Non-fiction also uses people’s reactions. Years ago The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal would have scoffed at a feature article containing anything besides verifiable fact (presented in an inverted pyramid style). Along came USA Today with a new approach–telling the news as if it were a story using people’s reactions and quotes–presenting them in a way that stimulates reader curiosity. Today if you pick up a copy of The Wall Street Journal you’ll see this kind of human-interest piece on the front page. The reason newspapers and television have shifted to this “magazine” style, is that it is what modern audiences want. They want more than documented fact; they want a model showing how to feel about those facts. It’s one of the reasons attorneys, John Grisham and Scott Turow, have sold so well. They not only present points of law, but also emotional ramifications for humans caught in the throws of the legal structure.
Look at some of the shapers of our Western heritage: Plato, Christ, Newton, Freud, Darwin, Einstein. Their purpose was more than to have people understand their ideas. They wanted to change the way people acted. To do this they used stories. They gave us scenes to visualize and people to identify with who were discovering something about the universe outside themselves and the universe within themselves.
I did a business plan for a corporation that owns five banks. The CEO came to me rather than to a “numbers” person, because he had a certain vision for the future he wanted me to make tangible to his staff. Who are the characters? The customers, staff, potential customers, competitors. What are the scenes? Banking in the past, banking in the present time, and banking in the future. I placed the different “characters” together in the three “scenes” to get their reactions. The conclusion: target the things that create desirable reactions, avoid those that result in undesirable reactions. The corporation didn’t end up with anything as profound as Plato or Freud, but it had a plan with more value than one that would gather dust on a shelf–the CEO had a model through which his people could experience the benefits of change, instead of being threatened by it.
With this type of writing we create a miniature world and assemble a cast of players to people it. They act out the story, rather than the author carrying on a one-person monologue. And the reactions of the characters give us, in the audience, a means of experiencing a range of emotions that is greater than those we feel in everyday life. But as writers, if we are going to do this, we need to discover aspects of those characters’ personalities that are different from our own. Otherwise we are like a bad ventriloquist. No matter which dummy’s mouth is moving, the same voice is coming out from all of them.
This second exercise works to find some of the unique aspects of a character’s personality.
1. On a half piece of paper list 5 people you know or have met who intrigue you. These can include relatives,business acquaintances, neighbors, someone you went to school with, someone you dated or wanted to be more involved with, a person you have envied or even a person you don’t like. Your choices don’t have to be people you admire; just ones with whom you’re intrigued. Don’t use celebrities. If you are having trouble getting five names perhaps your standards are too high. This is only an exercise. After you have done this go on to the next step.
2. Now, take this list and rank the names from 1 to 5 (number 1 you find most intriguing, number 5 the least).
3. On a full sheet of paper at the top of the page write the name (or fictionalized name) of the 3rd person on your list. Tear up the other list.
4. Draw a line down the center of the page (vertically). I’m going to give you ten questions. Think about the answers to each and write them in an abbreviated form on the left side of the line. Skip five or six lines between each. Your answers should fit the person you’ve chosen as a subject. You are like an actor trying to get inside a role you are playing. Put down whatever comes into your head. You are voicing answers that are not, in all probability, literally correct for the person on your list, but they should be consistent with your perceptions of that person…and they are correct for the fictionalized character you are now creating. You don’t have to write more than a sentence or a few phrases. The important thing is to consider the answer and then put down enough to remind you of it when you return to it later. I’ll give you some examples as we go along.
5. Comment on each of these questions from the standpoint of the person who is your subject: A. Who is the love in this person’s life? Limit your answer to a single choice. In my example, the subject is married and has children, but if I think about what the answer to this question would be for him, I’d say his mother has always had a dominant place in his life. I would write down on the left-hand side of this vertical line, “A. His mother.” Do that for your answer. B. What is this person fighting for? And what or who interferes with this subject accomplishing his or her goals? Most of us don’t live for realities, but for dreams of what might be. When I think of my subject I feel that more than anything he would like to be a good father, particularly to his boys–a better father than he had. I write, “B. A good father to his sons.” C. What of special significance has happened to this person the year before (or if it’s more appropriate, what will happen to your subject within the next year?) My subject had to lose very much weight for medical reasons, and almost overnight looked fifteen years older–not an easy thing to come to terms with. Write about what this would be for your subject? D. Describe the humor in this person’s life.
Often we alleviate the burdens of life by doing things that strike others as humorous (Hamlet has some hilarious lines). Identify the sense of humor of your subject or something he or she does that strikes others as humorous. E. What opposites exist in this person? What fascinates us about human are their inconsistencies (if there is strong love, there is bound to be strong hate too; if there’ exists a great need for someone or something, there is usually a resentment of that need as well). New writers tend to use stereotypes. A great writer, such as Shakespeare, maintains that inconsistency that always keeps the audience guessing, “What’s going to happen?” The character could act one way or do the opposite. What are the inconsistencies within your subject? F. What kind of discovery is this person likely to make about himself or herself? Is there some kind of a revelation your subject will have? What is it? G. How does this person affect someone with whom he or she interacts? Think of this with regard to those people the subject cares about. Is this someone who is sensitive or, for example, is the person like a boss who says, “I would be nothing without my employees,” then dumps a long report to be typed on his secretary’s desk at 5pm expecting her to have it done by tomorrow morning? H. What is the source of this person’s importance? Reputation, money, power, a title? Give the best answer for your subject. I. With what place does the person have a close association? The answer can be a geographic location, an office downtown or a summer cottage or it can be a particular room in the house–a workshop in the basement, the kitchen, a couch in front of the TV…even a car. J. What is intriguing about this person? How did he or she end up on your list? When I think about my father I’m fascinated by how similar we are and, at the same time, how different.
6. Now on the right side of the paper describe a scene and the type of reactions that would show, rather than tell somebody the answer to each question. For example, with my subject, his mother was the love of his life. On the left-hand side I have, “his mother;” but if I couldn’t tell you this directly how could I show that to you if you were my reader? I can think of many different scenes that might accomplish this. One that comes to mind is his taking his mother to the retirement home where she was going to live. Here is an opportunity for them to reminisce, to deal with the present, to look ahead to the future. Through this scene I could communicate the answer indirectly (through the subject’s reactions to the event, to the location, to another’s feelings), so that you as a reader would conclude, “The love of his life is his mother.” For question B, the scene I would choose is my subject’s sitting at the dining room table with his wife and youngest daughter planning a high school graduation party for his son. Do this for each of your answers to these questions. On the right hand side think of a scene that dramatizes your phrase or sentence to the right. One column is the “tell,” the one on the right is the “show.” Figure out the best way to show your audience the character traits you have labeled.
Take about twenty minutes to complete this part of the exercise now.