This transcript is adapted from our final script for the episode so while it may not be 100% accurate, it should be very close. If you want to quote from the podcast, please verify the actual text by listening.
Glynn Washington got into radio almost by accident, when, on a whim, at midnight of the last day, he entered the “Public Radio Talent Quest” the Center for Public Broadcasting ran back in 2007.
He loved listening to public radio, and he did all kinds of creative projects on the side, short films and other stuff, with his friend Mark Ristich…
But we had day jobs actually we didn’t… I shouldn’t call them day jobs. We had careers,
And not just any career,
I ran for mayor of Oakland. I have a policy background. I have a law degree.
So Glynn Washington, Mayoral candidate, policy wonk, decides to host a radio show. How does that make any sense?
Policy work work is storytelling, if you tell someone a story that immerses them in the perspective of someone living their own life, they leave that experience wanting to get up and do something. If you’re trying to get someone to change their mind about any sort of public policy issue it may be, whoever tells best story wins.
…That’s the power of character.
I’m Jessica Abel, and we’re going Out on the Wire.
The show about making stories, step by step.
If this is the first time you’ve listened to the show, you should know that we take that “step by step” part seriously. There are no spoilers in this episode, but it does build on the previous shows, so you’ll probably want to go back and start from episode 1: Eureka. We’ll still be here when you get back!
Out on the Wire is a show about how to tell stories, all kinds of stories, in any narrative medium. We go behind the scenes with the best radio and podcast producers out there, finding out what they have to tell us about story.
And together, we are making new stories, following the principles of storytelling I discovered while researching my documentary comic, Out on the Wire: the Storytelling Secrets of the New Masters of Radio.
Last time, we talked about refining your ideas. By using the Focus Sentence and the XY Story Formula you can give those ideas a serious test drive, and start to get a handle on the basic structure of your story.
Whether fiction or nonfiction, the vast majority of stories we tell center around a person’s journey through a set of events, and hinge on the changes that the story causes in that person’s life. That person, in the context of the story, is your character.
The character’s journey is the basis of the narrative arc of the story.
And even for stories that are less character-driven (like, for example, my new book Out on the Wire), finding a way to access some aspect of the real truth of people who are helping to tell the story (even if that person is you) is a way to allow readers, viewers, and listeners to connect to the work, to feel its relevance.
Like Glynn says, you want to immerse your audience in the perspective of someone else, to live their life.
That’s what we’re talking about this time.
I’m going to lay out for you what function characters play, because a character is a puzzle piece of the story, just like a conflict would be.
I’m also going to get into what we’re talking about when we talk about “authenticity,” and why it’s so important. Here’s a hint. It’s got something to do with the name of this show.
And finally, we’re going to look at how to find or invent characters who will be able to carry the story.
And at the end of the show, we’ve got a new challenge for you, that will keep you on the road to building a great story.
So come on, let’s get out on that wire.
This is episode 3: walk in my shoes.
chapter 1: the content of our characters.
This is may sound a bit odd to you at first, but stick with me here:
A character is a functional element of a story. A character is not a person.
It’s easy to get confused about this. It’s very very easy to fall into thinking about characters as actual people, especially when you’re interviewing actual people for a nonfiction story.
And please don’t get me wrong: I am absolutely an advocate of treating people like people.
But when you’re looking at an entire, complicated human being, it’s so easy to get lost in the details of their actual lives and personalities, and to lose sight of what is important relative to your story.
This is equally true, by the way, for fictional characters you’ve spent a lot of time thinking about and writing backstory for.
When you’re looking at how those actual or fictional people intersect with your story, it’s more useful to think of them as characters. For example, this is Glynn Washington.
if you see anything you want, just holla…
We did our interview in a dim sum restaurant in Oakland.
Again, I was not thinking I would ever, ever play this tape in public at the time. Please, please think ahead when recording interviews!
To reveal the fact that Glynn bought me lunch three times, once in a Sichuan joint, once in a dim sum place, once in the office of Snap Judgment, which was afghan takeout, and delicious, by the way, is an admission of my journalistic faults—it’s ethically questionable to accept gifts from your subjects.
That tape also paints a picture of Glynn’s generous, open nature, the way he likes to play host of the party as well as radio host. And that’s true, and it’s wonderful, and it’s totally not relevant to the story I told in Out on the Wire, the book, or the role he’s playing in this episode, which is “voice of representation.”
I want to make you feel from that person’s perspective the story that we’re telling…
In this episode, Glynn’s job is to tell us how creating stories that allow us to walk in the shoes of someone else is both creatively and, potentially, politically powerful.
As creator of this narrative (which, again, is not particularly character-driven!), it’s my job to look at the interview material and background information I have with Glynn and figure out how to use it, what parts of it to use, to tell my story.
The story you want to tell is about events or ideas that change something. Change the world, change the person experiencing them.
Change is your story. So the things about that person that caused change, or felt change, those are the parts of the person that make up the character.
Jessica Abel is a person. She gets up every morning, gets her kids to school, goes to work, draws some stuff, comes home, and goes to bed. I don’t bring her in very often. She doesn’t add much.
What do you want to drink? buh buh buh.
Jessica Abel, the character in Out on the Wire? Now, she’s something. She’s an explainer, bold and clear-thinking, who investigates how storytelling works by interviewing the best storytellers on the radio, guiding you through how to tell stories step-by-step with wit and precision.
She’s got great hair, and her shirt is always white and pressed.
Her job is to be curious, to lead you through the elements of storytelling by revealing her own discovery and telling the story of how that discovery changed her.
Jessica on WBEZ:
For an artist and storyteller to have that kind of effect on people is really powerful…
That’s the “Jessica Abel, author of Out on the Wire,” character from a recent interview on WBEZ.
In real life, I really am super-curious. I’m reasonably bold. And after a lot of work at it, I can arrive at thinking clearly. I have also, genuinely, been changed by the experience of learning about storytelling from these awesome radio producers. That is all true.
It’s also true that I eat yogurt and granola for breakfast virtually every morning.
All of those parts of me are true, but only some of them are worth using in a story.
Creating a character is not about misrepresenting people. On the contrary, it’s about representing them, in relation to the story at hand, as accurately, and as deeply as possible. And then just leaving a lot of other stuff out.
I found them in the bottom of a basket.
You select from your material, your interviews, your background information, and you choose what role the character will play in your narrative. A strong character also helps you figure out the structure of your story. Their decisions drive and shape the story itself.
And that story today is: what are characters, how do they work, and how can you build one that connects.
chapter 2: only connect.
But if characters are just functional story elements, if they’re essentially cogs in the story machine, how do we craft characters the audience can relate to and care about as if they were real people?
Interestingly, going through the work of turning raw material into a story, of structuring and ordering, even the mere act of making choices, of editing down dozens of hours of tape into a beautiful 20-minute nugget, can allow us to connect deeply, instantly to a character, and through that character, to a person.
In his Radio Diaries, Joe Richman hands recorders to the diarists, and guides them through anywhere from a month to a year of recording their lives. I talked to him in his then-studio, in a Lower East Side tenement building complete with a bathtub in the kitchen. He had it covered with plywood, serving as a counter.
I think that um, with the Diaries, um… if I was doing a story, about, um, I dunno, about AIDS, I might try to find someone who goes against type, you know the kind of wealthy white woman in South Africa, but with the diaries it’s almost like, find the cliché find the stereotype, and then bust it by making it a three-dimensional, real person.
Then he takes that mountain of tape (like, seriously, over a hundred hours sometimes) and edits it into an intimate portrait of someone living her life. He finds a portrait of a character within all that person-hood.
I think that’s the way you can do it that makes these statistics, or makes these clichés, or these kind of cardboard…Symbols that we have in our mind of certain people, and makes them feel like family members. That’s the goal of the diaries.
Joe did a diary in the mid-aughts with a wonderful, vibrant young South African woman named Thembi, who had AIDS. By carefully editing her material to create a clear and powerful character with her, suddenly, we were inside her life, inside her heart.
(EXAMPLE TAPE FROM RADIO DIARIES) So it’s a bright beautiful day, people are all out, they’re starting to put out their laundry on the line…
In the last episode, I told the story of how David Kestenbaum grappled with finding an interesting Y to a reporter’s X at a panel discussion. The key to telling a story about a big, terrible, sad, overwhelming issue like alcoholism on a reservation, or AIDS in Africa is a character. A surprising character. One with a thoughtful, or ironic, or funny angle on the situation she finds herself in. One we can see ourselves in, instead of look at as if through the thick safety glass of a zoo cage.
And speaking of zoo cages, here’s another tough one for you: the dwindling numbers of lions in the world.
Ari Daniel Shapiro:
You know, why should a listener care to listen? To me what’s important is when you can make a connection.
Ari Daniel Shapiro is a science reporter. His stories are never so personal, so intimate as a Radio Diary. But still, when I talked to him over Skype, he told me his job is to figure out how to help the listener connect somehow, emotionally, to the scientific ideas he’s exploring. That’s tough.
LIke, I interviewed a guy today about lions, asked what it’s like to be close to a lion. and then, you know you’re there, he’s straddling the cat, I guess it almost ate him – you know, it’s crazy story, lions are an easy sell, they’re easier than the…plankton…
This researcher told Ari that lions used to be one of the most common mammals in the world. They were everywhere. In Alaska. In Siberia. Now, there are no more than about 20,000 globally.
Their future is dim. he’s hopeful but it’s dim.
And I asked him how he felt and he said, I think he said something like, ‘choked up about this’.
This is a story about science. So why do we need to connect on an emotional level? Aren’t emotions the opposite of science?
But if Ari doesn’t at least open a door into what the scientist feels, he knows he’s going to lose us. We’re just weak like that.
Moreover, this story about lions is also about this scientist’s dedication to saving lions. This is his life’s work. That’s a legitimate subject for a story on its own, and then understanding the scientist as a character is a way for us to understand, through his passion for his work, something about why saving lions matters.
(TAPE FROM LION STORY)
Lions certainly deserve better, given their role in our iconography, and in our imaginations, and in making the world a…it actually affects me quite a bit, so let me get my act together here and I’ll finish that…
Ari is not the only one who has to grapple with telling abstract stories about ideas and research. This is something Radiolab does all the time, and they work incredibly hard to bring us inside the perspective of the characters in their stories.
I sat in on a training session for Radiolab producers, that host Jad Abumrad ran. Nine or ten people crammed into the production studio that usually holds 2, sitting on the floor, perched on the desk, slouching against the door. And Jad stood in front of the dual computer screens at the work station.
One of the most effective tools you have a as a storyteller is to perform that act of empathy which is to try and speak from deep inside your character’s head. So when you’re working with the characters, you don’t want to stand across the street from them and hold your nose, you want to be right up close to them, and you want to be somehow inside their head, forcing their perspective on other people.
He paused to pull up a video on YouTube.
Well, I saw a really interesting example of this, um, whether or not you agree with the politics of it, from Ron Paul.
(RON PAUL TAPE)
Imagine for a moment, that somewhere in the middle of Texas, there was a large military base, say Chinese, or Russian…
I think this is kind of brilliant in a way… It forces you into the head of somebody who normally would be very very distant. It forces you to imagine yourself as a texan, looking at a Chinese soldier across the street.
Putting us into those high-heeled Texan boots for a stitch, that’s the key to bringing these stories to life. Getting at the interiority of the character. That’s how the audience connects,
And you can’t fake it, People know. Here’s Jay Allison:
You can have boundaries on it, but you can’t bullshit. Because people will smell it.
And so any company, or individual, anyone that wants to communicate with an audience that’s that savvy, really has to be real.
…It’s become kind of a catchphrase, “we need to tell the story of our work”. You know. Which, and it’s a code word for branding. They use the phrase “tell the story of” as a euphemism.
But it’s more profound than that. People really do need to do is to figure out how to tell their story. Not the PR story, the happytalk story, but the true one. Because that’s all people will listen to anymore.
Ben, I’m going to do this thing.
I’m walking down this road.
I’m going to do this thing. You can’t stop me.
This is officially a trigger warning. I bet you didn’t think you’d hear one of those on this show.
If you have issues with business people talking business stuff, if the word “brand” makes you cringe, you might want to skip ahead a few minutes. But I think you might actually find this interesting, whatever perspective you come from.
If you are that cringe-er, I was you eight months ago. For reasons that should become clear, I’ve been trying very hard to get beyond the jargon and understand what’s important about that catchphrase “you have to tell your story,” and what it means that it’s a code word for “branding.” Because that part is definitely true.
Jenna Weiss-Berman, who we heard from back in episode one, had experience with having to make that “happytalk” kind of story.
Like, we would get hired by a corporation to tell their corporation’s stories.
We would get these ideas how we wanted to tell their organization’s stories, but of course everything had to be super positive, which wasn’t genuine a lot of the time.
Jessica: Which is fine, then your job is to put some sound bites together.
Jenna: But they will often be like: We want you to tell the story about our organization. It’s like, no you don’t.
Basically, Jenna had the problem that you’d expect her to have in this situation. The corporation wants to “tell their story,” but do so in a way that makes them come out smelling like a rose. Nothing rough, nothing complicated. But that is not actually their story. That is not anyone’s story.
Conceptually, I think you all follow me here. If you don’t tell the real story, if you don’t reveal something of the actual messy humanity of a person—or an organization—then no one will buy it.
Literally. I mean, let’s get real. What’s the point of putting together the “real story” of an organization or a company. It’s to connect you emotionally to it/them. And the purpose of that is to sell you stuff.
When you get down to it, that’s why a lot of us cringe when we talk about “branding” and especially when we hear “personal brand.” Because, translating that into human language, it means turning a person into a product that can inspire brand loyalty through emotional connection, and thus lead to transactions. Preferably transactions of actual money, whether that’s a job, or a speaking gig, or, you know, the sale of a comic book, for example.
So I totally totally get why my producer Ben squirms each time this subject comes up.
Basically, we all curate some version of ourselves in public spaces. You want to connect with your audience, whatever that audience is, based on things that are true about you. But maybe not ALL the things.
[Jess does mater voice]
I’m gonna talk like Mater from now on: Use that cut! That’s a rilly good’un!
Whether you’re a private person just looking for a job, or an artist, or a politician or a public figure, you still have to decide how to present yourself in some way or another. You are telling the story of you, and you want that story to be an authentic story, an honest story.
But you’re also very likely to want it to be an attractive story, appealing to whoever you’re trying to connect with. That much we can probably all agree on.
As someone who has told stories professionally for 25 years, I of course understand the value of stories. Or, let me say, I understand some of the values of stories. But what I didn’t get was why I wanted or had or should have a “brand.”
I still can’t even say “personal brand” without shuddering.
I feel like I’m sticking chocolate in everyone’s peanut butter here.
Those of you in a world where people talk about personal brand every day, you’re probably like: What? What is the problem?
And if you’re on the other side, the side I come from, of independent comics and public radio and art school and liberal arts, even saying the B-word without air quotes is a breach of confidence.
Ironically, “personal brand” has an image problem. And yes, those were air quotes.
What the people who unironically use the word “personal brand” mean by that, is pretty much precisely what I said a few seconds ago, that we all make choices about what we project out to the world. We choose to define ourselves in certain ways, on social media, in interviews, on blogs, and even in real life when among acquaintances and strangers.
Sound familiar? If it weren’t so damn confusing, I would rebrand “personal brand” as character.
Ideally, we make these choices intentionally, acting like a radio producer editing raw material into a story, creating an understanding of ourselves in others that’s true, but also focused on what we do and what we want to be known for.
Sometimes we make these choices unintentionally. Which usually doesn’t turn out all that great.
So let’s just say the public character of you is just that, a character. And you need to figure out what pieces of you fit into the story you want to tell of you, and which pieces don’t.
I don’t insist that you need a focus sentence of you, but it couldn’t hurt.
José owns a food truck that serves local, organic and seasonal food because he cares about the environment and great fresh flavor, but he lives in Nova Scotia, so the available local foods for six months of the year are…limited…
And while you’re at it, what’s the XY Story Formula of you?
I’m doing a story about me, a psychic life coach. And what’s interesting about me is that I use your past lives to help you improve your present life.
Looking at the “character of you” as a functional piece of the story you want to tell about yourself is perhaps less fraught than the B-word. It is, whether we think about it or not, something we all do every day.
…and we all make missteps. Even Ira Glass.
IG I had the unfortunate experience in the last year of I think becoming too much a character in a story in a way that I didn’t understand. And that is when I did that story about my dog. And I was like I’m not sure that’s a story, and everybody was like oh, no, it’s a story. You have an unusual relationship with your dog.
Nancy Updike interviewed me for the show. And so was basically her story about me, I have this dog who was raised in very bad circumstances, he’s a rescue and is very anxious and nearly died a bunch of times from his health issues.
Nancy: And how does that coexist in your brain with cooking for your dog every day?
Ira: Well, I don’t have a problem with thinking that something I do is laughable.
I think people had a picture of me in their head, that was based on projection. On what they project onto me. And mostly the projection is things about themselves. Like, you seem okay. I guess you are pretty much like me in the following ways.
And then when I revealed that like my wife and I will spend $100 a week on dog care, people are like oh, no.
JA ha ha
IG we wouldn’t do that. Ha ha. We have children to raise.
JA You broke the whole image.
IG People really did have a moment of feeling like, oh you are really different from me. In a way that they were not happy with. And that from a business point of view, was not like the very best choice. Because I’m host a radio show. On the other hand I assume like, well, they didn’t have anything to listen to the next week, so hopefully they came back.
chapter 3: Finding the person
OK, so we talked about what role a character plays in a story. That a character has a function, that you have to select what you reveal about that character carefully.
Then I showed you some examples of how you can use true emotional moments to help the audience understand the stakes, why they should care.
All good stuff. But how do you go about implementing it? And what makes a one character better than any other?
On the surface, we’ve been talking about nonfiction up until now. But if you’re inventing a character, your job is to come up with a puzzle piece that will intricately and interestingly function in your story.
Ben and I were brainstorming in my studio about characters. Which ones work, which don’t. And I apologize in advance, comic book nerds.
Tape from meeting.
Look at the Fantastic Four!
Flame Guy! What? Who gives a #$%!
Ben: OK, so, articulate the difference, between…
Jessica: The difference between Thing and flame dude.
Well, the Thing. First of all, he has a great accent. He’s not pretty, so he’s interesting to look at. Even in his human form, he’s not particularly pretty. He feels like an underdog even before he turns into the thing. Super smart guy, scientist, unexpctedly, because he talks like a back-alley Queens dude. Accidentally gets turned…you know, every one else gets these awesome powers, and he gets turned into a big pile of rocks. And then he feels ugly for the rest of his life. and we can all identify with feeling ugly.
He’s young, pretty, blonde hair, cute sister. He doesn’t have any responsibilities. He’s not in charge of anything.
You have the tortured dude. who we love. And then you got the young, snotty blonde dude. Who cares about that dude? Just, cut him!
Looks like it’s clobberin’ time!
I know, I checked my facts, and The Thing, Ben Grimm, is an engineer and pilot, and he’s from Yancey Street, downtown Manhattan, not Queens. He was even leader of the Yancey Street gang in his youth.
But the point stands. The Thing. He’s charming, he’s flawed. he’s REAL. People love the Thing.
Flame guy, pff, who is that guy? There’s nothing I can relate to about him.
That’s the difference.
I always started my stories with characters. One of my big problems as a beginning writer is that I loved to come up with characters, to invent people with interesting lives…
There it is. The crux of the problem. I thought of them as people with lives.
Fictional characters are not people with lives. They have backstory, often, yes. But they are cogs. They are engines. They are functional. And even their backstory should be only as deep as it needs to be to allow you to understand how they will behave in a given situation. Functionally.
In creating fictional characters, you need to come up with personality traits and motivations that dovetail specifically with the spark of your story. What screenwriters call the “inciting incident”. The thing that happens that sets them in motion.
You’ve got to design faults into a character. If you don’t, they will never make the wrong choices, and your story will be very very short, and very boring.
And when you design faults into a character, you’ve got to design conflicts and events that trigger those faults, that intersect with them.
Look at the poor Thing.
The Thing from The Fantastic Four:
What have you done? What have you done? Look at me!!
The underlying dynamic of his relationship with his friend and boss, Mr. Fantastic, is that of guilt and blame intermixed with familial love. They are best friends and colleagues, but it’s Mr. Fantastic’s fault they were on that spaceship to be pelted with cosmic rays and the Thing turned into a pile of orange rocks. And that fuels story after story, as Mr. Fantastic tries desperately to figure out how to revert him to human form. And then he doesn’t want to revert, thinking his girlfriend might not love him that way. And then he reverts anyway, and then he reverts back.
And readers eat it up. In one famous storyline,
the Thing is on another planet for a while, and when he gets back, he finds out his girlfriend Alicia has become involved with Johnny Storm.
That’s “flame guy” to you and me.
Fans hated this story so much that Marvel retconned it to make it so that the so-called “Alicia” who fell in love with Flame Guy was actually Lyja, an alien, shape-changing Skrull. The real Alicia, was off somewhere in suspended animation.
That is a sign of a well-loved character.
Great characters make a story but it’s also hard to find them. Finding a character out in the real world who is not only as functional as the Thing, but who also can actually talk and express himself well, well, that’s not an easy job.
Remember that story I related in episode 2, about the 14-year-old girl who bought a house?
Planet Money Story tape:
I am Willow Tifanno…I am 14, and I own a house.
Every time I talked to David Kestenbaum of Planet Money, he brought her up. More specifically, he talked about Chana Joffee-Walt, the reporter on that story, and her amazing ability to find that one person who somehow embodies the entirety of the story you want to tell.
But even Chana found it difficult. At first, she was determined that the Planet Money staff had to buy a house in Florida, which would mean that they were, that she was the character. But then a real estate agent she was talking to mentioned that her daughter had bought one.
You want to find people. Really, you want one person who has seven weird things happen to them.
But sometimes you just actually can’t find her. And then you go to plan B.
IG I think anytime you can make the reporter into a character in the story, like, it can be really helpful. Yeah. Even if it’s as simple as Chana gets curious about who owned all of these toxic assets in Toxie.
That’s a reference to a story Planet Money did on toxic assets. If you read the papers during the height of the financial crisis, you heard this term constantly. But I had no idea what they were until I heard this Planet Money series, where they bought one, and then tried to keep it alive, like a pet. I
Who owns all the mortgages that made up Toxie? She’s just curious, and it’s her curiosity that’s motivating it.
It’s a case where the reporter DID buy the house, metaphorically speaking.
Tape from Toxie’s Dead story:
Well, the day has come. Toxie has officially died.
Chana: It’s over.
Chana: That means no chance we’re getting more checks.
she’s dead, Chana. She’s not coming back.
chapter 4: When characters change, we change.
One of the ideas, one of the reasons Radio Ambulante began is I had notion that some of the most interesting people and voices weren’t included because they were in Spanish.
When I heard about the then-brand-new show Radio Ambulante the first day I was out in Oakland working with Snap Judgment, I raced to get in touch with the founder, novelist Daniel Alarcón, while I was still in town. We ended up talking in the entry to a cafe, which was in the lobby of an office building, in Berkeley.
For aesthetic reasons, BBC will privilege voices in English. You can’t do 45 mins with voiceovers the whole time. it’s awful. I understand that. That makes perfect sense if you’re the BBC. But if you’re Peruvian and you’re telling Peruvian story and it’s being told mostly in English it’s problematic.
And I had this notion, what would it look like if there was a space on the radio for their stories in their language, their original language. The language they need to be told in.
Radio Ambulante the first show of it’s kind, which is to say the first radio show /podcast of narrative journalism, to be made in Spanish. It’s a remarkable thing. The access it affords to stories, characters, people, is just astounding. No one else is telling these stories in this way. No one else affords us this access to such a huge slice of our world.
Radio Ambulante tape:
…Aqui no me muero, aqui no me muero…
Just as Joe Richman spoke about the value of allowing us to intimately get to know someone with AIDS in South Africa, so too do we need to hear the true voices of people from all over the world, in every language. And even, maybe especially, in our own language, right in our own backyard.
We think that America is smart enough to understand America.
Here’s Glynn Washington again.
So, If I talk to a guy somewhere and he is not using King’s English, I think that Americans will have to get used to that, or we’re gonna have to structure it in a way so they can get most of it, or we’ll try to narrate around it as best we can, while still trying to keep to the spirit of what the person is saying. And that’s tough. And we do not do it perfectly all the time.
Despite the fact that his radio show, that all radio shows, that all stories are constructed, given that fact, how can we let people speak for themselves? That’s what we’re going for. That’s the intent, to make sure it’s their story, even while it’s also your story .
Well-made stories allow us to really hear other voices. And as Jay Allison says, actually listening? Can be radical.
For the Moth, to sit and listen for 15 minutes to somebody who you would’ve written off, or not cared about, or not thought…who might be politically or socially abhorrent to you, to listen to their full story and hear how in some ways they’re like you.
Jessica: it’s great.
It means you have to change a little bit, you have to change your attitude.
This is what we look for in fiction as well.
The reason we read fiction, 80% of the time it’s so we can walk in the shoes of someone else. Feel what they feel, be changed as they are changed.
20% of the time it’s something else.
But plenty of the time, this is what reading is about, this is what movie-going is about. This is comics, this is poetry.
This is radio.
Now let’s get to this week’s challenge.
But first, let’s just quickly run over how this works.
We post new full episodes every two weeks. At the end of each episode, there is a challenge, designed to get you working on a narrative project of your own.
The challenges build on one another, so that over the course of the season, you move forward with your project.
But it’s very hard to have the perspective you need to make your best work all alone. So to make it possible for all of us to work together, we have started a Google community.
It’s a private community, moderated to make it a safe and productive space for working together. Even if you miss the initial release of this episode, there are discussions devoted to each episode’s challenge, and you can dive in at any time.
You join by going to my website at jessicaabel.com/podcast, and signing up to receive my newsletter.
We will post workshop episodes in intervening weeks between the full episodes, where Matt and Ben and I will discuss some of the most interesting work posted on the community that week.
This week, you will be unsurprised to hear, I want you to create a profile of one or more primary characters in your story.
Obviously, if you came up with an XY Story Formula and/or a Focus Sentence last time, it’s very likely that you already have a character you’ve been thinking a lot about. And it is somewhat artificial to break the character element out this way. But I think it’ll be a valuable step to make, to develop backstory, and then figure out what characteristics or stories you want to really hone in on and use, and what you can kind of stick in a drawer. What might not be relevant to the story you want to tell.
If you’re doing nonfiction, there’s something particularly backwards about this process. You can’t really know what the character is like, what goes into her motivations, until you interview her. And we haven’t really talked about interviewing in depth yet. That comes in episode 5.
But stick with me here: treat this as an exercise, and write about your character as if he were fictional. Make up the things about your character that you hope to find in real life, that would make your story awesome. But then, please, be prepared to chuck all this and be surprised by reality when you actually sit down with him.
Ben and I were talking about characters, looking for a straightforward example of how to use an element of backstory to understand how a character will behave, and we found ourselves talking about my book, Trish Trash again.
Trish lives with her aunt aunt uncle on their farm. reason: Start wars. So then, where are her parents?
Her aunt Selima, tough and cutting. character is simple. She’s a scientist. cares deeply about her family, really angry about her sister being missing.
process of creating selima – very beginning is living with aunt and uncle. that’s because Star Wars. That means her parents are gone, had to extrapolate that out.
Trish’s parents are missing. Her aunt is her mother’s sister, and so both Trish and Selima are both upset and angry.
suggests she’s dead, but there’s no proof, that’s a really difficult thing to live with.
aunt is very angry, and has complicated feelings about native martians. She’s a woman who is a scientist, and normally would be open minded, but instead she’s angry at the natives who appear to be involved in what looks like her sister’s death. So that changes how she acts, and the decisions of those around her.
And, crucially, that element of back story has to be woven into the way they act, the kind of mistakes they make. It has to tip the balance in moments of dilemma, which is when a character is faced with a choice, but neither option is perfect, neither is clean.
Dilemma is the key to powerful storytelling with characters: if you take option A, you hurt someone you love. If you take option B, you hurt yourself. There is no “happily ever after” in complex, engaging stories.
what’s important is that that then becomes motivation for action. if you have backstory that you know, but it doesn’t motivate action, can screw things up. parents missing. if you don’t understand that, deal with that, you end up with confusing actions. all woven into their action.
Often, you’ve got to do quite a bit of thinking and writing to get to the point of understanding a character well enough to narrow your description down to just a few sentences.
In the show notes, and in the Community, I’ve posted a handout that I use in my classes called (More than) 20 Questions for Characters, that comes from that very same chapter in Drawing Words & Writing Pictures, my textbook, as the original Trish illustrations that sparked the whole saga. In fact, it’s part 2 of the same activity as the spark cards I used to create Trish in the first place.
It’s a kind of worksheet, to help you think through some of the things you might need to know about a character, and to run the character through her paces a bit, with questions designed to evoke stories. Treat it as a starting point, answering whatever questions are useful, adding some new ones that I hadn’t thought of.
But this work, and this worksheet, is just for you: I don’t want to see the full run-down.
Here’s the challenge in a nutshell: I need you to make some hard choices, and write up just a couple of sentences about the character, detailing only whatever backstory is absolutely necessary to make your story work, and NO MORE.
Post this with your XY Story Formula and/or your Focus Sentence, so we can assess how the character intersects with the proposed story.
Work posted by Sunday October 11, 2015, at midnight Pacific Time will be eligible to be featured on the next workshop episode. But don’t worry: We will always ask permission before talking about your work on air!
You can get access to the group by signing up on my website: jessicaabel.com/podcast
I’ll have show notes on this episode, including
- links to the stories I reference in this episode
- and the (More than) 20 Questions for Characters worksheet
on my site, at jessicaabel.com/podcast.
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Produced by Benjamin Frisch, with music contributed by Matt Madden.
Made with the support of La Maison des Auteurs, Angouleme.
And special thanks to our talented band of cartoonists/voice actors. in this episode Lucas Varela, Pedro D’Aprement, and Amruta Patil.
See you in a week with Benjamin Frisch and Matt Madden for a discussion of some of your work from the Out on the Wire Working Group in our workshop episode!
and then in two weeks with…Episode 4: Bare Bones.
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