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)

We are the stories we tell ourselves

boats

Human beings connect through story. We define our individual selves by story. We even define our universe in terms of the stories we tell ourselves.

And despite often sharing experiences with others, my understanding and interpretation of those experiences—my personal Truth—is the story that I build around those experiences.

If I see something I have never seen before, I immediately construct a story. I give it context from items around it or its location or its presence at this time of day.

And remarkably, if I came upon this same thing tomorrow rather than today, the story I construct then might be entirely different from the one I build today.

Thus, story is malleable. It lives and breathes as we take in new information from our surroundings and incorporate that information into the story, making tweaks and adjustments to ensure that everything continues to make sense.

When the story doesn’t make sense, when congruence is lost, we get upset, and in some cases, put up hostile blinders. This is when human beings lose connection.

Because story is such a personal thing, the Creative—whom I define as anyone who pursues a task with passion—is faced with an essentially insurmountable challenge: How do I share my story through myriad personal filters?

Ultimately, you cannot control how another receives and interprets your story.

abstract art

What is my story for this work? What story did the Creative intend?

Even if the Painter tells me her intent in painting a portrait or landscape, the Novelist types out in no uncertain terms precisely what he means to convey, the Musician strikes notes and chords to instill specific feelings, I can remain oblivious to those intents, consciously or un-.

This simply is; and we can only hope that it does not negatively influence the passion to create.

That passion, the drive to create, must be given voice, however; and so the Creative moves forward, doing his or her best to share (much as I am doing now in writing this).

A dedicated Creative struggles on, regardless of the insurmountable barriers, and strives to convey the most effective story he or she can, looking for ways to layer thoughts and emotions and spiritual energies onto the personal stories of others.

We practice what we know. We experiment with the unknown. We seek guidance and critical analysis.

And most importantly, we accept that we will never achieve 100% success instilling our stories in others, and yet push ourselves and our Art as if it were possible.

As Creatives, as people of passion, that is central to our stories.

*****

If you’re interested in learning how to build stories more effectively, seeking guidance for nascent projects or critical analysis of existing works, feel free to check out my website So, What’s Your Story or reach out to me here or via my Facebook page.

In the meantime, I wish you all the success in the world.

SWYS-Facebook-Cover

Obnoxiously happy

 

happy

Dear World,

My apologies if my happiness has gotten a tad obnoxious of late, but my life is blessed in so many ways that I simply cannot keep the joy inside, nor truthfully do I wish to.

Alongside the wonderful gifts I am given every day, I am routinely presented with insane opportunities to express and explore the passions that light up my soul, whether it is writing or photography or sharing knowledge.

But beyond even that, I sit in complete awe at the wondrous passions of the people around me; people with amazing visions of who they are and how the world can be.

I know painters and actors and writers and musicians; parents and partners and children and pets; athletes and industrialists and service workers and technicians. And every single one of those people bring me insane joy simply by following their own passions, whether within their titles or not, and allowing me to be witness and in some cases, participant.

Even watching perfect strangers experience their worlds, or Nature express itself from day to day, brings a beauty and elegance that I simply did not choose to see in my former life but do now.

So how can my heart not burst forth, my spirit soar and the laughter ring forth?

I am both a newborn child seeing things for the first time and an ageless ancient finally understanding the patterns that have always splayed out before my once dulled eyes.

That is my joy. That is my happiness. That is my love.

And unasked, that is what I share with the world.

Authenticity

who-is-this

This election is about authenticity.

Michelle Obama’s speech resonated with so many people because she was the most authentic person on stage.

There seems to be a great need in the world for people to be authentic, to be honest about their needs and desires, hopes and dreams.

His word is his bond.

What you see is what you get.

I work every day to be an honest practitioner of me, and yet, it continues to be a struggle if only because I do not yet know who I am.

In my defense, however, I never had a fighting chance, because from our earliest days, Western society impels us to fit into molds.

In school, we are taught to behave in a specific manner; to sit in regimented rows and speak only when spoken to. Our excellence is constantly measured against that of our peers on a scale that doesn’t really seem to prepare us for anything except more of same.

When we find employment, we are slotted into roles beyond which it is counterproductive to stray. We are hemmed in by job descriptions and told not to get above our station. To strive for something bigger is to earn the threatened enmity of our “superiors”, as well as our supposed equals.

set-de-moules-pour-personnages-pme

More often than not, to break from our confines and achieve improvement let alone greatness is to go it alone; to be ostracized from our fellows. And even in achieving something, there is a vast pool of people waiting for you to fail, snapping at your heels, if only to validate their decisions not to strive.

And while I find that sad—and admit to having wallowed in that group myself—I cannot blame these people for feeling, thinking and behaving in this manner. They, like I, bought the lie that if we behaved ourselves, if we followed the rules, if we lay our souls down to society, to industry, to community, we would be taken care of, we would be protected.

The lie is crumbling, however. It is becoming more difficult to not see beyond the façade. To remain blind is becoming increasingly difficult even for the most determined.

Children are graduating from school to find nothing awaiting them. Get your high school diploma; get your Bachelor’s degree; get a graduate degree. The bar keeps moving if only to delay arrival at the precipice, an abyss that grows deeper with every tuition payment.

Middle-aged and older employees who remained bound to a company, addicted to seniority, pensions and steady salary, are suddenly finding themselves cut loose after 15, 20, 25 years and staring back at a ravenous pack of un- and underemployed juniors—local and international—willing to work for lower wages.

In many ways, these poor souls are the victims of the very investment portfolios and pension funds they fought so hard to build, stakeholder groups that demand increasing returns with little concern for how companies achieve those returns.

lockedgate

And so the cry goes up for politicians and administrators and executives to be more authentic, to be more honest with those they oversee, to live up to their promises.

We point vehemently to the walls of the molds into which we poured our lives as though they were legally, morally and ethically binding contracts, and implore others to save our lives.

And as has happened in every decade that preceded this one, we will fail and we will fall as institutions redefine and reconstruct themselves on the old models.

The same hue and cry that triggered the Reformation and the Renaissance also triggered the Inquisition and Fascist Europe.

What I have come to believe is that I cannot change the world. Rather, I can only change me or perhaps more correctly, stop changing me. The person who needs to be authentic, to be honest, to live up to promises is the one I see in the mirror; he is me.

Rather than distort myself to fit boxes constructed by society and its micro-collectives in the mistaken belief that this will keep me safe, I need to risk all and not only discover who I am, but also express that person to the world.

My first steps to do just this have been awkward and timorous. It is uncharted territory and demands a certain amount of trial-and-error.

But as I continue to move toward authenticity, I am finding the footing firmer. Dirt-grasping shuffles are becoming steps, and will hopefully one day be strides.

And whereas society is not always welcoming of my decision, I have been lucky enough to find that the people in my life have been almost universally supportive.

It is unlikely that I will change the world, but it is a certainty that I will change my world.

And if I am authentic, that is enough.

authentic

Surprise, but never lie

Roff

I recently saw the following advice from filmmaker and screenwriter Don Roff posted on the Facebook page of the PAGE International Screenwriting Awards:

Always mystify, torture, mislead and surprise the audience as much as possible. — Don Roff

Although I agree with the sentiment, I don’t think it is complete (Note: I was unable to locate the source of the quote to learn if Roff said more on the subject). Thus, I offer the following codicil:

Mislead and surprise, but NEVER lie to your audience. Everything must be possible within the context of the universe you have built in your story. If you lose the trust of the audience, you’ve lost them forever.

OverTime finds truth under artifice (a review)

When all else is stripped away, only truth remains

When all else is stripped away, only truth remains

“Being naked and too honest makes you predictable and maudlin,” chided one of the characters early in OverTime, which premiered tonight at the Robert Gill Theatre for the Toronto Fringe Festival. And for the next 85 minutes or so, the cast proved the exact opposite was true.

In some ways, watching OverTime was like redecorating a home, peeling back the decades of paint one layer at a time. As each coat is removed, you uncover the laughter and tears of that moment in time. And once the last layer is gone and the history is revealed, all that’s left is the truth.

It is only as the play deepens that we learn that truth is what retired school teacher Carla (Elva Mai Hoover) feared most when she uttered that line to her protégé Darby (Timothy Eckmier). As Carla mentored Darby to become the next great playwright, she argued that mystery must be maintained.

Truth was also the motivation behind the other plotline of the play as young blogger and photographer Jewel (Andrea Brown) struggles to pull her father Linus (Tufford Kennedy) out of the safe environs of the hockey rink. A successful coach on the outside, Linus is a wreck inside, and Jewel wants to ease that burden.

Mentor Carla (Elva Mai Hoover) advises protégé Darby (Timothy Eckmier)

Mentor Carla (Elva Mai Hoover) advises protégé Darby (Timothy Eckmier)

OverTime playwright Romeo Ciolfi did an amazing job weaving these two story lines together. With each passing moment, it felt like another layer of paint was removed to reveal a bit more of the truth. And at least for me, the story was anything but predictable.

Sure, I felt Ciolfi could get a little heavy-handed with the metaphors. I would not have been surprised, on occasion to have seen a surtitle card reading “Metaphor here”, but I never felt they detracted from the increasingly tightly woven story.

What impressed me even more, however, was how the same layered revelations arose from each of the characters. With each passing moment, the characters became deeper and darker. Part of this richness was the writing, but I also credit the cast.

Daughter Jewel (Andrea Brown) struggles to help her father Linus (Tufford Kennedy)

Daughter Jewel (Andrea Brown) struggles to help her father Linus (Tufford Kennedy)

Rarely do I praise an entire cast of a production, but I could not find fault with any of the performances. And no single actor deserves loftier praise than any other. To me, this was an ensemble performance. Remove any one of these actors and I don’t think this play would have been as good.

As with the play, there were times when impassioned performance became overwrought melodrama, but I largely felt these moments were the exception. These actors and their descent into raw truth had me mesmerized for 90 minutes, and I found myself praying we would go into overtime.

Without hesitation, I would watch this performance again and again, just to make sure I didn’t miss anything.

[Adapted from a review that first appeared in Mooney on Theatre.]