What makes your life interesting? What do you get up to that is exciting, different, strange? What do we let ourselves do to get away from the dull, ordinary, the boring?
It might be a cliché to say that this is why some writers write. A writer can live vicariously through his characters. On a basic level, a character in a story can get up to things a writer cannot. Exotic, impossible things. Ride the Orient Express in the late 19th century? Fly a spaceship to the moons of Jupiter? Hunt a woolly mammoth? But they can also do less overt things. Like run for office in their city. Like solve an impossible murder mystery. Like defuse a long-forgotten bomb from World Word II. Or even more subtle things. Standing up to the boss’s boss even though it means instant dismissal. Asking that girl out in high school even if she’s already seeing someone. Probably.
I would go so far to say that a writer must live vicariously through his characters.
We know a lot more about what makes people tick than we did thirty years ago. Audiences of good story-telling are generally not going to put up with cardboard, one-dimensional tropish characters. The obvious counter-example is entertainment people turn to because they want such characters – yet, even that is changing. Even twenty years ago, typical sitcom fall guys would tend to eventually have redeeming features, qualities that belie a first impression and give a third, fourth, fifth dimension to a character. It is the sort of thing that makes them more believeable. It makes them more real.
Here in Australia, we happen to have a nation-wide TV network that seems to like unearthing and showing interesting documentaries. One such that began airing the other week is the incongruously named “America In Primetime“. It is a retrospective on specific aspects of popular television from the last half-century or so in the USA. This is done with many wonderful interviews with actors and writers of many popular series, interspersed with footage from the shows in question. The first episode was about the depiction of the “man” of the house which of course means families.
This is something dear to my heart.
It is easy to find champions of women’s rights and no less easy to find stories of oppression and impossible expectations of women and girls all down through history. What is less easy to find is that men have the same types of problems, too. No less than women, men are generally expected to fit into specific roles in society and looked at askance if they violate those roles. Yet it is all the more strange when we celebrate both women and men who unashamedly ignore the stereotypes thrust upon them. Sometimes this is done by accident but it must often be done deliberately.
This takes courage. The kind of courage that writers give their characters.
“America In Primetime” showed a few key examples of this. Bill Cosby’s character, Heathcliff Huxtable, in The Cosby Show broke several pieces of new ground. The obvious one was a black sitcom family living in relative wealth. But the less obvious one was that Heathcliff was a father who wasn’t going to take any nonsense from his teenage son. This was new. This was different. This was the writers having the courage to show a more realistic type of man.
We have to write realistic-looking characters. A teacher of mine from high school (which was entirely too long ago) used to describe it as “they need consistencies, and they need consistent inconsistencies”. Characters need a reason to behave like they do. A character who behaves arbitrarily is not going to work. Everything they do has to make sense to them, even if it doesn’t make sense to anyone else. In fact, when it doesn’t make sense to another character is a way of driving story forward. This is where you get a character who will step out into adventure because suddenly some life priorities have drastically changed and what they thought they were safely defending is just not worth it anymore. People do this all the time. So should your characters.
One of the final examples in “America In Primetime” is that of Walter White from Breaking Bad. Quite apart from showing just how superb an actor Brian Cranston is, here we have a man who is mildly, persistently dissatisifed with life. Works two jobs to make ends just barely meet, a disabled son – and then life goes and kicks him in the balls. He collapses at work and he discovers he has lung cancer and few years to live. And a whole lot more things requiring money he doesn’t have.
If you’ve heard of the show, you’ve heard of the premise. Walter is a high school chemistry teacher, which means he also has enough knowledge to be able to cook crystal meth. And do it really really well. A nice little earner, then. Except that to sell it means getting involved with a criminal underworld. Walt has taken a realistically courageous step off his map. All the decision points work for him, even if no-one else around him understands this. And it lends him courage in other circumstances, too, like when he comprehensively shutsdown some high school jocks making fun of his disabled son trying on clothes. Everyone is shocked, but it is effective and if you know to look for it, his son loved it. Such courage has made his life a hell-of-a-lot more interesting. No wonder it is an award-winning TV series.
This is what real, interesting men do. They take risks on the insane. They reject pigeon-holed rôles. In short, they live. In both real-life and in fiction.