Friday, July 14, 2017

The Normal World (Guest: Usvaldo de Leon)

So today was mundane: I woke up, walked the dog, ate, got ready and went to work. It was very similar to what happened the previous day (woke up, ate, got ready, walked the dog and off to work) and to other days stretching back into the mists of time, or possibly at least the Ming Dynasty.

That sounds boring.

Does it? Do you not get ready and go to work in the mornings?

Sure. But this isn’t about me, it’s about you. Do you ever do anything?

Do I ever do anything exciting? Well, one time, someone delivered a cell phone to me by Fed Ex, and when I opened the package, the phone immediately started ringing.

Wow. That’s cool! Who was it? What did they want? What happened?

I’m kind of paranoid about bill collectors, so when I saw it was an unknown number I didn’t pick up.

…I can’t even with you.

The normal world is one we are all familiar with. It’s a land of intermittent beauty and excitement generously larded with stultifying monotony. It also has the perverse habit of being interesting in painful ways: breaking a leg, breaking and entering or breaking your car engine. These incidents relieve us from the tedium but not in a way we appreciate. This is, of course, because change equals growth and growth is painful and we, as a general rule do not like pain. It’s like that old joke: a man went to the doctor. ‘Doctor, it hurts when I do this’, the man said, waggling his arm. ‘Then don’t do that.’

When it comes to growth, most of us don’t do that.

No one asks this of fictional characters. They are put in terrible situations and told, ‘grow’. “Hey Neo, guess what? Your entire life is a lie and you are actually bald and live in amniotic fluid! How cool is that?”

Not cool, man. Not cool at all. I was a computer programmer and a part time hacker. I was cool. I was Keanu Reeves!

However, for a story to work, characters need to not only transcend the normal world they need to be established inside of it. This is a necessary step for the reader to identify with the character. It is also a necessary step to ground the character. We can’t see where we are going until we understand where we have been. In the case of Neo, from The Matrix, the normal world is a job he hates. Neo knows there is something greater out there and is actively trying to find it. This is typical of a fictional character. There are stuck in the normal world and are looking for a way out – to transcend.

Raskolnikov is bored with the world and wants to understand what it means to be God and decide others fate in Crime and Punishment; Huckleberry Finn is not going to sit around and suffer himself to be ‘sivilized’, so he lights out for the Mississippi; Nick in The Great Gatsby is tired of his tiny hovel in West Egg and is more than ready to be introduced to the beautiful, glittering people on the other side of the sound.

When plotting your story, be sure to allow room to establish the normal world. Before the journey begins, we need to know what the character already understands: that the normal world is a drag from which they need to escape. We can only know this by spending some time there with them. However, there is another purpose to opening in the normal world: it enables us to see the issues that are setting  the character up for their trip into the extraordinary. In Liar, Liar, for example, Jim Carrey’s character Fletcher Reede lies constantly. We are shown several different scenarios in which he lies. He lies to advance his career; he lies to advance his client’s interests; he lies because he doesn’t want to disappoint his son. For Fletcher, the normal world is one where lying is not only acceptable but expected and we see both the allure and the downfall of that in the first act.

Do not skimp on the normal world. Who is your character? What do they want? How are their faults holding them back from achieving it? These are questions that can only be answered with an examination of the normal world as they experience. It is only through a grounding in the normal world that we can recognize when the extraordinary world extends an invitation to the character.

Some writers find the idea of the normal world to be boring; why would I want to spend any time there? Well, because the normal world is like the bread in a sandwich: the container that lets the filling shine. Without it all you have is peanut butter in a plastic bag, the utility of which is useless. No, use those two slices well: the normal world they leave in which the main character is stunted and the normal world they return to after the main character has gone through their trials in the extraordinary world. On returning, the character has grown and expanded. Their journey is a gentle, subliminal reminder of the journey that we can undertake as well; that we can take charge and change our own lives. We can go to work, eat, then walk the dog. All the possibilities are wide open for us.

About our guest:

Usvaldo de Leon is a screenwriter in Tucson, Arizona. He won the Nobel Peace Prize Peace in 2013 for his script, Let Us All Hold Hands and Sing Together. One of those facts is not true. (Usvaldo is obviously a fake name...)

Thanks so much for sharing today, Usvaldo!
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