I love Doctor Who – but that has nothing to do with this post!
Unk’s been posting some gold in the form of his Transformation Character arc stuff and I couldn’t agree with him more without resorting to some very naughty and inappropriate adjectivez, so I’ll just point everyone over to his blog and give him a big QFT.
In the latest installment, part 10, he gets to what I think is the heart of all storytelling: Character = Action. Action = Plot. Therefore Character is plot — Plot is character.
I don’t know that it can be put more succinctly than that and because Unk does a lot of in-depth examination I won’t really recap it, but you should definitely give it a read. What I will do is share with you when I first started to figure out the importance of characters in storytelling- in 5th grade.
In 5th grade Nicolle had a horrible haircut, a crush on a kid named Hans (don’t tell anyone!) and a super awesome teacher named Mrs. Raynor who often had Harvey the invisible Rabbit stop by the classroom. Yes, the same Harvey you’re thinking of. Mrs. Raynor was a pretty sharp one and in addition to the hijinks of Harvey in the class, we would have a weekly story writing assignment which would be read by classmates and then the best few of the stories picked to go on display in the hallway and ‘win’ a small prize with first second, third place etc. I don’t even remember the prize or anything more specific except this one kid named Eric would always write about this crazy character Rufus and would win a lot, because all the kids thought Rufus was goddamned hilarious. I wanted to win. I wanted my story on the board in the hall and I would really try and come up with something stellar. But Rufus was a class favorite and all I could do was pay attention to the class when the finalists were read and start noting what was getting the biggest reactions. 5th Grade humor isn’t all that refined, but I remember being struck that sometimes the stories that got the best reaction would have some of the writer’s friends in them, so I decided I was going to put every student in our class in my story. Playing to the audience, sure, but how else to make your characters immediately identifiable?
My real stroke of genius was not only to just have the entire class in my story but to put in all their personality quirks, the positive things that they were associated with- so Eric was hanging out with his insane friend Rufus, adding another layer of depth to the characters and winning over each person in turn. It went over really well because each kid not only got to be characters who did things in the story but everyone in the class recognized everyone else to great amusement. I had completely won my audience before anything ever happened in the story because the characters were completely bankable. But the best part was- and the thing that maybe would have ended with me being suspended these days- was that I turned our 5th Grade classroom into a death trap. The story ended up being about how the whole class got locked in our own classroom with a bomb. People panicked, jumped out of windows, turned on each other, I even threw in some comic amnesia and I knew it was going to work. It was probably a psychologist’s wet dream, because yes, I was willing to kill the whole class to win that goddamned writing contest! Teachers and Principals too- a perfect way to win your audience- take out the resented authority figures! Hilarious at the time, and a whole lot more innocent than what I imagine 5th Grade is like these days, but I won unanimously that week.
I can’t remember any of my other writing from 5th Grade. I might have gotten on the board a few more times, but nothing as spectacular as that story and the class reaction to it. And yeah, I think it was a pretty keen moment of insight on my part.