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)

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 Race: A Celtic Legend (sort of)

Two great chieftains stand at odds, menacingly snarling at each other, mighty armies at their backs. The only thing separating them is a simple Celtic druid.

“I am the first son of Glamorgan, who was first son of Dafydd, who was first son of Griffold, so the kingdom is mine to rule,” bellows Dafydd of the Mountain, raising his might sword above his head in challenge.

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Llewellyn of the Glen merely spits at Dafydd’s feet in disgust.

“Dogs, every one of you,” he snarls. “I am the first son of Blundewey, who was first son of Varus, who was first son of Glendoch. I am the rightful ruler!”

Dafydd drops into a fighting stance, causing Llewellyn to swing his axe.

“Enough,” cries the druid, slowly rising to his feet. “We cannot have our lands torn apart by yet another war.”

The two chieftains slowly lower their weapons as the druid passes between them and walks to the edge of a cliff. With great ceremony, he points across the waters toward a small island on which stands a great castle.

castle

“The sea brings us great wealth, but it also makes us vulnerable to attacks from across the waves,” the druid intones. “The great ruler of this land must therefore not only be a mighty warrior on land, but also a true master of the seas.”

“That is I,” spouts Dafydd.

“I am the master of the sea,” scoffs Llewellyn.

“The sea shall decide who is best,” replies the druid. “The succession shall be decided with a race. The first to touch the shores of that island shall rule over all.”

The two chieftains grunt their ascent and turn their armies in opposite directions toward the pebbled beach at the base of the cliff.

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Resting against the shore, two great ships swallow up the dwindling sunlight. One ship is jet black and sports a great dragon that snarls at the waves. The other is blood red with a horse that flails its anxious hooves into the surf.

The clansmen climb into their great ships, taking up their oars, brethren at their sterns ready to push them into the raging waters.

All noise stops, even the breeze, as the druid takes up his position and raises his arms to the sky.

“Let the gods of sea and air bless your efforts and deliver this land its rightful king,” the druid declares before violently dropping his arms to his sides.

With a mighty grunt and the hiss of resistant pebbles, the two teams push against the ships, forcing them into and over the arguing waves.

In each ship, the warriors pull mightily at the oars, the whine of the oar locks providing counter stroke to the rhythmic grunts of the rowers. The sea fights back, but the dragon and horse cannot be denied and slice their way through the offending currents.

stbrendanboat

At first, the race is even, both armies in deadly earnest to claim the crown for their sovereign, but bit by bit, Llewellyn’s boat begins to pull ahead.

“Harder, you demons,” Dafydd cries to his men. “Pull harder or suffer the fires that Llewellyn has planned for your wives and children.”

Dafydd’s men strain harder against the oars, but the dragon continues to press onward, seeming to clip the tops of the waves sent against it.

“Give me your sword,” Dafydd orders one of his warriors.

“You cannot reach him with a sword,” the warrior cries, handing over his weapon.

celtic_sword_la_tene_iron_age_forged_swords_b

“I don’t have to reach Llewellyn,” Dafydd bellows, raising the sword above his head. “I have to reach the island.”

With that, he brings the sword crashing down onto the railing next to him, where but moments ago, his hand rested. CHOP!

Dafydd roars as his life blood spews across the deck and his severed hand cartwheels around his feet.

Stabbing the sword into the floor between him and his warrior, Dafydd quickly snatches up his hand and cocks his arm for a mighty throw.

“The druid said it,” he yells into the wind. “The first to touch the shores of that island shall rule over all.”

With all of his might, Dafydd throws his severed hand forward, watching it arc over Llewellyn’s boat on which it rains blood, toward the island. Everyone behind him rises to their feet to see the fleshy ballista arc…arc…arc…and…

SPLASH! Into the water a good 30 feet from shore.

Everyone on Dafydd’s boat is crest-fallen, as blood gushes from his open wrist onto the deck. Clenching his remaining fist in anger, Dafydd turns to his warrior.

“The other hand!”

“What?” the warrior cocks his head.

hand

“Cut off my other hand and throw it,” Dafydd commands.

“I’m not going to cut off your other hand,” the warrior complains. “How will you hold a sword or feed yourself?”

“When I am king, others will defend and feed me.”

“I don’t know,” the warrior whines. “Should we put it to a vote? Everybody raise a hand-”

Dafydd grasps at the warrior’s vest but really only knocks him to one side.

“Cut off my other hand or I will cut you in half right here!”

The warrior looks at him as if asking “really”. Dafydd just holds his fist against the railing and nods at the sword.

The warrior raises the sword above his head and…

“Nothing will stop me,” Dafydd declares through gritted teeth.

CHOP!

Dafydd screams into the night as the warrior grabs the hand and throws it for all he’s worth.

SPLASH! It doesn’t even travel 30 feet from the boat.

Dafydd stares at the warrior, eyes unbelieving what has just happened.

“Nothing will stop me,” he repeats, “except a warrior that throws like a girl!”

Resigned to his fate and starting to feel the effects of the blood loss, Dafydd slumps against the deck.

“I guess that’s it then,” he sighs to no one. “Llewellyn will be-“

“You could touch the island with your foot,” the warrior thinks out loud, slowly reaching for the sword.

foot

“I am not giving up my-“

CHOP!

“Aaaaaaaah!”

SPLASH! The foot quickly sinks and resurfaces to float against the nearby hand.

Through a haze of agony, Dafydd looks up to find the warrior approaching with the sword. With his arm stumps and one good leg, he backs toward the rowers.

“No, no, no!”

CHOP!

“Aaaaaah!”

SPLASH! Another foot.

The night is filled with the cacophony of CHOP! Screams! SPLASH! as shins, legs, forearms take flight one after another, only to fall short.

In the distance, Llewellyn’s men puke over the side of their boat as it slowly fills up with blood and human tissue, their puke coursing streams between the severed body parts.

A soldier on the battlements of the castle, however, sees a fuzzy round ballista finally strike the shore, rolling up the beach and coming to rest against a bolder.

Face contorted in perpetual agony, a small rivulet of blood makes its way from the hairline of Dafydd’s decapitated head. As the blood reaches his right eye, the eyes suddenly fling open and look around.

Macbeth

“I did it!” Dafydd cries into the night. “I won! I won! I am the king of-“

He is suddenly distracted.

“Oh, shit.”

A raccoon grabs Dafydd’s head and drags it down the beach.

And thus began the reign of Llewellyn the Fully Assembled.

(Images are property of owners and are used here without permission because the druid said it was okay.)