Ice Skating and Character Arcs

Sometimes in the sturm und drang of the internet, something flutters to the surface of the cesspit, untarnished and beautiful. Something like Jonathan Van Ness’ progress videos as he learns to ice skate.

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Jonathan is a charming fifth of the cast on Netflix’s “Queer Eye” and host of the podcast “Getting Curious.” While he is an expert in many things, he is bravely choosing to share his process of learning something completely new. What he is sharing isn’t flawless, but it is real. It is so refreshing to see behind the curtain of social media perfection to see a capable person striving to learn something new.

In my sheer joy I texted my BFF Amanda:

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I think we don’t see adults learning something new more often because as a society we somehow think of it as shameful. Surely adults should know everything already? Children are the only ones we force to learn. I think if respected people shared what they are learning more openly it would make children less resentful and adults less ashamed.

Have you ever met an adult who refused to learn how to use their cell phone? It isn’t a generation gap to blame, it is a willingness to learn that is missing. Because an important element of learning is failing, looking silly, and being publicly embarrassed. And as we get older we seem less willing to make ourselves as vulnerable as we need to be to learn something new.

I’ve just finished reading the book “Grit” by Angela Duckworth where she compares the difference between ‘growth mindset’ and ‘fixed mindset’. Those with a fixed mindset have a tendency to think of the world in black and white terms. An individual is either intelligent or they are stupid. They are talented or hopeless. Those with a growth mindset have the perspective that effort can change intelligence. That practice can develop talent. Unsurprisingly, those who believe that they can change their circumstances often are the same ones who put in the tremendous effort necessary to learn, grow and ultimately …change their circumstances.

Now, of course, I am going to bring this all back around to writing. Because I am, after all, me.

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A growth mindset ties in perfectly to discussing character arcs. A story works best when a character learns a lesson and leaves the story different than they began it. (Ideally, the reader/viewer leaves changed too, but that part is out of the artist’s control.)

For example in my work in progress, my two protagonists begin the story with fixed mindsets. Though their worldviews are very different from each other they are both unwilling to question, let alone shift, their personal philosophy. The plot works on my characters, as their point of view is challenged again and again, until finally, they break. The breaking point for me is about the midpoint of the story. Then comes the second half as they practice and test their new point of view.

On the other hand, my villain is confronted by as many, if not more, challenges to his fixed mindset. Unlike my heroes, he refuses to change his mind. Instead, he doubles down on his worldview to disastrous consequences.

I love reading because I get to see characters go through the hard work of growing and changing. It helps to inspire me to follow in the footsteps of protagonists and not my villains.

Optional writing homework: Think about what core beliefs your character has at the start of your story, then think about how they will change at the end. Consider what kind of events or strife will challenge them enough to change this deeply held belief. Do exercise with your protagonist, a side character, and your villain.

Gender, Pronouns, and Storytelling

One of the many perks of having a child is that I have the opportunity to read a lot of children’s books. I have a great collection. Some are old classics lovingly saved by my parents, some are new gifts from friends and family. I love being able to look again at books I remember being read as a child, as well as reading the offerings of a new generation of picture book authors.

I find myself paying close attention to how gender is assigned to characters in these stories. In children’s books it seems that gender doesn’t play a very important role. There is no romance, there often isn’t even a traditional hero’s journey plot. And yet… It seems to be that so often the ‘default’ gender of the protagonist is male. This is particularly interesting to notice in characters that are animals or inanimate objects.

For example, take the “The Little Engine That Could“. I was shocked when I read it for the first time in (at least) twenty five years. The train that breaks down? Female. The three trains that refuse (or are unable) to take the toys and food over the mountain are ALL male. Then along comes our heroine, the Little Engine that Could. When I read this as an adult I was applying all kinds of analysis to the choice of gender in this story. In one sense it is about women helping women. In another it could be about men thinking of women’s work is beneath them. (The toys and food were for children after all). Is it condemning or condoning that women feel obligated to do work that men either refuse or are unable to do?

I know I’m probably taking things to far. Reading too much into a simple children’s story. But I also know that a culture’s views about gender is taught to each generation through the stories we tell. That is reason enough for me to be careful.

Why are both The Little Blue Truck (beep beep) and the antagonist dump truck male? Why is The Very Quiet Cricket a boy? Why is The Very Busy Spider a girl? There is no reason at all story-wise that these characters even need to be assigned a gender at all.

I worry about the subconscious lessons I could be teaching my daughter: The only stories worth reading are about boys. The girl characters are nice and hard working and the boy characters are bold and curious. Her brain is absorbing so much so quickly, I wonder (and worry) what she might be picking up by accident.

My imperfect solution? I switch the pronouns of the characters every few readings. That way I know she cannot attribute the actions the characters take with a particular gender. The same character who is nice and hardworking will be a boy one day and a girl in tomorrow’s reading. I do this with heroes and villains alike, being sure that it isn’t always an boy vs. girl situation either.

I want my daughter to see herself in characters regardless of their gender. She should know that women and men can be brave and cruel and kind and thoughtless. Instead of establishing limits of how a female “should” behave, I want stories to open up worlds and adventures for my daughter. Because, that is what storytelling does best, it opens up possibilities.

You Can’t Bullshit an Ending

Human’s are natural storytellers, and as such, we can sniff out a bullshit ending a mile away.

At a lecture this weekend, Benjamin Gorman (Not A Pipe Publishing) spoke about the covenant between authors and their readers. While he was speaking about the world-building part of the equation, the set up, I want to talk about the pay off. The ending is where readers find out if you make good on the promises of an interesting, moving, surprising story. If the pay off doesn’t pay out, then you have betrayed the covenant. You’ve lost the reader’s trust.

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