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)

Malnourished with malinformation

KnowledgeI’d argue that any amount of knowledge is a good thing. It is a little bit of information that is likely to trip you up.

As many of you know, I am a science and medicine writer in another life—the more lucrative one, but that’s not saying much—and so I spend many of my days immersed in the worlds of scientific and medical discoveries and blundering. I even spent several years working at a biochemistry bench as a scientist—you may genuflect, now—so I know the world of which I speak.

For this reason, I tend to view science and medicine as a work-in-progress, as so much noise with moments of signal. Rarely do I herald the hype and equally rarely do I despair the bumps.

To my friends who see every announcement as a breakthrough, I am a cynic. And likewise, to everyone who pounces on every setback as evidence of mass conspiracy, I am a complicit shill. Whatever.

The challenge comes when I engage in a discussion of the topic du jour, because more often than not, the person with whom I am talking is adamant that he or she knows the truth. They are empowered by something they have heard or read from a renown expert. They have information.

(Let me state here that I do not believe that I am the holder of all truths. I do feel, however, that I have a good handle on what I do not know, and just as importantly, what is not yet known for certain.)

So, let’s start with some definitions (purely mine) of information types:

Information: A collection of facts about a subject upon which someone can formulate a testable theory or postulate a conjecture.

Misinformation: Incorrect declarations that potentially lead one to false conclusions.

Disinformation: Knowingly false declarations for the purposes of misleading another group (e.g., counter-espionage, propaganda).

information triangle

I suggest, however, that we need another category to address the shade of grey between the positives of information and the negatives of mis- and disinformation.

Following the model of nutrition versus starvation, I propose we call this new category malinformation, with the following definition:

Malinformation: A collection of facts that, while true, is insufficient to formulate a definitive conclusion without the support of further facts.

Just as a malnourished person is not starving, but rather suffers the effects of an insufficient blend and quantity of nutrients to experience balanced health, a malinformed individual is not wrong per se, but rather suffers the effects of an insufficient blend and quantity of facts to experience balanced knowledge and understanding.

For example, people who change their eating habits because they read about a single study that showed a specific food extract reduced tumour size in mice. Or a clinician who has created a behavioural modification program to reduce addiction based on a thought exercise using largely unrelated studies.

Any of these decisions are based on legitimate data from legitimate studies, but often ignore (or simply don’t look for) alternative and/or possibly conflicting data from equally legitimate studies. Rather than analyze all available data before generating a theory, they find the malinformation that supports their beliefs and then stop; a little bit of data being taken to conclusions that simply are not supported.

Boom-bust

Maybe they’re right. But more likely, it is much more complicated.

In conversation, I find the malinformed much more intractable than the ill-informed. With the latter, there is a chance you can correct the misinformation. With the former, however, the mere fact that the malinformation is correct seems to be sufficient cause for them to defend the castle they have built in the sky. When you “yes, but” them, all they tend to hear is the “yes”.

In fairness, all information is technically malinformation as we will never have access to the complete knowledge of the universe. We are always going to be forced to make decisions based on limited knowledge.

But where more knowledge is available, I think there is duty to examine and understand it before becoming intractable in our positions.

If there is a newspaper article about a new scientific discovery, efforts should be made to learn more about the limitations of the science that led to the discovery. How far can you realistically extrapolate from those few data points?

In biomedical research, that which occurs in a mouse is, at best, a clue to what might happen in a human. Nothing more.

It could lead to the next step in scientific inquiry—the actual purpose of science—or to a dead end.

Belief is nice, but unless that belief is well founded on broad and balanced information, it is limiting and might be dangerous.

(Or at least, as far as I know based on my understanding of the available information.)

Documentaries can change the world

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Just when you thought it was safe to go back near the water, SeaWorld announced that it will phase out its world-famous—and more recently, infamous—killer whale shows. The decision comes after months of pressure from community and animal-rights groups outraged by scenes depicted in the documentary Blackfish.

To further show the power of documentaries, however, the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) recently announced that it would phase out the use of chimpanzees in biomedical research, transferring its remaining test subjects to an ape sanctuary.

NIH officials have given numerous reasons for the decision, citing the weakness of animal models for human disease and technological advances that make such animals less necessary. Many, however, suspect the government agency is bowing to pressure from community groups fearing the post-apocalyptic world highlighted in the documentary series Planet of the Apes.

In particular, the actions of former laboratory test subject Koba scared the shit out of everyone.

There is no doubt that this trend of documentaries changing animal policies will intensify. For example, it is anticipated that the 2016 release of Ice Age: Collision Course will prompt the U.S. government to change its policies regarding the Scrat…whatever the feck that is.

The job you hate is killing your creative spirit

The wonderful Grant and his weasel buddy join me for a post-show photo (also shown Peggy Etra and Brian Clark).

The wonderful Grant and his weasel buddy join me for a post-show photo (also shown Peggy Etra and Brian Clark).

Grant Baciocco is an amazingly talented actor and puppeteer I had the good fortune to meet online and then in person when he came to Toronto with the improv puppetry show PuppetUp! (about which I have raved extensively elsewhere).

Well, aside from his amazing talent, he also has a wonderful creative spirit, both in the sense of what he creates and how he tries to inspire others to be open to their own inner creative spirit. To this latter point, he has a wonderful blog Grantblog: Ruminations & Pomposity that I heartily recommend.

At the beginning of each week, he posts Creative Mondays and today was no exception. Today he talked about “A job you hate”, which I excerpt below:

For years after college, about ten in fact, I worked as a substitute teacher.  It was an okay job, certainly flexible enough and I was making money, but by the end of those ten years I was starting to burn out because it was not the job I wanted to be doing.  I was good at it and several times I was told I should get my teaching credential because I was such a good teacher.  But deep inside of me I could feel a darkness building up because I was doing a job I absolutely hated.

The moment I made the decision to stop subbing and focus on The Radio Adventures of Dr. Floyd, it felt like a weight was instantly lifted from my chest.  I attempted, for the millionth time, to lose weight and it was actually working (lost 80 pounds).  I was just a million times happier than I was when I was subbing.  And guess what?  I became more creative!  This was the creative boom era for Dr. Floyd, because I was doing something I love.

Grant’s is a lesson too many of us learn very late in life (NOTE: I did not say “too late in life”…it is NEVER too late).

In my case, I was fortunate enough to have a series of occupations I loved for a period…scientist, science writer, media relations, advertising copywriter…but with each, I stayed in the occupation long after I had fallen out of love with the choice. I had to be a certain amount of miserable before I was brave enough to jump.

But two years ago, I completely jumped ship to pursue my true love: story telling (screenplays, novel, sketches, short stories). I’m still not making money off any of this, so I live on freelance magazine writing and ad copywriting. But to Tiffany’s point, it is what I do to eat and sleep under a roof.

If you are fortunate to know your passion—it can take time to figure out what it is—then you must make it happen to find happiness (hunh, “happen” and “happiness”…so similar).

And if you haven’t fully defined your passion yet, go with your gut until you do. Explore the universe of opportunities, until you do. You may not end up the financially richest person on the planet, but you’ll definitely be one of the spiritually richest.

If you don’t want to take it from me, then take it from Grant. Find your happiness and pursue it with everything you have. Despite appearances, you really do have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

 

You can follow Grant on Twitter: @ToasterBoy