Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Character Transformation

What fiction and life have in common

Donald Miller’s book, A Million Miles in a Thousand Days: What I Learned While Editing My Life, is exactly what the subtitle says it is — a recounting of what Miller learned about life while learning how to make a movie based on his bestselling memoir, Blue Like Jazz.
What’s wonderful is he takes us through the process of figuring out what makes a good movie — i.e. a good story — and in the process we learn how important it is to make good stories in our own lives.
            It begins when two filmmakers, Ben and Steve, arrive at his home in Portland and proceed to dissect his book, tearing it apart and putting it back together in a format suitable for a movie. One of them explains to him life itself is just a series of random experiences, which a good writer can make insightful and interesting. But a movie has to have “structure” and “action” and “conflict.”
            Feeling he needs more knowledge about the “structure” of a good story, Miller attends an expensive Los Angeles seminar by renowned storyteller Robert McKee. When later he confesses to his eccentric friend, Jordan, he failed to get the point of the seminar, Jordan sums it all up for him: “A story is a character who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it.”
            He comes to realize the point is not the “getting something,” it’s the character transformation that goes on while the character journeys toward “getting something.” The point of the story (and of life) is for us to search for and find something, thereby transforming ourselves. In fiction, it’s called character arc. In life, it’s just called living.
            Here are some of my favorite of Miller’s epiphanies about storytelling and life:

  •       The hero/heroine has to do something good in the first part of the book/movie to make him/her sympathetic.
  •       Characters don’t want to be transformed. They must be forced to change.
  •       An inciting incident kicks off the hero/heroine’s journey. It is usually a doorway through which they cannot return.
  •      Fear, which is created by ambition, is the bugaboo in all stories. The characters are going to encounter it and we are going to encounter it but we shouldn’t let it boss us around.
  •      The harder the resistance encountered in the journey or pursuit, the more important the task must be.
  •      Two things that make an epic story: extreme risk and sacrifice.
  •      The middle of the story — which Miller calls “the crossing” — is the most difficult because you’ve lost sight of the beginning and the original purpose and you can’t see the ending yet. There is a point in the middle of the story when characters feel they just can’t take it anymore and are tempted to give up. McKee told his students, “You put them (the characters) through hell … that’s the only way we change.”
  •       Good stories need memorable scenes and they’re often in strange places.
Throughout the book, Miller tells us his own personal stories about learning to make a movie, leaving behind his life as a “coach potato” in order to take up bicycle riding, making a grueling climb to the top of Machu Picchu in Chile, falling in love with a woman and then losing her, founding a nonprofit to help disadvantaged youth, and taking part in a cross country bike ride to raise money for a charity.
      He uses his stories to tell us what he learned about life — basically, if you want good stories, you have to be a good character.

            Find Donald Miller’s blog at http://donmilleris.com/. You can follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

Reframing Faith

Are God and creative writing related? Owen Egerton thinks so.

“The best kind of writing comes from questions and a human being wrestling with those questions. A writer's job is not to resolve the mystery but to expand the mystery,” Owen Egerton, Austin comic, writer, and seeker of truth, said recently to a group of aspiring writers. Egerton was talking about writing The Book of Harold, the Illegitimate Son of God, published this year by Dalton Publishing.
Egerton is already a well-known provocateur in Austin — the author of another novel, Marshall Hollenzer is Driving, co-creator of the Sinus Show, screenwriter, commentator for National Public Radio, and comedy recording artist. He spoke to the Riverbend Church writing group, The Scribe, in early September.
The best writers have a relationship with mystery, a desire to explore and take the readers along with them, he said. The Book of Harold was his own experience at wrestling with a mystery — what would it look like if a guy made the same claims now that Jesus made back in his day. Harold Peeks, an unassuming middle-aged nobody, starts telling people he is the son of God, saying things like “God is insane. And totally in love with us” and “We are utterly alone, and unavoidably connected.” The story takes off from there with Egerton asking questions about faith, religion, and institutions along the way. He very much wants us to see the whole topic through new eyes and he provides some belly laughs to ease the glaring truths he uncovers about religious institutions.
In spite of the pitfalls of religion as an institution, Egerton seems to have retained his ability to be awed by the great mystery, and he connects it to writing. In fact, people of faith have a responsibility — indeed a duty, he said. A duty to preach? A duty to teach? No, a duty to create beauty.
“When you create beauty, you're doing something that honors God,” Egerton said, “and it involves framing.” He used the example of Jesus' story of the widow's mite. No one knows her name or who she was, but Jesus put a frame around the widow doing her small part by giving out of scarcity. “He framed a moment and found meaning there.”
The truth we're seeking can be compared to the blind spot in our vision, Egerton said. We can see it obliquely, out of the corner of our eye, but we can't see it if we stare at it. “The beauty of fiction is it's not on the head — you see around the edges. That's why we're more moved by a story than a statement of fact.” Just relax and follow the story, he said, you will wander onto the truth.
He approaches writing as a calling, an almost-religious vocation. “If I don't write, I'll be sacrificing something I was meant to be,” he said. Writers must follow their own inner vision to be any good at all, but they also have to be mindful that they are asking a lot of people. “We are asking people to read us when they could be reading the greats, like Hemingway or Flannery O'Conner.”
Egerton is now a Quaker and describes his religious philosophy as “shruggism.” When people ask him what he believes, he simply shrugs. He joked that Quakers stay silent in their services because they're afraid they're going to offend somebody if they speak.
The Book of Harold is an irreverent, humorous, gentle pilgrimage through the claims of religion that in no way diminishes faith, but instead reframes it.

Owen Egerton’s website, http://www.owenegerton.com/, has contact information, a list of appearance, and a social media section.