Carl Jung said of religious scholars that many know of God, but did not know God. Do you face a similar dilemma really getting to know your stories and characters?
I was fortunate enough to attend a seminar by Dr. Patrick Horton. He is a story coach, anthropologist and mystic, who brings a unique blend of insights into characters and storytelling.
Characters are evolving, living beasts. They are not simply a collection of random human characteristics. Give them a voice, a purpose and the means to undertake a journey and let them come alive. Trust the process. Be passionate and invest in them emotionally. Ensure all your characters act in a way that rings true to themselves and the audience.
Write about things that you care about, not necessarily what’s hot. This isn’t a license to disregard the marketplace. Studio executives define “what’s hot” as last week’s box office toppers. This reverse-engineered approach isn’t conducive to mining the marketplace for the next best hit.
Although,the standard mechanical approach to storytelling has merit, there have been many scripts written which slavishly adhere to script gurus’ templates. Unfortunately, they lack soul and consequently, connectivity with the audience. The box is no longer there, it’s being redefined, so you can’t either think in it or outside it.
Dr. Horton asked the crowd at what point did we each discover we were aliens? Fair question? A few murmurs. What makes screenwriters aliens anyway? We don’t see the world the way other people do, or see things other people don’t or won’t. Aliens are often oppressed in their new world and forced to conform to the populace. There is no place for alternative views. Strike a chord? Your life was extinguished because you weren’t given the freedom to express yourself, let alone be yourself. You were on your own. Is the alien question starting to form a context for you? Is it resonating?
Going it alone is an integral element of the main character (alien), irrespective of which story paradigm you follow. Sure there can be buddies, supporters and well-wishers along the way, but ultimately the alien must drive the choices because they are forced to, not because they want to. After all, there is no other way home than moving forward. The journey is harsh, yet exhilarating. Challenging, yet essential. These are the characters and stories that ring true.
Moreover, the journey is in response to an injury; physical, spiritual, situational or emotional. Hopefully a hybrid of a few. Once the main character (alien) accepts that their journey must be undertaken and trusts that it is for their greater good, they can find meaning, direction, intent, purpose, integrity and finally a sense of completion and wholeness (unity).
Honor your own journey. Be present in the current state and bring awareness and enrichment to others. Writers are therapists and stories are their medicine. Be unique. Think about what prompted you to write your story, but more importantly, the revelation of the real story simmering beneath the superficial story. Approach your story from a place of depth, authenticity, truth and honesty. Once you find your true story, your characters can really come out to play.
HOW DO YOU KNOW IF YOU HAVE A STORY?
- Determine what material you have in hand.
- Are you connected to the material?
- What is the story really about?
- What is it about the characters and story that matters to you?
- When and how did the story come to you? What resonated with you?
- What aspects of the characters and story grabbed hold of you and never let you go?
- Given the current state of the story as you understand it, what matters most to your main character? If you can’t decide, it may be that you’ve chosen the wrong person to undertake the journey.
- What is the driving need that matters to you character? This is far deeper than a simple goal. It is the emotional urge underpinning everything. What is their transformation?
- At what point did your main character realize that their world has been turned upside down and life will never be the same?
- Does your main character step into the action or are they dragged into it? It’s human nature to resist, step back, consider and reluctantly act in the face of danger. It’s heroic for your main character to desperately try to figure out what needs to be done or insist on doing it their way.
- What really matters to your main character? Don’t answer this with an academic argument like “obtaining racial equality”. Make it personal.
- What is your main character’s dilemma? How did it show up? When did the realize it was a dilemma?
- Allow your character to navigate their way in a rapidly changing world and trust your character will reach the finish line. Theme, dialogue and structure will follow organically. Aliens, fumble through life, just like us. They have fears and concerns.
- What caused your main character’s injury? A key cause is a disconnect from their environment, their peers and their loved ones. Injury also arises from abandonment, neglect, under appreciation, low self esteem and being misunderstood.
- Where did your alien come from? Empathize with their hunger to reconnect with their origins.
- Give your main character the freedom and tools to go where they need to go. Do not stifle their personal growth with artificial constructs.
- Is your main character a victim? Do they assume the position or dragged into it? The latter makes for better stories. Nobody likes a self-pitying alien sitting on his sofa unwilling to act.
- What matters, matters. Everything else will fall by the wayside.
- The perceived issue is never the real issue.
- Authenticity is everything
- Run your character through the emotional wringer. Ask why they behave in a certain way. Sometimes it’s fine to not know. However, don’t violate your character’s logic. Put it down to tapping into their inner reserves or a primordial response.
TYPES OF CHARACTERS
Typically, characters either assist or oppose your main character.
ASSIST – They can be your buddy, a wizard, your conscience or anyone who supports the main character in fulfilling their underlying need. They are a sounding board, mentor and protector.
CONTAGONIST – These characters are not quite antagonists, but tricksters who serve to confuse, irritate, sidetrack or otherwise inconvenience the main character’s journey. They generally support the main character, but erect roadblocks to give the main character a warning, time to reflect, ponder, rest, recuperate and time to reconsider.
OPPOSE – The antagonist. The character diametrically opposed to the main character’s journey. Probably the most important and vital of all characters. The opposing characters represents incarnations of the Devil. Mystics often worship the Devil because of its immense power over us. The Devil represents an evil incarnation of the main character. The Devil knows how to manipulate them because they are different facets of the main character. The main purpose of the Devil is to instigate change and bring clarity.
THE CHARACTER COMMITTEE
Committees meet to mull over various viewpoints on the same theme. Ever been to a meeting? Gauge the various emotional responses, especially the polarized ones? Give each committee member a voice and a vote in the writer’s mind when making story decisions.
Writing is a dream-like process and revelations arrive in quantum leaps rather than linearly. Revelations never arrive until the very last minute. Thrash your story around until it feels right.
Go forth and create wonderful stories!
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