The Work of Writing Nine: Listen to Your Characters

Standard

George Stubbs [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

(Previous Work of Writing posts)

I’ve been watching Ellen DeGeneres’ eponymous sitcom, “Ellen,” (as opposed to her eponymous talk show, “The Ellen Show.” I think they missed an opportunity to call her new game show “The Ellen Game Show,” but I digress).It had some issues. It dumped most of its cast after the first season, keeping only Ellen’s male best friend and roommate, who in turn, was later sent “to Europe.”

Though there’s no question of Ellen’s own flawless sense of comedy, the structure around her really didn’t work, not until the show was nearly over. And the reason was obvious. Ellen’s character, Ellen, wasn’t allowed to fully be herself until towards the end of the run.

The character Ellen was gay. Looking back at those early eps where’s she’s uncomfortably dating men, it’s clear. And shoving a character into a role that doesn’t fit her never works.

It never, ever works.

So Ellen the actor’s perfectionism may have driven the show, may have kept it from capsizing, but the truth is if Ellen the character had come out early in the run, or had already been out, the show would be a comedy classic.

I suspect Ellen the actor knew it, and that’s why her character did, eventually, come out, as the actor Ellen did as well (though she was never really “in.”). And from that point, from Ellen the character’s journey of questioning to acknowledgement, that’s when the show bloomed.

Then there were the boycotts and protests and Ellen was treated incredibly abysmally. Which encapsulates why it didn’t happen sooner and why it should have happened sooner.

We would have no “Will & Grace” without “Ellen.”

Note, this isn’t about the idea that a gay actor can’t “play straight.” Actors can and do play anyone; that’s acting. Rosie O’Donnell, for example, as Tutu in “SMILF,” a straight woman greatly disappointed by love. It’s a central part of who she is. For Tutu to exist in this moment in time, she couldn’t be different.

Here’s the point: if something isn’t working in your manuscript, ask yourself if you’re being true to your characters. Are you honestly following their wants and desires, or those you chose to impose? If you don’t allow your characters their freedom, the story will end up stilted, the elephant in the room wallpapered over, but still there and still elephanty.

Listen to your characters. It could change everything.

Check out my recaps of the hit new show “All My Traitors.” Recap of episode 2, “Lock Him Up” is available now!

Check out  my full-length novels: 

Aunty Ida’s Full-Service Mental Institution (by Invitation Only)   

Aunty Ida’s Holey Amazing Sleeping Preparation (Not Doctor Recommended) 

 Her Cousin Much Removed

 The Great Paradox and the Innies and Outies of Time Management.

And download Better Living Through GRAVY and Other Oddities, it’s free!

Peruse Montraps Publishing.

 

TV Talk: Binge It! Humans

Standard

OK, sci-fi TV buddies, I’ve been going through some serious withdrawal since the gripping, “Orphan Black,” “12 Monkeys” and fantasy fav, “Grimm” fluttered away to hiatus. And don’t even get me started on our year-long time-out from “Doctor Who.”

So, thumbing through my various watch lists, I came across “Humans.” Wow.

A species of my absolute favorite British-American hybrid, “Humans” explores what happens if we have truly human-like artificial intelligence. I’ve got to wonder, given all the science-fiction writers who’ve warned of what will come, why we continue to pursue it, but hey, some people never read to the end.

Unlike much American-based sci-fi, British science-fiction isn’t about explosions and bullets and chases, whether in space or in the future or in the past or on the way from the past into the future. British shows tend to explore the cultural questions, the impact on relationships, the way technology shapes our interaction with the world.

There’s a deeply reflective quality to it, both in the examination of issues and in the sense that it — like all good sci-fi — mirrors us back to us through a more palatable filter.

“Humans” accomplishes all of these things while still remaining captivating television. It’s quick, the plotting inevitable yet not predicable, and the acting is phenomenal.

It’s also got Jen (Katherine Parkinson) from “The IT Crowd,” so, I mean, there’s that. And she’s amazing.

“Humans” airs on AMC in the US and Channel 4 in the UK, and will be released in the UK first; it’s coming back to the US some time in 2017. Plenty of time to catch up! It’s available to stream from Amazon Prime, or directly from AMC, though you’ll need your cable provider info.

In or near Chicago in October? Come see “Me Inside Me Presents: Witch, Please,” on October 1, 8, 22 and 29 at Donny’s Skybox Theater at 7 pm. Tickets available atSecondCity.com.

Check out  my full-length novels,  Her Cousin Much Removed,  The Great Paradox and the Innies and Outies of Time Management and Aunty Ida’s Full-Service Mental Institution (by Invitation Only), and the sequel, Aunty Ida’s Holey Amazing Sleeping Preparation (Not Doctor Recommended) which is now available!

And download Better Living Through GRAVY and Other Oddities, it’s free!

 Sign up for my spamless newsletter!

TV Talk: Binge It! My Mad Fat Diary

Standard

It’s another British show! You all know how much I enjoy my across pondular entertainment, and this one was exceptional. Though I strive to make these TV talks spoiler free, there is one aspect regarding the structure of the show I have to raise, but I’ll try to keep it academic.

Still with me? Fab.

“My Mad Fat Diary” follows Rae, a 16-year-old girl living in Stamford, Lincolnshire in 1996. Recently released from a psychiatric ward, we’re with her, through the tool of her diary, as she navigates teenaged life out in the world. Based on Rae Earl’s (purportedly) real diaries from 1989, published as My Fat, Mad Teenage Diary, it’s a must-watch for anyone who’s ever, you know, been a teenager.

Though it’s about teenagers, it isn’t really for teenagers. It’s a show packed with truths about who you think you are versus how others see you; truths about relationships in all directions; truths about coping, no matter your stage of life.

It’s extremely well-written, with fleshed-out, believable characters, and enough humor to balance its sometimes stark subject matter.

But perhaps the most intriguing thing about “My Mad Fat Diary” (and here’s the possibly spoilerly bit) is the use of the unreliable narrator. It’s very much a first-person story, and that choice is used to excellent effect later on in the series.

It’s those seemingly small writing decisions that accumulate and tell a compelling, must-watch story. And it’s a complete story. The entire show is available to stream on Hulu.

Or binge. I dare you to try to stop.

Check out  my full-length novels,  Her Cousin Much Removed,  The Great Paradox and the Innies and Outies of Time Management and Aunty Ida’s Full-Service Mental Institution (by Invitation Only), and the sequel, Aunty Ida’s Holey Amazing Sleeping Preparation (Not Doctor Recommended) which is now available!

And download Better Living Through GRAVY and Other Oddities, it’s free!

 Sign up for my spamless newsletter!

 

 

TV Talk: Real Housewives of…Everywhere

Standard

If you follow me on Twitter (come on, I know you want to) you’ve been subjected to my barrage of Real Housewives tweets. Real Housewives of Orange County (RHOC); Real Housewives of New York (RHONY) and Real Housewives of Melbourne (RHOMelbourne) are currently on rotation. Real Housewives of Beverly Hills joins in when there are new episodes.

Recently, someone I follow (I can’t find the tweet or I’d post it, so if it was you, please let me know so I can edit this and add it) asked what I thought was a really good question: Why do women watch the Real Housewives when it depicts women so poorly?

I definitely didn’t have an immediate answer. As a feminist, it made me stop and wonder at myself. What am I getting out of these shows?

More than you’d think. And a lot of that stems from the audience watching with me.

First, though, I think it’s pretty clear that the Housewives, as a whole, don’t represent women, let alone all women. They live in a world of fantasy and casual inch-thick makeup, where real is a word that always has implied quotes.

They’re pushed together under artificial circumstances for which they’re perpetually overdressed, where glances from amused, regular guests shatter any illusion of normalcy. I’ve yet to meet someone who knows someone like a “Real” Housewife in real life. They have a job, and they do it.

There’s a reason they feel so familiar from franchise to franchise. They are meant to entertain, and they do.

Which brings me to the best part of these shows. The audience.

While the Housewives can embody the worst stereotypes about women, together we get to dismantle them in delicious, technicolor snark. Take Countess Luann, for example, who, like quick-dry crazy glue, stuck to a man who’d “dated” several of her friends, even after seeing photographic proof of him kissing another woman after their engagement.

Who does she blame? The woman who told her — who cultivates her own nest of mean girl stereotypes — and the “clutches” of the woman he kissed. Not the rather aptly-named “Tom,” who left her after an evening together to meet this other woman.

Yep.

But the beauty of it? The number of viewers, men and women alike, pointing out the ridiculousness of that route to denial. It’s the opportunity, publicly, to smash that idea of convenience that it’s man-grabbing women, and not wandering men, who deserve the scorn.

Is now a good time to mention that Luann and Tom were on dates with other people when they met? Hmm. Moving on.

And then there’s the flip side to the show, the opportunity for women who are eternally the objects of other people’s gossip to show their genuine selves, like RHOMelbourne’s Gamble Breaux (Wolfe). A woman who enjoys gilding herself in full high-glamour glitz and married to a much older man, Gamble’s been a target of all of the possible permutations of rumors.

And she’s shed them with grace and humor. She seems to be a what-you-see-is-what-you-get person, faithfully interacting on Twitter week-to-week without any negativity toward her costars. Rather than reinforcing stereotypes, she crushes ideas we might have had about “someone like her.”

Is Real Housewives harmful to the perception of women? I doubt it, frankly. I think the depictions of women as window-dressing and little more than accessories is far worse. With the Housewives, the women are entire people, some good, some kinda unbearable. But people.

And that’s all feminism is about at its most fundamental level. Women being seen and treated as people.

Check out  my full-length novels,  Her Cousin Much Removed,  The Great Paradox and the Innies and Outies of Time Management and Aunty Ida’s Full-Service Mental Institution (by Invitation Only), and the sequel, Aunty Ida’s Holey Amazing Sleeping Preparation (Not Doctor Recommended) which is now available!

And download Better Living Through GRAVY and Other Oddities, it’s free!

 Sign up for my spamless newsletter!

TV Talk: Guilt

Standard

If you’ve never heard of “Guilt,” here’s all I need to say: Giles from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” with an American accent. You in?

I thought so.

A summer offering from Freeform TV — once rather inappropriately known as ABC Family, given other shows like “Pretty Little Liars,” — “Guilt” is loaded with the technicolor soapy unreality that’s all Freeform. Only set in London.

In this kinda Amanda Knoxian drama, British police accuse American Grace of the murder of her Irish flatmate, Molly. As has become standard, the mystery spins its tangled tendrils over the course of the season.

And if you feel like there’s something strangely familiar about the young actress playing Grace, you should: She’s Daisy Head, Anthony Stewart Head’s daughter. I can’t help but imagine them practicing their American accents together, maybe over tea and crumpets. Because that is all that British people are allowed to eat. And tea sandwiches. That’s why they don’t have the same obesity problems. Tea sandwiches are very small.

But I digress.

One of the things I enjoy about true British television is the diversity of appearance. Everyone is not smoothed and sanded down to a uniform look; they don’t seem like they’d lined up at the plastic surgeon to be given the #7.

Apparently Freeform TV felt that needed to change, and “Guilt” has that same air as their other shows, that insistent emphasis on attractiveness, so much so that it can distract from the story line.

But I’ve got to admit, it’s a pretty good story line. I binged it OnDemand and caught up to real time pretty quickly. Given that the season finale airs next week, that’s some binging.

Will “Guilt” change your life? Unless you’re one of the characters in this glossy mystery, I’d say not. But it’s definitely makes the list of a worthwhile summer “Guilt”y (see what I did there?!) pleasures.

Check out  my full-length novels,  Her Cousin Much Removed,  The Great Paradox and the Innies and Outies of Time Management and Aunty Ida’s Full-Service Mental Institution (by Invitation Only), and the sequel, Aunty Ida’s Holey Amazing Sleeping Preparation (Not Doctor Recommended) which is now available!

And download Better Living Through GRAVY and Other Oddities, it’s free!

 Sign up for my spamless newsletter!

TV Talk, British Edition: Miranda

Standard

Oh, British television. How I love my British TV, from comedies to cop dramas.

So many cop dramas.

But Miranda is not one of them. Nope, Miranda — a sitcom written by and featuring the hilarious Miranda Hart — encompasses so much of what I love about British television.

Let’s start with the writer-driven material. Very little of what we have on television here comes from the minds of the people who star in it, and while Hart didn’t completely produce the show herself, it feels like she might have. Which only adds to the sense that the Miranda on the show would genuinely be a friend if only she didn’t only exist for half-hour bursts. When actors create their own characters, it leads to a different kind of depth.

And a different kind of performer on TV.

Here, all nearly all actors, but particularly women, must be smoothed to a near-Photoshop perfection, whether on or off-camera. Women must conform to certain standards, unless cast specifically because they don’t, making that a vital aspect of the character.

Here, the fear of deviating from established beauty norms radiates from the screen. Often casting makes female characters intended to reject beauty norms laughable, such as the young Hayden Panettiere as a nerd on Malcolm in the Middle.

But not in the UK. No one but Miranda Hart could have brought the character of Miranda to life. And there, she was given the freedom to do it.

Yet this show isn’t a statement, it’s thirty minutes of laugh-out-loud moments where we can recognize ourselves, our own human awkwardness, the funny side of how we relate to others and the world around us. Miranda is a cozy blanket of humor, kind and inclusive; it’s that warm glow from a window on the street, coming from a room where we’re all invited.

All seasons of Miranda are available to to stream on Hulu. But I warn you, take it slowly. You’ll miss her when it’s over.

Check out  my full-length novels,  Her Cousin Much Removed,  The Great Paradox and the Innies and Outies of Time Management and Aunty Ida’s Full-Service Mental Institution (by Invitation Only), and the sequel, Aunty Ida’s Holey Amazing Sleeping Preparation (Not Doctor Recommended) which is now available!

And download Better Living Through GRAVY and Other Oddities, it’s free!

 Sign up for my spamless newsletter!

 

 

 

TV Talk: The Olympics!

Standard

By Edwiges Lopes Tavares (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

I didn’t think I’d be excited for the Summer Olympic Games. All the talk of the problems in Rio de Janeiro — like the contaminated water and beaches, including two of the most storied beaches on the planet, and the high crime rate  — left me a little…flat. And concerned. I figured I’d go into them with a shrug and a pang for the shows that won’t be airing for the next few weeks.

I was wrong.

Now that it’s nearly time for the Opening Ceremonies, I’m feeling a twinge. No matter what the issues with the venue, as was the case in Russia in 2014, the perseverance and hard work of the athletes themselves are a siren song.

I’m still worried for them, especially in the water-based sports. I hope everyone leaves Rio as healthy as they arrived. Still we get to see people who are the best at what they do attempt to do the best they’ve ever done.

The funny thing is that Chicago actually competed to host these games. Oprah Winfrey, along with other big Chicago names, headed off wherever it was to plead Chicago’s case when it was down to the final few choices.

Chicago lost; Rio won.

I was disappointed at the time, but now, when I think of the logistics of the world descending upon us…that was a near miss. Rio is expecting nearly half-a-million visitors. Given that Chicago is pretty accessible, I expect the number may have been higher. Yikes.

Thanks, IOC!

Here’s the thing about the Olympics: it’s a world-wide phenomenon. And now that our global communication is easier than ever I can watch the events with people literally anywhere in the world, in real-time.

Talk about live-tweeting.

So good luck, athletes, every single one of you. We’ll all be watching the culmination of your dreams.

Check out  my full-length novels,  Her Cousin Much Removed,  The Great Paradox and the Innies and Outies of Time Management and Aunty Ida’s Full-Service Mental Institution (by Invitation Only), and the sequel, Aunty Ida’s Holey Amazing Sleeping Preparation (Not Doctor Recommended) which is now available!

And download Better Living Through GRAVY and Other Oddities, it’s free!

 Sign up for my spamless newsletter!

 

TV Talk: American Ninja Warrior

Standard

OK, let’s all acknowledge that American Ninja Warrior isn’t the kind of show I usually write about. Nope, most of the time, it’s high-concept shows with intricate plotting, complex characters and long, twisty arcs.

This is not that kind of show.

Well, it does have long, twisty arcs, but the contestants are supposed to slide across them on a bar. Or cling to them upside down with their fingertips. Or hurl themselves toward them with a trampoline.

You know. The normal day-to-day.

I’d never actually watched American Ninja Warrior (it really needs a catchy acronym, but ANW sounds like a window-makers’ professional organization) until this week, when, setting my DVR, it appeared on my screen. I couldn’t look way.

Couldn’t. Look. Away.

For anyone who hasn’t seen this spectacle it’s a combination of parkour and your worst gym class nightmares, where contestants resembling Greek gods attempt to complete an obstacle course. Like most competition reality shows, there are the heartwarming profiles to get you rooting for them, often right before they go splat into the pool. Or splat into the padding.

There are many splats.

Most of the time, they pop up smiling, which is reassuring. Meanwhile, the announcers narrate in the background, lending the feel of a sporting event.

And, of course, despite having never successfully completing a pull-up in my entire life, I am absolutely convinced that I, too, could climb up a beam and down again by hanging on to a hoop I use to “hop” over pegs, using only my upper body.

Me in my head.

Me in real life. (Picture from http://susan-swiderski.blogspot.com/, Hot Flashes and Cold Lemonade).

I mean there has to be a workout video for that, right?

Maybe it’s just human nature to be fascinated by the physical feats of our fellow humans. Maybe it’s reveling in the fantasy, if only for the 2-3 minutes it takes the finishers to run the course, that we, too, could glide over a collection of rotating poles as gracefully as skipping on the beach.

Assuming we could skip gracefully on the beach.

Check out  my full-length novels,  Her Cousin Much Removed,  The Great Paradox and the Innies and Outies of Time Management and Aunty Ida’s Full-Service Mental Institution (by Invitation Only), and the sequel, Aunty Ida’s Holey Amazing Sleeping Preparation (Not Doctor Recommended) which is now available!

And download Better Living Through GRAVY and Other Oddities, it’s free!

 Sign up for my spamless newsletter!

 

TV Talk: Death Death Death

Standard

TV-T&PC (1)As usual, there are no spoilers!

There is an epidemic. They’re dying in record numbers, one after another after another. I am, of course talking about TV characters.

There was a time that a death of a character on a show was a big deal. We grew attached to our fictional friends, and yes, that friendship was a little one-sided, but when they disappeared into the great Television Beyond, it was sad.

Now we know better.

I couldn’t even begin to give you a death toll for my week so far in television viewing. And that’s just the Real Housewives of New York! (Just kidding. Only lady parts seem to be harmed in the making of that show, because they talk about them. A lot. A kind of Vagina Dialogues, if you will. And no, that joke didn’t do well on Twitter either).

Seriously, though, the deaths come so quickly and so meaninglessly that they’re starting to have nearly zero impact. And that’s bad for the shows, that’s bad for television, and it’s bad for society as a whole.

The best thing you can have for a television show is a completely engaged audience. Loyal fans who will go out and spread the word, who will tweet with the show, who will attend events and generally show support. And while possible death of favorite characters is a good way to build tension, it can’t be your only way.

Here’s the thing with that: if you keep teasing it, eventually you have to make it happen, or else that element of tension is lost. Some shows don’t care, and actually trade on the safety of knowing that one of the main characters is never going to die. Early “Castle,” for example, allowed fans to enjoy the peril and, more importantly, enjoy seeing how the characters would escape it, knowing that they would.

But if you constantly kill off characters, instead of engaging fans, they tend to disconnect. Why? Because who wants to be broken up over someone who never actually existed ceasing to exist? There’s no point in getting attached to characters who are only temporary.

Not all shows are guilty of it. But the problem is that watching so much TV death on some shows inures us to death on others. And, I think, makes us less sensitive to real-life tragedy.

Yes, TV death allows dramatic, tension-filled scenes with lots of bloody gore. But constant death and constant gore only creates a gulf between viewer and show.

Check out  my full-length novels,  Her Cousin Much Removed,  The Great Paradox and the Innies and Outies of Time Management and Aunty Ida’s Full-Service Mental Institution (by Invitation Only), and the sequel, Aunty Ida’s Holey Amazing Sleeping Preparation (Not Doctor Recommended) which is now available!

And download Better Living Through GRAVY and Other Oddities, it’s free!

 Sign up for my spamless newsletter!

 

TV Talk: Twitter

Standard
It's a bird! Get it? TWITTER? Eh. Everyone's a critic.

It’s a bird! Get it? TWITTER? Eh. Everyone’s a critic.

Nope, it’s not the name of a show you’re missing. Though for any TV execs in the room, have I got a pitch for you!

Twitter is an amazing tool. It can bring you news before it’s news; it can instantly link you to people with similar interests; it can act as a source of endless amusement with various hashtag games. It can even bring love, as two of my friends found.

(What’s that, hypothetical reader? Did I maybe nudge them in the direction of magic? Why yes, yes I did, funny you should ask).

But my favorite use of Twitter is television.

You might have noticed that if you’re following me on Twitter. I’m currently live-tweeting five days a week — at least when I’m home to do it — and TV has never been so much fun.

From reality shows like Real Housewives of etc. and Below Deck random flavors to my science-fiction staples of “12 Monkeys” and “Orphan Black;” fantasy newcomer “Wynonna Earp” and soapy satire “UnReal,” I hunker down in front of my keyboard, mind my hashtags and tweet away.

Some shows are much easier to live-tweet than others. “Real Housewives of New York” (RHONY for those in the know) doesn’t really require eyes on the screen. With “12 Monkeys,” looking away for a second is impossible.

Still, no matter where you are in the world, you are suddenly at a viewing party, and the best thing is you don’t even have to share your snacks. Everyone has opinions, from the super-snarky to the truly insightful, and everyone’s invited.

A little hesitant about the idea of live-tweeting? Don’t be! If it’s too much to tweet while you’re watching, you can always wait for commercials. Be interactive, read and respond to other tweets, retweet the ones that tickle you and reciprocate when someone does the same with yours.

Easy-peasy.

And just so much fun. The best part? You can support your favorite shows, as well. A strong Twitter fan base probably helped to rescue “Nashville” from the great TV beyond.

So see? You’re not only having fun on Twitter. You’re helping.

Check out  my full-length novels,  Her Cousin Much Removed,  The Great Paradox and the Innies and Outies of Time Management and Aunty Ida’s Full-Service Mental Institution (by Invitation Only), and the sequel, Aunty Ida’s Holey Amazing Sleeping Preparation (Not Doctor Recommended) which is now available!

And download Better Living Through GRAVY and Other Oddities, it’s free!

 Sign up for my spamless newsletter!