Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Making Your Comedy Funnier 2 - Your go-to characters

There's an old rule of comedy: Going on stage after another comedian is death. I think this is based on the premise that the humor comes from jokes. A barrage of jokes (setup/payoff, setup/payoff, setup/payoff) is exhausting. But humor based on character touches on our common humanity and becomes more compelling, even invigorating. That’s why good storytellers — even those who specialize in funny stories — can follow each other without risking death.

The characters in comedy, as I discussed in Casting Your Stories 2: The ensemble of characters, have been categorized and explored at least since the Renaissance, and can help you see the comic possibilities in your work. I’ll take a different cut at it this time.

Danny Simon said two things were most important to make a scene as funny as it could be:
  1. Have the right characters present.
  2. Make sure all the characters contribute through action, reaction, or dialogue.
In class, Simon orchestrated imaginary scenes for familiar sitcoms by pointing to different students who represented different characters. He danced, burbled, chirped, and laughed with delight. I found myself doing this when I worked with other writers on a Web series. The unstated concept of this approach was each character can be relied upon to contribute to the humor in a special way. Whether with a straight line, an insult, or a pratfall, they work together to add variety, manage the pace of the scene, and bring laughs.

For the present purpose, we’ll consider four kinds of characters. I’ll call them the Straight Man, Wile E Coyote, the Fool, and the Trickster.

In comedy teams (which used to be common), the straight man was the one who set up the jokes. The other team member — the comic or the banana man — got the laughs. So, here, the Straight Man keeps the scene on track. Usually, the Straight Man is seeking calm, order, and reasonable solutions. While his frustration may be funny, the Straight Man isn’t ridiculous, exaggerated, or (usually) needy. The Straight Man can be used to sharpen the timing of a scene by speeding up or delaying the payoff. He’s great to entrap in running gags and, because he is trying to bring something to resolution, he adds tension and encourages escalation. Watch Abbott and Costello (Who's on first?) or Burns and Allen (Say goodnight, Gracie) or Laurel and Hardy (Here's another fine mess) on YouTube. One of the best straight men in a sitcom was Judd Hirsch in Taxi (Reiger). Choose almost any episode, and you'll see him adeptly keep stories moving forward even as they threaten to spin out of control.

This character is less fun to play in its pure state. Someone like Sam in Cheers is only a part-time Straight Man. When he’s being the bartender, he’s serious and in control (often with an ironic perspective). But he also can be oblivious (playing the Fool when Diane is three steps ahead of him) or needy (when he is a Lothario).

I gave character 2 the Wile E Coyote name because the most obvious contribution is wanting something… that’s unobtainable. The Coyote will never catch the Road Runner. Lucy in I Love Lucy
will never become a professional performer. Cliff in Cheers will never be respected for his intellect. Louie in Taxi will never satisfy his lust or greed. In most cases, Wile E Coyote is typified by two things — persistence and lack of self-awareness. Wile E Coyote will never give up, always moving onto the next tactic. He’ll also never evaluate, understand why he has failed, or stop sending his money to Acme.

A Wile E Coyote is the most reliable source of laughs. He is laser-focused on his goal. He goes to extremes. The audience is always waiting for his reaction, expecting another stumble. The trick is making the stumble fit while still surprising the audience. Classically, showing someone approaching a banana peel sets up the expectation of a slip. Some laughter might come if the character steps on the peel and falls on his butt. But there will be more laughs if the character evades the peel at the last minute only to fall into a manhole.

There are variations here as well. In The Honeymooners, Ralph will do anything to get rich, but his schemes always fail. However, there is momentary self-awareness at the end when he has to deal with Alice. In The Dick Van Dyke Show, Sally never will get a husband, but she is almost painfully aware of this, making self-deprecating jokes ("Listen, if any of you out there have a lazy brother, an unemployed uncle or a nutty nephew, you send 'em to me!").

The Fool doesn’t get it. Often, he gets it wrong. This can be a mechanism for stories that rely on misunderstandings. And poignant moments can be created when other characters work to protect the Fool. Latka ("") and Reverend Jim ("I wonder about things, like, if they call an orange an 'orange,' then why don't we call a banana a 'yellow' or an apple a 'red'? Blueberries, I understand. But will someone explain gooseberries to me?"), both of Taxi, are two of my favorite fools. One is a foreigner and one drug-damaged. It can’t be guaranteed that either will understand instructions or explanations. Like most fools, they are generous and want to be helpful, and the execution of these positive impulses can lead to disaster.

In general (and unlike Wile E Coyote), they don’t want anything for themselves. The audience waits for their input, but it’s difficult to anticipate what that might be. Writers are free to create crazier, more surprising responses. Often, their answers inadvertently lead to the solution to a story (or scene) problem. At times, it turns out that the Fool is removed enough from reality to provide answers that are truly wise. (Reverend Jim: If you find yourself in a confusing situation, simply laugh knowingly and walk away.)

Like the Straight Man, Fools often are given another dimension with time, especially in a sitcom where the character is likely to deepen in over multiple stories. Latka was, at times, not afraid to play the fool to get what he wanted.  

The Trickster may be the rarest character in comedy. I suspect that’s because Tricksters are difficult to connect with. They stir things up and revel in chaos. They owe nothing to anyone else and often lack empathy. They don’t change. Ferris Bueller is my favorite example. He is the same at the end of the story as he is at the beginning. Though he satisfies his desires, he mainly wants to stir things up. Though he catalyzes needed change in other characters, he has no compunctions about causing them anxiety and distress. You can count on the Trickster for practical jokes, sarcastic (even cruel) remarks, and unexpected truths. The Trickster doesn’t make things go sideways unintentionally. He is deliberate and amoral.

Though Hawkeye Pierce in MASH often wanted to satisfy his desires ("Life, liberty, and the pursuit or happy hour."), I think most of what he contributed in the early seasons of the show was almost pure Trickster. Breaking rules was more important than what he got from doing so. He disregarded authority and sowed the seeds of rebellion. He added energy and excitement and revealed what was inside other characters (usually, but not always, their flaws). Hawkeye was given more direction and moral standing in later seasons and he connected with other characters and even became vulnerable to them, but that’s not how it all started.

All of these are at your disposal for sweetening. Do your characters fit any of them? For a scene that needs to be funnier, are the right characters there? Do they show up and do their schtick throughout the scene? If not, imagine the scene with the right characters intruding when they normally would (either to get something or to help or to get things back on track or to stir things up). I suspect you’ll discover new opportunities for making the scene (and the story) funnier.
I have three online courses coming up: The Promise of the Premise, a Storytelling Workshop, and Developing a Web Series. The first is traditional, with lessons posted, exercises and interaction with me and among students via text. The other two are Zoom meeting, with writing, sharing, critiquing, and lectures. There will also be handouts.

Friday, May 15, 2020

Making Your Comedy Funnier 1 - Five tricks to increase the laughs

So you’ve drafted a comedy, and it really works as a story. You started with an engaging premise and built and polished a logline that defines the essential components. The beginning sparks interest, the middle has strong turning points and holds attention, and the ending is powerful and memorable. You love this story.

But it’s not funny enough. It would make a pretty good drama, spiced with humor, but you know it has the bones to be a classic comedy. One that would make Mel Brooks grind his teeth with envy. All it needs is a little sweetening.

If you have a writers’ room full of naturally funny (and highly competitive) people, they could punch this thing into shape before they kill each other (or you). Sadly, you are not at the stage of your career where geniuses have lifting you up and carrying you to fame and fortune on their must-do lists. So try these five tricks and see how far they get you.

1 - Make the endings pop. Humor works best if you withhold it to the very end. My mother-in-law had many virtues, but telling jokes was not one of them. She always led with the punchline. Everything that twisted and surprised came out first. Don’t let that happen to you. Withholding builds tension, and the more anxiety or curiosity there is, the greater the release in laughter. Look through each line to see if the funny part can move to the end of the sentence.

Find the (3-5)  beats in each scene. Identify the power shifts and discover the potential for humor in each. (A power shift almost always promises humor.) Arrange them so, as the stakes rise, things get funnier. Now make sure each scene ends with its biggest laugh. And make the last scene in the comedy the funniest of all.

But… don’t toss your earlier version because this might not yield all your story has to offer. This trick is here to explore and create options, not to create final copy. Pacing matters, too.

2 - Manage the energy. This is about setting up, surprising, and trimming. If I told you the funniest story ever written in Estonian and you didn’t speak that language, I wouldn’t get any laughs (or they’d come at the wrong times). Understanding is an essential element to humor. That means being clear and holding attention. So the setup must proceed with clear visuals that let readers/audience process the action, meaning, revelations, and (usually) conflict and concern about the protagonist. Often, people are lured into making assumptions.

Assumptions overturned create surprises, which are central to comedy. If you just fulfill expectations, it’s not likely to be funny. When, in Animal House, Bluto get high on a ladder to spy on sorority girls, we know that ladder is going down. Disappointingly, that’s all that happens. Much funnier is when he inspires his frat brothers to action by saying it wasn’t over for the U.S. when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor.

Of course, when you raise expectations, you need to come up with something funnier (or at least more interesting) than what people imagine. Just because something is surprising doesn’t mean it can’t be disappointing.

There are surprises that don’t come from assumptions. If you have a completely off-beat character (like Reverend Jim in Taxi), the forward motion can be derailed by a non sequitur. This can be used to distract or as comic relief. For instance, in one of my scripts, a character who has been ignoring a building conflict suddenly comes out with, “Have you ever eaten a cat?”

Finally, cutting out excess verbiage can make what’s funny funnier. Like poetry, humor works best when it’s distilled. Challenge every word.

3 - Play with the language. Yes, K sounds are funnier. And Bing Crosby made an art of reshaping dialogue to include big words. Silly names (in Catch-22, Major Major and Scheisskopf) are memorable and can trigger jokes along the way. The natural rhythm of sentences can suggest comedic timing (or work against it). Puns can work, and rephrasing can be an excellent way to create misunderstandings or irony.

In my experience, of all the sweetening tools, this is the one writers find most irresistible. When language intrudes, unintentionally distracts, or is not appropriate to a character in whose mouth it has been placed, take these darlings and strangle, crush, and obliterate them.

4 - Exaggerate. I can still hear comedy writer Danny Simon, my one-time teacher, encouraging the class to “Make it bigger!” We did. Pitching in real time, making it outrageous so we could get a smile or even a laugh from him. But what do you make bigger? Usually, it’s the character choice. In the classic chocolate factory scene in I Love Lucy, Lucy goes from eating the chocolates she can’t wrap fast enough to sweeping them into her hat to shoving them into her cleavage.

The ultimate payoff of the scene is exaggerating the situation. The chocolates come too quickly so, even though Lucy and Ethel have succeeded in deceiving their manager, their reward is even more chocolates to get rid of. Making the situation more desperate increases stakes and invites people to accept more and more outrageous solutions, so build toward the biggest choices if you can.

5 - Change perspective. Romances typically alternate perspective (with changes to scenes or chapters) between the hero and the heroine. Who gets the viewpoint for the scene? A rule of thumb is to choose whomever has the most at risk. Whose heart would be most ruined. Whose reputation would be destroyed. Who would be exposed or vulnerable. If your comedy allows changes to points of view (and not all do), choosing the perspective of the person most at risk usually turns out best. People will worry more. The character will be more likely to lie or withhold the truth. And make outrageous choices to protect him/herself.

Another way to change perspective is to zoom in or zoom out. In Dr. Strangelove, there’s a famous scene near the end that moves from close-in scrambling to complete the mission to a god-like view of total destruction. This makes the scene more ironic and, I think, more horrifying. Zooming in or zooming out exposes something true that otherwise might be invisible. Truth and irony can make people uncomfortable or add insights, but both also can be used to add humor.

The party on the train scene in Some Like It Hot is hilarious and includes nearly every trick in this list. It’s fun to watch and great to dissect for techniques that can sweeten your story.

One more thing. Don’t cut funny. Humor is particularly vulnerable to wearing out, as anyone who has suffered repetitions of dad jokes knows. As a result, it can be tempting to take some of the best bits out of your comedy. One solution is to mark what brings laughs as early as possible. Protect them until the story is finished. Then read the work to friends (who appreciate your humor) and only remove them if the parts that made you laugh turn out not to be funny.
I have three online courses coming up: The Promise of the Premise, a Storytelling Workshop, and Developing a Web Series. The first is traditional, with lessons posted, exercising and interaction with me and among students via text. The other two are Zoom meeting, with writing, sharing, critiquing, and lectures. There will also be handouts.

Friday, May 8, 2020

Make Your Protagonists Pay More to Achieve Their Goals - Bigger stories through better prices

I did a series on the value of identifying pivot scenes and using them to create focus for a story. One thought I shared was The gap between the price the hero expects to pay to achieve the goal and the actual price is the story.  This post will take a closer look at that premise, beginning with a few examples (many spoilers ahead):

Diehard provides a direct, simple example. John McClane wants to reconcile with his wife Holly and bring her and the children back to New York. A good, thoughtful conversation should succeed, right? John thinks he’ll find her adrift in LA.  Wrong. She’s thriving. But he makes his pitch anyway and botches it. It’s a small domestic drama at this point.  Then the super thieves show up. The simple answer? Call the cops and get some help. Or bring in the fire department. No way. The bad guys have those angles covered. And when help finally arrives it’s inept and makes John’s job more difficult. Before it's over, he has to risk his life, out thinking and ultimately wiping out a band of super thieves essentially single-handedly. It takes physical prowess, intellectual skills, and courage for him to succeed.

In Casablanca, Rick has lost his purpose and become a drunk. He also lost Ilsa, and, for a while, his goal is to settle things with her. Either by getting her back or by making her suffer. But his real goal, expressed through actions like helping a stranded couple, is to recover his purpose. To do that, he has to "stick out his neck" for others. Ultimately, this costs him his bar, his safe harbor, his position in the community, and the shell of protection he built around himself. He has to risk his life taking on the Nazis in Casablanca, and finally must sacrifice what’s most precious to him – letting go of the woman he loves.

In Apollo 13, the goal of landing on the moon is lost early in the story. But Lovell is only able to let go of that dream once the crew passes out of the moon's orbit. That's part of the price he pays for the real goal, getting home alive. The basic idea for returning home is to use the lunar excursion module as a lifeboat, travel back to earth, then returned to the command module for reentry.

But, there are obstacles along the way, including illness, carbon dioxide levels, completing thruster burns, calculating angles, and more. Some of these are anticipated but don't have answers. Some of them emerge over time and require imagination and courage. A key moment is when Lovell defies the flight surgeon and tears off the telemetry equipment. That's an act of rebellion very different from his nature and signals his willingness to recognize and pay unexpected prices to survive.

I think The Shawshank Redemption illustrates the value of price best. When you put a sympathetic character like Andy into prison, freedom is the assumed goal. Obvious dramatic choices are proving the protagonist's innocence, parole, and escape, and Shawshank doesn’t disappoint. The story’s poignant glimmer of hope is when the true murderer is identified, but this is crushed when the key witness is murdered. Ultimately the hero must escape to gain freedom. But, along the way, prices are paid. Any is brutalized. He's forced to collaborate with his ruthless and corrupt jailers.

He also has to escape from the prison he's built himself in his mind, at one point expressing his free spirit through daring to share music he loves. He has to transform his hobby, being a rock hound, into the serious business of creating a way to escape. The story vividly explores the idea of long-term prisoners becoming institutionalized, doomed never to truly be free. And the brilliant climax presents years of planning, sacrifice, and stealth in one rush of images as it shows the story, narrated by Red, of Andy’s escape. And it dots the Is by turning the tables on the warden. The hero is paying a price in plain sight of the audience, but this is only revealed near the ending.

So what kind of price should you exact from your protagonist? My advice is to do three things:
  1. Make the goal bigger. Reconcile with a spouse becomes escape a life-threatening situation. Recover love becomes recover purpose and identity. Reach the moon becomes getting home. Stay safe and mentally free in prison becomes escape and save someone else. Note: The original goal (like reconciliation) may or may not survive the escalation.
  2. Pick a price worth exploring. The easiest way to do this is by clearly articulating your story’s theme. The Shawshank Redemption explores the cost of freedom at many levels through several different characters. Consequences, including punishment and suicide, are vividly presented. Tools for freedom - including courage, ingenuity, knowledge, connection, and power - are put into play.
  3. Make it personal. Primarily, this means digging into the needs and flaws of the protagonist. Price is relative to vulnerability. Price requires personal change, often at the deepest levels of identity. Secondarily, making it personal means choosing a price with which you, as the author, connect emotionally. If it's a price that horrifies you or embarrasses you or makes you profoundly uncomfortable, it's likely to make for a strong story.
In the pivot series, I provided a list of questions to help identify these critical scenes. And, with that list, you can find scenes in stories you love and use them to gain a better understanding of prices characters pay and how the simple answers fall away to reveal the real cost.

But you also can dig into prices you yourself have paid in your life that were larger and more difficult to pay than you imagined. Having these in hand will give you ideas and a sense of proportion for whatever you are asking your protagonists to take on.

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

The Seven Fears That Hold Back Writers 7 - Fear of failure

When you write a story, no matter how good, some people will like it, some people won’t. Some people will find it dull, and some may find it fascinating. Some people will grossly misinterpret it, and some will really get it.

In other words (in a strained paraphrase), you can please all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot please all the people all the time.

Once your work is out of your hands, anything can happen. That means, it can fail on your terms — you may miss your target. And, if you’re a sensitive person who cares about your reputation, this possibility may make you hesitate to put the work into the world or even take up your pen. Let’s look at a few possibilities for failure.

A failure in craft. If you’re simply sloppy, this is all on you. It is better not to subject other people to a work that  you know is not grammatical or clear or worth someone’s time. It is best to revise your work until it is as good as you can make it (though that is not always possible).

It’s okay to abandon first drafts that are a mess if you conclude they hold no promise. That’s not giving into fear. It’s admirable to write something that stretches you in terms of style or subject area or structure, revise it until it’s as good as you want it to be, and set it aside because it did for you what you needed it to. (I shudder to write that, remembering the request by Kafka that his unpublished works be destroyed. But it’s a legitimate choice.)

So walk away if the craft is lousy, but improving it won’t matter. But consider revising if there’s a chance that it will be a good investment in time. Don’t worry about the work’s failing in someone else’s eyes. Don’t miss a chance to learn.

A failure of perspective. One writer I knew didn’t have any stories published from the point of view of another gender and withheld everything he wrote from the viewpoint of a person of a different race for decades. I don’t know if he ever tried writing from the point of view of a character other than cis male. I know writing a protagonist of another race was something he tried, tested with people of that race, and eventually published successfully. It took courage for him to try. It took respect and wisdom for him to have his worked checked. It took courage to let that work out into the world.

Similarly, you may discover he true insights a story problem implies are beyond you. It’s easier to recognize a rich story situation than it is to develop an angle that makes you the one who can write it. This could be because the time in your life isn’t right (for instance, too young to inhabit an older character) or the subtleties of a culture outside yourself aren’t really accessible or the central experience is still too close and personal. I wrote one novel three times over decades before I both understood what the most promising point of view was and had the experience to realize my ambition. If either of the first two attempts (each of which had solid stories and good story problems) had found their ways to publication, I would have cheated myself. However, there is a lesson here: returning to a story later may make one that has set off alarm bells earlier perfect for later, making fear of it unworthy.

Fear of being typecast. Eugene O’Neill’s father was famously cast as The Count of Monte Cristo, a role that brought him wealth, fame, and despair. But it's not something that's just a risk for actors. I know a lot of genre writers who are managed into sub-genres, like romantic suspense and cozy mysteries because agents and editors can sell those books. And it can happen to literary writers, too. I was reading Charles Johnson’s The Way of the Writer, in which he stated he withheld his first novels because he felt the expectations they’d create would move him away from the kind of writer he wanted to be.

This fear-inducing concern actually has a simple, mostly effective solution. Publish under a pseudonym. Sure, if you are a gigantic writer like Stephen King and you publish under the name Richard Bachman, you might get outed but that's not a bad problem to have.

Sophomore jinx. If you have had some success, fear of failure takes on a different quality. Whatever you write will be judged, based on the work that was well-received. “Not bad, Mr.  Heller, but it’s not Catch-22.” I always wondered if Harper Lee and Ralph Ellison were haunted by having written To Kill a Mockingbird and Invisible Man.

Dealing with success isn’t limited to fear of how the next book is received. Apparently, J.D. Salinger never stopped writing even as he fought to maintain his privacy. His solution to society’s reception was not to publish what he wrote. I would not recommend not publishing as the solution for this kind of fear. However, pretending you’re not going to publish (and avoiding signing a contract) might be a good choice.

Fear of success. This flips the titular fear on its head. For many people (myself included), success implies new responsibilities. For instance, because I can explain scientific and technical material into speeches and articles that reach broad audiences, it has been hard for me to say “no” to some opportunities. That takes time away from what I want to do best, storytelling. I suspect other people are gnawed at the the possibility they might win the writing lottery and bring dramatic change to there lives. When I worked in construction, a co-worker did win a big prize. And he was aware of the sad stories of winners. (Among other dismal outcomes, 70 percent of lottery winners go bankrupt.) He paid off his house, gave the rest away, and came back to work, hammer in hand, the same week his good fortune was announced. I’m guessing he had a plan, just in case he won.

Beyond quitting, using pseudonyms, hiding your work, and making a plan, you might consider doing short works. These stretch you as a writer and are of very low risk. If you write a few hundred short stories, it is the large body of work that matters. A few failures represent little investment in time for the writer, editors, and (if published) readers. Occasional clinkers are forgiven and forgotten.

So… for drafts, this fear should be irrelevant. No one needs to read them, so they don’t reflect on you. For public failures consider the words of Theodore Roosevelt:

“The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Thursday, April 23, 2020

The Seven Fears That Hold Back Writers 6 - Fear of pain

Most of the fears in this series can be managed, and I’ve tried to offer some strategies and assurances. Pain is qualitatively different. In general, pain is your body trying to tell you something, and it’s wise to listen.

Psychological pain is real. Trauma is real. And I’ve seen writers damaged by what amounts to self-vivisection in their writing. To be sure, the vast majority of writers I know find facing painful life situations through journaling and fiction to be therapeutic. But there is some pain that should be avoided or faced only with the support of others.

I don’t worry about my friends who kill off fictional characters based on people who wronged them. I confess that I did worry about Vonnegut when he wrote about his Dresden experiences in Slaughterhouse Five. I found it difficult even to read those chapters.

But what about fiction that is not apparently based on real events? I compare the pain in these to the pain in nightmares. It can seem real. It can elicit panic and anxiety. It also may be rooted in an experience that is not easy to reference. And, I suspect, even a fictional experience can cause damage, especially for sensitive and empathetic people (most writers I know).

Is it true that great art often comes out of trauma? Yes. Is it worth the price? It depends. Would we rather have Sylvia Plath around? Or her writing? Is it possible to have both the suffering artist and the art? Can readers (and artists) accept contentment by moving on, away from agonizing honesty?

I admit courage and heroism are socially valuable, but personally, I’m not a big fan of martyrdom. So I’ll offer a few suggestions:

    •    If you must test the water, be ready to stop. Declare a deadline to reevaluate explorations into traumatic territories.
    •    Don’t go alone. If you are edging toward trauma, friends and, perhaps, professional help should be aware and providing support.
    •    Know the symptoms of trauma and post-traumatic shock. Assess yourself regularly.   
    •    Don’t allow anyone to pressure you to continue. Even if the pressure is encouragement. Even if the pressure is a contract.
    •    Be careful about timing and time committed. It’s not great to take a on a project that promises pain when you are going through a life change. (And, since life happens in the middle of projects, it’s good to quit or postpone work if circumstances change,) How long you can be immersed in difficult work is also relevant. You can only get up every day and face pain for so long before the damage becomes too much.
    •    Find healthy relief. Make appointments to meet with friends, walk in the countryside, and watch a comedy.

“No pain, no gain,” is an especially bad slogan for artists. While it may be possible to suffer for your art and come out the other side in better shape, don’t take that for granted. Practice self-care.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

The Seven Fears That Hold Back Writers 5 - Fear for your reputation

What will people think? While we vary on how social we are and how sensitive we may be about the opinion of others, social connection is a fundamental need. It's right there in Maslow's hierarchy. So, when we communicate, it's natural that we are somewhat reserved and careful. We want to be liked. Generally, we don't want people to consider us to be rude. Or dangerous. Or foul. Or even weird.

I've unavoidably touched on concerns about reputation in previous posts in this series, but this time I'll dig a little deeper.

Who thinks up stuff like this? I'm guessing Stephen King has had to deal with hordes of people who think he's a creep. And I wonder how many people think Thomas Harris is a little bit like his creation, Hannibal Lecter. While many people love stories out of the mainstream, writers who write them may find their works become too closely identified with who they are. The monster doesn't fall far from the Frankenstein, they think.

The most stark example I can think of is Kurt Vonnegut, who wasn't reluctant to insert himself into his stories. Dresden traumatized him, and I found myself worrying about his depression and drinking problems, even though I never met him. I have no doubt that some of what Ishmael suffered in Moby Dick was based on experiences Herman Melville had at sea. But, famously, Stephen Crane, the author of The Red Badge of Courage never went to war. Female authors have written brilliant male characters, and vice versa. Gay writers have created memorable straight characters, and vice versa. The magic writers do through imagination comes from research, listening, and humanity, not just from personal experiences.

And yet, there is a danger of the work being read as biographical when it's not. This does not have to be faced (and probably shouldn't be) in draft mode. But it can become real when the story is made public, and the writer has to decide if the story is worth paying the price of being misunderstood. I heard an actor say once that playing a character who was a bad actor was lose/lose. Do good job, and you'll convince audiences your bad actor. Do a bad job, and you'll prove that you're a bad actor. About the only thing you can do to protect yourself from this is to have a good explanation and have reputable people ready to defend you. Jack Benny was a generous man who played a miser through a character named Jack Benny. Throughout his life, his many famous friends deliberately let the public know how charitable he really was.

Exposure. Though not everything in a fictional story is factual, some may be. It may be personal. It may be damning. It may inappropriately share a secret. It may reveal an attitude that is considered antisocial or could shatter a relationship. Yet, part of the bargain for writing stories worth reading is authenticity and even confession. The workaround?  Disguising the truth — especially when it might put others at risk — is a good choice. I recommend it. You may go further by moving away from mimetic fiction into science fiction or fantasy. (That's what some writers did during the McCarthy Era, and, famously, how Rod Serling dodged the interference of sponsors.)

Of course, you may want to reveal yourself as less-than-perfect. We all have dark sides, and acknowledging this can be both healthy and engaging. Showing flaws makes authors more approachable just as surely as it makes characters more interesting. Everyone has to do this respecting their own health and security. Especially in an age of trolls, being vulnerable carries the risk of opening old wounds.

One writer friend said something that rang true and articulated an idea that helps me to be more open in my writing. She said she had never written anything that didn't have important and risky biographical material within it. But, in her experience, people were never able to pick out the things that really happened to her. Furthermore, things that never happened (and, thus, were easily denied) were the things people focused on and tried to attach to her. So maybe go ahead and tell the truth. It’s likely people will never notice.

Taking the other side. I once wrote a first-person story where the narrator was unreliable and despicable. In the end, that character was defeated. Five editors told me that if I changed the story to have a “happy ending,” they buy it. Of course, it did have a happy ending. The horrible narrator failed. Luckily, the sixth editor understood what I was doing and bought the story. He liked how well he had been misled until the very end. Especially since it happened in a story that overturned a common science-fiction trope.

The point is, if your story includes someone advocating a horrendous point of view, someone may suspect it's something you believe. It could even be used against you. When Upton Sinclair ran for Governor of California, some papers attributed quotes from his novels’ villains to him.

When All the Family was on television, the writers worked very hard to present Archie Bunker, the bigoted main character, in a rounded way, but to show him gain his comeuppance or his being gently mocked. This was effective for much, perhaps most, of the audience, but not everyone. Some saw him as a hero.

Just as I winked at readers at the end of my story with the unreliable narrator, you might want to cue people in so they know your actual view. (You may not want to do this. It's a tricky aesthetic choice.) Having a character who articulates the other side can also offset toxic opinions. I think the strongest way to present concerns about "other side" statements is by showing reasonable consequences.

Illusions of self. If you let it, your writing, especially what you put down the first draft, will tell you things about yourself. I think listening to these is invaluable, even if what is revealed to you doesn't end up in the final draft. It takes a level of distance and humility for this to work.

For me, distance involves letting the manuscript sit for a while and reading it as if someone else had written. It's easier to say what slipped out from your unconscious from a point of greater objectivity. Humility comes with developing the capability to avoid marking up, correcting, or expunging bits that make us feel uncomfortable.

It's natural to carefully protect whatever concept of identity we have. It can even be painful to allow that to be challenged. But recognizing illusions of self is a powerful way to grow and adapt. To mature. There are lots of reasons to protect your privacy and your social standing. But if you protect yourself from your true self, you'll lose something of great value.

The fear of reputation can be reduced by withholding some stories from the public, disguising others, having defenses and excuses at the ready, and calling upon others to defend you. But this fear can also be reduced by accepting your true self more fully. Humility. Forgiveness. Gratitude. These are virtues and habits worth developing, and all of them contribute to moments of courage.

Thursday, April 9, 2020

The Seven Fears That Hold Back Writers 4 — Fear of conflict

Write a recipe, and it’s unlikely that you’ll be trolled or become a pariah. On the other hand, if you write something that is clear, non-trivial, and related to values, issues, or pride, it will create conflict. If you dare to use anything but vanilla characters or you explore controversial subjects, multiply to pushback you’ll get. Sometimes, that can be a good career move, getting attention and selling tickets or books. But most writers aren’t looking for a fight.

I understand that. I know primary school teachers who write erotic novels, but they do so under a pseudonym. One friend of mine would not let her children read her books until they reached a certain age. One of my favorites, Cordwainer Smith, protected his real identity so his writing of science fiction would not derail his standing in the academic community or undercut his public service.

What about reader acceptance? Some writers worry about creating “unlikable” characters. Or tasteless humor. Or villains that go too far. I even know writers who see subtle writing or the use of “big” words as being confrontational or passive aggressive. (And trolls are always lying in wait to confirm these fears.)

What if you create bad examples or inspire bad behavior? Supposedly Saddam Hussein’s favorite movie was The Godfather. Rod Serling’s story, The Doomsday Flight, only received one airing (instead of the usual two) because of a concern about copycats.

I think all writers who are successful invite criticism. What should you do about conflict?

There is no reason for self-censorship on a first draft (other than to protect your psyche). Stephen King calls this the draft with the door closed. You never have to show it to anyone. Fear that holds back first drafts is almost always unfounded. Personally, I recommend that writers prove this to themselves by writing pieces that they would never want others to read. Whether it be sex or violence or politics or some other taboo, compose it, let it sink in that you have not been shunned or struck by lightning, and then erase the file (if you worry about post mortem discovery). In other words, inoculate yourself against the fear.

What about conflicts that might come from later drafts? This is a very personal decision. I recently killed a story because it felt exploitative to me. Once I turned out a large sum of money to work on a nonfiction book that included advocating violence. I have a well-developed sense of responsibility for writing (as I did when doing communications and science).

My general rule of thumb is to avoid sending toxic work out into the world. This does not protect me from unintended consequences. Sometimes you can get surprised. But it’s good to have an ethic for your work, in my opinion. Coming up with some rules ahead of time will make it harder to be lured into crossing the line. But, while I don’t claim a license to harm others, I try not to tighten my ethics to avoid risk.

What about modeling bad behaviors or inspiring evil? I think context is everything. What is the story world? Is there a character that critiques the bad behavior? Do consequences make a point? To me, The Godfather does not seem to glorify organized crime. I don’t blame Coppola for anything Hussein did. But I could be too generous on this point. You get to decide.

On people seeing themselves in stories, my guess (which many writers have confirmed) is most people don’t. Don’t use their names. Do a little disguising. You’ll probably be safe. Still fear that midnight phone call? Disguise a little more until you don’t.

If you worry people will think a character speaks for you or something in the story actually happened to you, context and disguise will help. In a way, I see people inferring reality from my fiction as a compliment. Verisimilitude rules! But there is no sure-fire way to stop people from making assumptions. Have a defense ready if it’s a big concern for you.

There are times when what is in a story, drawn from real life, can make you feel vulnerable or exposed. For these, I let the story sit a while. To date, I’ve only had one person confront me, very concerned, about something in one of my stories. It wasn’t pure fiction, but I told him it was. The uncomfortable moment passed. And I don’t feel guilty because I get to choose what I share about myself.

Controversial issues can lead to a fight. Politics can be especially fraught. Most writers I know avoid getting explicit, but allow political points to be made within stories that have their own integrity and reflect the human experience. I like that, but I’ll concede that there is room for work that is directly provocative. You may have a story in your head that could unleash a firestorm. Do you publish it? Do so thoughtfully. This is where fear of conflict may need to be matched by courage. In my study of ethics I found that courage is not required of the individual, but it is indispensable for a heathy society.

Making characters likable or protecting them from bad things is worth a closer look. Flawed characters seem to worry and upset writers more than readers. I think that’s because many writers identify deeply with protagonists and don’t want to think ill of them. But a character without a flaw is almost always dull.

Writers also have a hard time causing their characters suffering and pain. Again, readers tend to be okay with that. There have been TV shows that have killed off characters and lost viewers. Hurting beloved characters is not risk free. If the cruelty is gratuitous cruelty, the chances of driving people away rises. (Though, it can get a certain kind of audience—one I don’t seek.) On the other hand, the willingness to hurt or kill characters, balanced with honesty, can lead to real art. When such a character has a happy ending, it’s all the sweeter for the suffering and sacrifices.