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

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.)

Dream snatcher

dream web

The other day, I engaged in the following conversation on Twitter:

Him: There are a lot of tweets directed towards aspiring filmmakers telling you to “never quit” and “follow your dreams.” That’s terrible advice.

Him: If you met some guy and he said he wanted to be a professional NBA player would you immediately suggest he follow his dreams and never quit?

Me: If that’s where his happiness is, then yes, I would. Who am I to call down his dreams? Would in fact offer to help.

Him: Attention anyone in the world who is looking for someone to help them become a professional basketball player.

Me: If you never try, how will you ever know what you might accomplish? Why live by someone else’s thoughts on what is feasible?

I understand his point.

So often, people express a desire to become something or someone without a good understanding of what it takes to do that. And in a subset of these situations, the aspiring individual isn’t willing to put in the requisite work to overcome their ignorance or skill-set shortcomings.

I’ve known several people who upon seeing how much joy writing brings me express a desire to write. And then do nothing about it. And unlike the professional NBA player quest described above, writing simply requires a computer or pen & paper. And yet, many of these people refuse to write.

But even knowing this, even if I had complete clairvoyance to a future of procrastination or frustration and agony for them, does this give me the right to tell them they shouldn’t try? I don’t feel that it does.

Despite my conversational counterpart’s sarcastic response (I assume it was sarcasm), I am happy to help anyone become a professional basketball player, if that’s what they want. I have no idea what skills I could possibly bring to that quest, but hell, we all need support to follow our dreams.

chase-catch-dream-big

You don’t have to be an expert in a subject to help someone.

You can help them better understand what they’re attempting so they can make informed decisions. You can offer a couch or spare room if they need a safe haven. You can cook a meal or several for them when money is tight. You can cheer at their successes and offer a shoulder in times of frustration or disappointment.

And most importantly, you can let them know that success or failure—whether internal to them or measured by external yardsticks—has absolutely no impact on whether you will be there for them.

To all of my friends and to people I have yet to meet in life, pursue your dreams with everything you have, make your life choices knowing that I will be there to help you in any way I can.

And do your best to ignore the dream snatchers who think they are doing you a favour by talking you out of your dreams.

go-confidently

And if you’re tired of watching me live my dreams, check out the blog of a friend of mine who has started living her dream life: Pipe’s Adventure.

The most dangerous F word

Fear

Hate is fear rationalized. Hate is fear acted upon.

Hate is the belief that fear is finite; that if I bestow some of my fear on you, I am unburdened.

But that is a lie.

Fear isn’t of this universe. It doesn’t live by the E=mc2 paradigm. Fear has limitless potential for growth.

Any more than I can relieve myself of a pestilence by giving it to you, my fear remains and may even grow when I pass it along.

Surely a little fear is okay, keeps us from stepping off cliffs or traveling dark paths.

Fallacy.

Fear doesn’t keep us safe. Knowledge does.

Vista

Knowledge keeps you from stepping off the cliff. Fear keeps you from seeing the spectacular view.

Knowledge removes darkness from the alley. Fear keeps you from seizing new opportunities, from discovering new paths.

Fear doesn’t come into existence of its own accord but like a virus, is passed from person to person.

The newborn infant has no fear until startled by a parental “No”, the opening dose of fear.

infection

We do not naturally fear others until given a reason. And rarely is that reason the other we have chosen to fear, because fear rarely approaches face on.

Fear is the demon that eats us from inside, a parasite that controls our minds for its own perpetuation.

But what is worse, what makes it so insidious, is that fear is easy, demanding little of us other than that we close our senses to the truth.

And it is the facility with which so many of us are willing to do this that makes fear the most dangerous F word.

Burden

Talk about ALS – no bucket, no ice (video)

I’ve been trying to wrap my head around my problem with these ice bucket videos in support of ALS. Something didn’t sit right with me, and yet I felt like a complete jerk crapping on all these lovely people making loving efforts to make a difference.

And then, suddenly, it struck me. Almost none of the video efforts I have seen have included any information about ALS beyond how to spell it. They’ve done a magnificent job of raising money, but I seriously doubt that many people watching these videos have a clue as to what ALS is.

Thus, in support of their efforts and to spread not just awareness but also knowledge, I have produced a short, very homemade video (click below) with terrible production values (as in none).

I hope it helps.

 

Lest we forget: Thanking the fallen

Remembrance Day Poppy

On November 11th in Canada, we take a moment out of our day at 11am to remember those who have fallen in war to define and defend our rights and freedoms as a nation and a people. We call it Remembrance Day and in the British tradition, we symbolize it with a poppy.

I am of the fortunate age that while I never had to experience the terror of war myself, I am old enough to have spoken with many of my family members who have served in the Canadian military both in times of war and in times of peace.

My great grandfather Francis Sowden served in the First World War, the war whose Armistice Day we commemorate. My grandfather Allan Eby served in the Second World War as part of the Canadian forces that invaded Italy and freed the region from Nazi occupation. Similarly, my great uncles served in the military, one making it his career.

Each man had his own experiences. Each man could relate his own stories.

I remember fondly, when I grew old enough to understand, listening to my grandfather relate his experiences; in some ways, his greatest days and in others, his worst. In his own gentle way, he taught a brash young know-it-all with all the answers on the failure of war a thing or two about life and the need to defend freedom when called upon.

Beloved and missed

As I visited my grandparents’ gravesite the other day, I came upon the graves of several other soldiers, their tombstones clearly marked, their ranks smartly inscribed. And I stopped for a moment to thank them for their sacrifices.

It was only then that I noticed a monument atop a hill, something I had never seen before, that paid homage to the fallen. A soldier with bowed head. Very humbling.

To the men and women who sacrificed everything for my home, I thank you.

To the men and women who served bravely or waited nervously for family members to return home, I thank you.

To my friends who continue to serve for Canada or any other country, I thank you.

As long as I am alive, your story will not go unheard or unremembered.