July 18th, 2013
In story, people meet easily.
Stories are based on characters meeting one another, being inspired by one another, taking on a mentor, finding a love, making a friend. That is story.
Characters meet one another with ease all the time. How often do we see characters who are lonely or sick or have little confidence suddenly meet someone and the adventure begins. Ten minutes in and they are sharing their innermost secrets and bearing their souls. It's all so easy and it gives the impression that all any of us need is a call to adventure with the right compadres and we're away, the heroes of our own journeys.
In real life making a friend, meeting someone, or really talking to someone, is a rare thing. Maybe that reflects more about me, the writer, than it does others. I am quite an outgoing person but on my journey, in my experience, meeting people is rare. Talking to people is commonplace sure enough. But connecting with people is rare and unusual.
If you don't agree, think about how often people talk about the weather, count coins into another's hands, hold doors open, say thank you. That's meeting someone in the most basic sense. But in those situations are we really talking? Are we really embracing that individual or the experiencing of meeting them? Are we really connecting with a person on a deep level? Are we even acknowledging that they are a person rather than a shadow on the wall or a part of the furniture of the outside world? Are they just a representation? A figment of reality perhaps?
And just how many people do you dismiss, fail to meet or disregard? Dustin Hoffman spoke very honestly about his role in Tootsie and said that if he met himself (dressed as the character) at a party that he "would never talk to that character." Of course we all make similar judgements and we all value our time and our attention. When did you last dismiss someone? Were you meeting them as a person? Did you even recognise their individuality? Did it even occur to you to find out they are as a person? And why not?
What it takes to embrace a person is something deeper. Maybe I can acknowledge the sovereignty of you, your individuality and the uniqueness of interaction with you. Maybe you are acknowledging me in that same moment. But unless we interact on the level of sharing our interaction - the meta conversation - of making it clear that we both realise we have both met a person, lets see what other ways we can interact, have we really met a person?
Unless that happens have I really met a person? Has a person really met me?
Meeting on Film
Stories are often about great individuals who meet people each and every day easily, but should all stories be about those great people? Can most of us relate to them? Can they really teach us or inspire us?
I believe stories for the screen need to have an element of greater truth in this regard. They should reflect the struggles that most of us have. People for whom meeting people, let alone connecting with them on any deep level, is a big challenge.
Characters aren't real people of course. Mostly people display the parts of themselves that fit - that mask of sameness that is required by society. On the tube train we keep our heads down and our headphones in. Yet in front of our colleagues and our friends we pretend that we meet people easily, that we are open and non-judgemental. We meet people mostly through introductions and then we take a long time to get to know one another. If we only have 90 minutes for a movie there isn't a lot of time to build a realistic friendship. We learn how to interact from what we see on the screen and it's not representative of real life. And it is in this area of realistic human interactions that I feel the media does most damage to individuals.
If someone came up to you in the street and started talking to you about a recent death in their family, would you take that opportunity to really meet that person, or would you excuse yourself with the reasoning that grief had rendered them temporarily unable to behave as society expects by keeping themselves to themselves. Yet how often do characters in stories take the time, make the connection, give of themselves, get involved? Let's be clear here, I'm NOT saying characters shouldn't do that - my belief we should all be interacting that way as real people! - I'm saying that in order to make stories more real we have to show the extraordinariness of the situation.
Stories must at the very least demonstrate how hard it is for most people to meet people, especially if our eponymous hero has any kind of arc. If he's brilliantly charismatic from the start then maybe that's a bit different. If we're watching James Bond then it doesn't matter too much. For stories that purport to be realistic, gritty, dramatic, romantic or tear-jerking, then a certain level of angst at man's inhumanity to man is to be expected. And maybe relating to the common man's loneliness is a touch stonethat should require more than the standard shot of a lonely individual walking down the street.
It takes more than that lonely character just talking to one particular individual to get over their loneliness, their isolation. To meet each other on a "I realise I'm alive and I realise you're alive, let's interact" level. HOW is their conversation any more than exchanging the weather?
Subtext comes into it a lot here, as does performance. Dialogue takes many edit passes to get that depth in terms of building both connection and discord. How can we learn to invoke those nuances that make the difference?
We can learn a lot by observation, listening to conversations in the street, by watching people. Notice how ill at ease they are. Is it real or is it a mask? Notice the people that don't interact or who are dismissed by others. Do you think they were really interacting? Did they even realise they were talking to another person?
We can learn a lot by paying attention to ourselves. Did you notice your last interaction? What did you say? Did you feel like you met someone or were you just passing by?
When did you last have a conversation with someone about life and death? Did you share your existential fears? Must people or characters always be facing some trauma, illness or death in order to discuss these things? Aren't we always facing life and death? Isn't the potential for trauma always just around the corner for us all? Why wait to have that conversation? We put our characters through it all the time and yet we never do it ourselves. We think we're being realistic when that conversation is based upon imagination. It's not. Put yourself in the situation. Try it! Then you can write not only from authority but with a whole host valuable information and experience to share.
My daughters decided to buy and give away balloons on the street recently. Not for any reason, just to be nice. To make people happy. It must have taken some guts to go up to strangers. I'm not sure I could do it. Would they be rejected? Would people understand or would they throw the balloons in their faces? But the people were delighted and I'm so proud of my daughters for both coming up with the idea and for actually doing it. It was a pleasure to hear them tell the tales. They met some great people and really seemed to have connected with them. People were surprised, I imagine, to have someone notice them. Some of them even asked why they had been chosen.
Maybe you could try something like this? How does talking to people make you feel? What are the emotions? The bodily sensations? How did they react? What did they say?
Does this change how you think about your characters meeting? Let me know.