was other than to document the experiences of several young women (18-25 y) as they approach and experience the lifestyle. We can argue day and night about whether the lack of an overt agenda or POV is a good thing, but to my mind, it presented the women as neither victims nor empowered…simply as women who made a choice.

To be blunt: These women chose to go to Fuck Camp to make money and escape home.

It is interesting to watch the impact of their decisions on their lives and particularly their relationships with families and boyfriends. And I had to laugh at the irony of one woman who was clear in her rationale about her decision until it came to talking to her father about it.

And I must admit that I was surprised at how cavalier (my biased standards, not theirs) the women were about what they were doing, the potential hazards of the situations they found themselves in, and any thoughts as to how this might impact future life decisions beyond the 3-6 months they made money (not a typo…a woman’s “marketability” typically only lasts 3-6 months).

One of the few images I'm willing to show

One of the few images I’m willing to show

Over its 82-minute span, the documentary drags a little in places and often covers the same ground, no doubt to reinforce some of the more graphic elements. And it is graphic, stopping short of showing the actual sexual acts, but giving you enough of the rest (e.g., nudity, bondage, choking, vomiting) to bring across the essence of what these women are doing.

And in the end, the take-away is whatever you take away from this story.

No matter what your opinion going in, this will only reinforce that opinion. It doesn’t seem to be aimed at making you change your mind about the merits or evils of this industry. The same woman who feels exploited in one scene expresses a sense of empowerment in the next, and in some cases, about the same act.

Adult women making adult decisions about the adult industry. Good or bad is for you to decide for yourself.

An actress and a producer discuss the documentary

An actress and a producer discuss the documentary

…but I know what I like

Congratulations! You’ve landed a paid writing gig. Finally, all of that hard work and practice is going to pay off.

Mind you, unless the person paying you to develop a screenplay, marketing campaign, novel, whatever, is simply giving away his or her money out of some form of altruistic zealotry gone mad, the benefactor is likely to want to participate in the project, to take some degree of ownership, and therefore to weigh in…with notes.

So, you’ve just received your first batch of notes.

And amazingly, they are relatively minor and/or completely in sync with concerns you had about the work and so give you further impetus to make the changes you kind of knew needed to be made.

But seriously, folks. These notes don’t make any sense. The note-giver clearly didn’t understand the nature of the project he or she assigned you. To make most or any of these changes would be to seriously weaken or outright destroy the project.

Now, what the hell do you do?

shock

Step 1: Curse.

Yes, feel free to curse the gods for this tedious torture of your creative soul. How dare these mere mortals give you notes? The audacity to think they could contribute to this work of Art, when the very notes they provide merely highlight their ignorance.

I don’t have a problem with hosting a pity party of one (or a few close friends). The key is keeping the party short, particularly when working to deadline.

You are an Artist, and Art requires Ego and a degree of Hubris. Without hubris, how would any of us ever have the cahones to show our work to others?

The reality, however, is that we have chosen to work for others, so…

unimpressed

Step 2: Set aside your ego and re-read.

Put a tea-cosy on your vision for a moment and really try to understand the notes you have been given. I’ve heard it said often: What is the note within the notes?

I have found that people often can’t identify or vocalize what they specifically find troubling in a piece of Art. But rather than simply give you no notes, they try to identify things that may have some bearing on their issues…the operative word there being “may”.

If you stand back a little further and ignore the specific requests, can you see something in common between the notes, a greater theme or need from the note-givers?

Do your best to step out of your shoes and into his or hers. A change in perspective may give you a greater insight as to the real challenge the note-giver is facing with your work. You’re the writer; you have one need. A director or a marketing manager will have different needs and perspectives. Respect that.

It is possible, however, that you will still be uncertain (or clueless) as to what to do next. In that case…

what

Step 3: Ask questions/seek clarity.

Acknowledging the note-giver’s concerns or comments is not the same as accepting them. It does, however, give him or her a sense that you respect them and are trying to maintain a collaborative relationship. I cannot begin tell you how much this means to people and pays off in the long run.

Offer your interpretation of the issues to confirm you see things the same way as the note-giver. If you do, brilliant. You can now offer alternatives to the less palatable requests that may satisfy the note-giver’s misgivings.

If you don’t, brilliant. Now, you have the opportunity to gain insights into the note-giver’s perspectives. This will allow you to brainstorm new approaches that will satisfy both parties.

You may also find that many of the requested changes are not a high priority for the note-giver or were merely suggestions of things you could do. For all the opinions people offer throughout their lives, most individuals are incapable of giving effective notes and thus, demands, suggestions and brain farts all look alike to the person receiving them. This holds for the Artist, as well. Don’t allow your and their ignorance to drive you crazy.

So, now that you either have an understanding with the note-giver or realize you are working with a control-obsessed ego-maniacal asshole (it happens)…

gotcha

Step 4: Make your changes or rollover.

What you now do with these notes hinges on a cost-benefit analysis.

Are there ways you can bring greater clarity to the story you have written that will address the needs without either incorporating the specific requests or significantly altering your vision of the story?

If yes, then you have not only improved the work, but you’ve established a wonderful rapport with the note-giver that will likely lead to future opportunities for collaboration.

If not, you need to ask what your goal is for this particular project.

If it is your magnum opus, then feel free to stick your heels in and refuse to make the requested changes, but in the knowledge that you may very well be fired and find it difficult to get work in the future. The note-giver and community may respect your stance and in the final analysis, acknowledge you were correct in your refusal, but it doesn’t happen a lot.

If, however, this project is the first step toward a longer term relationship with the note-giver and/or the hiring community, then go back to Step 2 and think harder as to how to make this work to everyone’s advantage. The onus is on you to do your best work within the framework you are given.

In this latter situation, of course, another alternative is simply to rollover and acquiesce to the requested changes. It is completely possible that the note-giver is right and you simply could not see the problems because your ego was in the way (aka you were too close to the project).

On the flipside, of course, if the note-giver was wrong, you may carry the burden of his or her errors and so find future work with that individual unlikely but then why would you want to work with that asshole again. Or, he or she could step up and take ownership of the error, in which case, you may have found a partner who will trust your instincts more the next time.

Getting notes is never easy, but it’s going to happen whenever you leave your Artistic cave. How you deal with them will have a significant impact on how often you get paid to do your thing.

From perspective to perception

A railway track is perspective trying to make a point

A railway track is perspective trying to make a point

What makes your writing unique from all others is your perspective, the way thoughts, words and actions are interpreted in your mind.

If 10 people witness the same collision between two cars, each one will recount a slightly varied story from another. Some may gauge the speeds of the vehicles differently or not remember the same car braking first.

Less what you remember and more how you remember is influenced consciously and unconsciously by your personal experiences, your beliefs and your moods. As good a reason as any for the police and court system not to rely on a single eye witness account whenever possible.

The same is true for your writing.

Although our imaginations give us some ability to write fanciful stories and characters outside our day-to-day scope, a close examination of our oddest creations will show that they are largely reinterpretations of things we have read or experienced in other stories.

Dragons, for example, are likely an amalgamation of flying raptors (e.g., eagles), strange lizards (e.g., monitors) and giant fossilized remains that humans have dug up for millennia. How else to explain the similarity of a T. rex skull and monitor lizards?

How to make a dragon with 3 simple ingredients!

How to make a dragon with 3 simple ingredients!

At the same time, it was the unique experience of these three factors in combination that may have resulted in the first dragon description. A truly unique perspective.

To consider it another way, think on the meaning of perspective in the visual arts:

The art of drawing solid objects on a two-dimensional surface so as to give the right impression of their height, width, depth, and position in relation to each other when viewed from a particular point.

Giving the right impression of [facts]…from a particular point [of view].

But what if you changed that point of view?

3-Point Perspective

Changing perspectives is perhaps the easiest way to approach cliché writing and makes the predictable unexpected.

If you want to tell a love story that is essentially Romeo & Juliet, tell it from the perspective of rival street gangs in New York. Oh, but wait; they already made that one.

Then how about from the perspective of fish in a pet shop and instead of rival families, it is the divide between fresh and salt water? Crazy, hunh? (NOTE: I already wrote this one, so please go write something else.)

The same holds true whether you’re considering an entire story, a single scene, an individual line of dialogue or a character trait.

How might the floor of a dance club look if you changed your perspective from that of an evening reveller to that of an observer seated on a ceiling rafter? Probably like one of those wild life documentaries describing the mating habits of some ridiculous animal.

Or what might your backyard “look” like if your only sense was touch?

By changing your perspective in even the smallest of ways (you don’t have to blind yourself), you can dramatically alter your perception of the world.

So, the next time you find yourself stuck for an idea or facing a cliché moment in your writing, try looking at your world upside-down or through another character’s eyes.

Take a new perspective and you’ll reach a whole new point.

(Drawing is property of owner and is used here without permission because I take a different perspective on these things.)