creating characters in epic fiction, part 2

Character creation is one of the most difficult and demanding tasks in the art of storytelling. Some people have a talent for it—I think Charles Dickens was one of these—while the rest of us have to stretch out a thinner talent by relying on technique. In this series of posts about character creation, I am showing you my own approach to that aspect of the craft, based on what I have been able to learn so far. My education is ongoing and most likely will not end before the end of my life.

If you’re an observant person, psychologically astute, and interested in people, then you will have quite a lot of material on which to base fictional characters. But I’ve found that it doesn’t take too many stories for this fund of material to run dry. If you continue with the art of storytelling, sooner or later you will be faced with the task of creating characters from scratch. This is actually a blessing, for a scratch character can be shaped exactly to the needs of your story; you don’t have the awkward problem of trying to rejig your aunt Geraldine to be the bank manager in your story. For every good story has a point, and in such a story every character is helping you make your point. Characters crafted from scratch are in the best position to do this.

In Part 1 I talked about the preliminary task of determining what kind of a story you are telling, and thereby establishing the kind and depth of characters it will require. I mentioned Orson Scott Card’s MICE quotient: figuring out the  relative importance to your story of milieu, idea, character, and event. This series of posts is ostensibly about creating characters in epic fiction, but in fact most epics make use of fairly stock or archetypal characters. In Lord of the Rings, Gandalf is a wizard and he runs pretty true to type. The mission of that story does not include getting into the dark corners of his character. Indeed, I would say that J.R.R. Tolkien placed character at the bottom of his MICE quotient. I would put the relative priority of those 4 MICE factors for Lord of the Rings as MEIC: milieu, event, idea, character.

My own epic, The Age of Pisces, I see differently. The order here would probably be: ICEM. For my work, character is higher in the stack, and I must accordingly pay more attention to the individuality of my characters. I want characters who feel lifelike and who compel the reader’s attention. And my story needs are such that I must construct these characters from scratch—or nearly so. Here’s how I go about it.

A cookbook for making people

The preliminary steps I mentioned in Part 1 are taken care of. My story is to be told in what Northrop Frye calls the “high mimetic” mode: it’s about heroic characters acting in the real world. My main characters have qualities that set them apart from the common run. Herod, for example, was unusually proud, ambitious, and effective as a man. He also had serious problems—or “issues” in today’s parlance. But these too lend weight to his larger-than-life character. When big characters have a dark side, it can be dark indeed.

For my next step, I make use of a really good text that I’ve found, called The Complete Writer’s Guide to Heroes & Heroines: Sixteen Master Archetypes by Tami D. Cowden, Caro LaFever, and Sue Viders. These authors have examined a wide range of stories and discovered that their characters can be sorted into a set of 16 different “archetypes,” 8 male and 8 female. They find that each of these archetypes manifests in two different forms, so the text contains descriptions of a total of 32 different basic character types.

The authors provide each archetype with a vivid label, and they describe each one in terms of his qualities, virtues, flaws, background, and typical occupations. Not to keep you in suspense, the male archetypes are:

  • The Chief
  • The Bad Boy
  • The Best Friend
  • The Charmer
  • The Lost Soul
  • The Professor
  • The Swashbuckler
  • The Warrior

And the female archetypes:

  • The Boss
  • The Seductress
  • The Spunky Kid
  • The Free Spirit
  • The Waif
  • The Librarian
  • The Crusader
  • The Nurturer

But can all characters really be resolved down to these 8 archetypes? Well, yes—especially when you consider that it is possible in some cases to combine them (the authors talk about this).

For example, my wife Kim and I have been watching the 1974 television miniseries Scenes from a Marriage, written and directed by Ingmar Bergman. For 6 episodes we watch the two protagonists, Johan and Marianne, while their marriage of 10 years undergoes the crisis of breakup. I hadn’t thought about it till this moment, but I would say that Johan’s archetype is that of the Professor, while Marianne’s is that of the Nurturer. But Johan may also bring in aspects of the Bad Boy, for he has a dark and disruptive side.

Here’s a snippet of what the author have to say about the Professor:

The Professor’s strength is his intellect or special skills. Expert in one field or many, he has turned his life into one big science project. Every experience, every emotion has been the subject of objective examination. He is thoughtful, but not necessarily considerate.

This is not a bad description of Johan, who in fact holds an associate professorship of psychology at a university. The Professor typically has these virtues:

  • Expert: Not just smart, the Professor also is educated. Whatever his chosen field, he is the recognized authority.
  • Analytical: This man thinks before he acts. He refuses to be rushed and his conclusions are invariably correct.
  • Genuine: The Professor has not developed the disguises others have. When he gives his heart, he is painfully vulnerable. He never pretends something he does not actually feel. Hypocrisy and lies are foreign to him, and he is astonished when others use these weapons against him.

These might not be a super fit with Johan, but they’re not bad—they’re a start. The Professor’s flaws are perhaps a closer fit here:

  • Insular: He inhabits his own world and is unwilling to make room for others.
  • Inhibited: He has not spent a lot of time building up his experience with women. He is either frantically trying to think of something to say, or he does not want to take the time to say hello.
  • Inflexible: The Professor is set in his ways, and not enthusiastic at the prospect of change.

An important point is that this is not an entire description of the character; this is the description of an archetype. The archetype is like a chassis; the rest of the character must still be built on it. But for a writer it makes a great starting point, for the archetype already has a feel, an attitude—even a sketched-in background. There is the making of a person here.

And the key is that you’re building from the inside out. Unskilled character creation tends to start from externals and then search for something underneath the skin. Superior character creation starts from the inside and builds out.

But I’ve said enough for this time—stay tuned for next time!

In the meantime, take a look at my Creating Characters reading list (one of a growing collection).


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The Odyssey odyssey, part 8

Here’s the latest installment of the spine-chilling tale of the creation and production of my 1990s TV series The Odyssey. If you want to start at the beginning, go here. Otherwise, read on!

And if you have questions or observations, just make a comment here, or post to Twitter or Facebook.


The Odyssey created by Paul Vitols and Warren Easton“What’s Wrong with Neil?”, the half-hour comedy written by Warren Easton and me for the CBC anthology series Family Pictures, was aired in Canada on 9 March 1989. Kimmie and I held a broadcast party here, inviting our friends over to watch TV.

It was an exciting, thrilling experience–another landmark in the career of the film writer: actually seeing your produced work exhibited for the mass audience. Best of all is if you’re pleased with it yourself, and have a chance to be among that audience while they’re watching it. Everyone I’ve ever seen watching “What’s Wrong with Neil?” has agonized with the hero when his tender love-note is yanked away by the class clown and read mockingly to his peers. People cringe (but in a good way). Then, through the rest of the show, they laugh and are engaged with the story.

The elation was much like what I felt at the 1976 B.C. Student Film Festival, when a film I’d made with my friends, “The Device,” a 30-minute silent 8mm Cold War farce, brought much laughter to the audience composed of our competitors and their families (“The Device” won our category of Best High School Film). All that work–and there was plenty–finally pays off: you get to sit back and enjoy the audience’s enjoyment of the show. You can’t beat it.

Later on, when The Odyssey was in production, our story editor at the time, Hart Hanson, who was already a very successful TV writer (and is now a writer-producer in Hollywood of shows such as Bones and Joan of Arcadia), said that he had not yet had that experience. Working as a “hired gun” on other people’s shows, he was making lots of money, but never had he written an episode that he felt he could call up his relatives to urge them to tune in and watch.

For Warren and me it was the opposite: we weren’t making much money, but we were making shows of our own, that we felt good about inviting people to watch.

“What’s Wrong with Neil?” was one of the best of the 16 half-hours produced for Family Pictures. That’s not just my opinion: it was one of only three of the shows that was bought by the BBC for broadcast in Britain, and it also was accepted for competition at the Banff Television Festival that June. Incredibly, “What’s Wrong with Neil?” was selected with four or five other shows from around the world to compete for “Best One-Off Drama Under 60 Minutes”–a category that included shows like a one-hour British drama starring Alan Bates and Maggie Smith. Our little CBC half hour!

Michael Chechik, our producer, was very pleased and excited. He too wanted to land a series to produce, and talked up the idea of using “What’s Wrong with Neil?” as a pilot for a series. Audiences loved it and the network was happy with it–why not make more?

Warren and I were chilly to this idea. We didn’t see “Neil” as a series. The North Vancouver boy faking “cholera” as a way of dealing with humiliation in front of his peers made for a great half hour, but the family situation and the characters were not otherwise special or interesting enough to power a series. No: we didn’t want to just opportunistically try to stretch our half-hour idea into a whole series, which we felt would not distinguish itself from the pack. We wanted to offer something special, unique–something with lots of “wow” factor.

“We need to have an idea that’s a series right from the start,” we said.

We already had come up with the boy-in-a-coma idea in December 1987, but because I was worried that the idea was too dark for TV–especially for kids’ TV–we were sitting on that and working on other ideas to run by broadcasters. Thinking it would be cool to do serious, adult, one-hour television, we were tinkering with a couple of ideas.

One, tentatively entitled OR Suite, was engendered by the fact that both Warren and I had worked (as janitors) in Vancouver hospitals. It was to be a behind-the-scenes show about the surgeons, nurses, orderlies, and other workers that make up the special team of people in a large hospital’s OR suite. (Just a couple of years later, I was to start watching ER on American network TV–a massive hit.) We liked this idea and spent time creating characters and trying to determine a point of view for the story.

Another idea, which we called Paper Tigers, was about a big-city newspaper. We liked the idea of writing about hardbitten, hard-drinking journalists, even though here we didn’t have personal experience of the news business. We fiddled with the idea, trying to jazz it up by adding supernatural elements, even.

Michael was willing to pitch just about anything we came up with. I recall putting together the proposal package for Paper Tigers just before I left to do a one-month meditation program in Colorado in April. We were the writers and producers of “What’s Wrong with Neil?”–surely someone would want a TV series from us! We wanted to strike while the iron was still at least fairly warm.

However, when I returned from my meditation program in May I learned that no one wanted our Paper Tigers project. We needed something else. Michael said that what the CBC wanted was a show for kids–it had been looking, and not finding. Could Warren and I come up with something in that line?

Warren and I no doubt did the equivalent of look at each other significantly. Was prime time ready to watch a whole TV series about a comatose boy?

To be continued…


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The Odyssey odyssey, part 7

Here’s the latest installment of the spine-chilling tale of the creation and production of my 1990s TV series The Odyssey. If you want to start at the beginning, go here. Otherwise, read on!

And if you have questions or observations, just make a comment here, or post to Twitter or Facebook.


The Odyssey odyssey part 7, told by its creator Paul VitolsWarren and I knew we wanted to create a TV series about kids–showing their world without any adults. This was essentially what Charles Schulz achieved with his Peanuts comic-strip. You never saw an adult in Peanuts, at most only a child talking with an unseen and unheard teacher, or referring to a parent. But those situations were rare. Schulz’s universe was child-only, and this gave it much of its distinctive quality. Schulz dealt with universal and adult themes, but from an exclusively kid perspective.

We liked the idea of writing kid adventures from the kid point of view, of giving a kid adventure the feeling of bigness and importance it has for the kids involved. When adults are around, the kid world becomes small and immature.

We couldn’t think of a way to make this happen–until December 1988. I don’t remember exactly how the idea arose (Warren, if you’re out there, you might recall), but we hit on the notion of putting our kid-hero into a dream-world. In a dream, you can set the parameters any way you like: if you want to banish adults, then out they go. But how do you keep your kid only in a dream-world?

By having him always asleep.

By having him in a coma.

As soon as this idea cropped up we saw its potential. I don’t recall the exact place now–it might have been at the new suite of Omni-Films offices in a renovated warehouse on Water Street in Gastown, about four blocks from the old Dominion Building, where Warren and I used to meet for awhile after our respective day-jobs to work, nourishing ourselves with pastries I would bring from the Lonsdale Quay Market; or it might have been at Warren’s apartment on 4th Avenue near Alma–but I remember the rush of excited talk.

Our hero goes into a coma and finds himself in a world populated only by kids: he’s now in a permanent version of our summer-vacation reverie. But it’s much more powerful, because now we can introduce adventures and problems that you don’t face on your summer vacation–and there’s no home to return to at suppertime. Yeah: our guy finds himself in this new, strange world, and doesn’t know what’s happened, where he is. He wants to go home to supper–but doesn’t know where that is now, or how to get there. And of course, getting “home” will mean waking up from his coma! Yes! Of course! That gives our story another thing missing so far: a goal. Our story is about something now: our hero’s quest to find his home–which we in the audience will know means consciousness!

You could do so much with this. His friends from the waking world could appear here in unfamiliar forms–they could be his friends down here, too, only he wouldn’t realize that he knows them from waking life. And the “dream” nature of the show means we can bring in symbolic and mythical images or themes; we can bring in fear and horror–whatever we want! The “dream” lets us open the floodgates of imagination–we can really let loose!

Excitedly we talked. What would a kid-only world look like? How would it behave, if it were not only missing adults, but maybe were not even aware of adults–had not even heard of them? What if our hero were the only guy here who’s ever seen an adult? Yes! That makes him more distinctive, more special and weird in this other world. The kids down here would have their own politics, their own “institutions”, their own justice! We, the audience, would learn about it as our hero does, while he explores this strange place.

And meanwhile, in the waking world, our hero’s family and friends would be watching over him, trying to get him to wake up. Stimuli from that world might leak down to his dreamworld in transformed guise.

Yes, yes–it was a fantastic idea. Exciting! But as we talked about it over the coming days and weeks, I felt a certain pessimism set in.

“How can you do a show about someone in a coma?” I said. “What network will want that?”

Warren felt that was not a concern. After all, most of the show would be in the dreamworld, where our hero would be alive and well. Yes, I thought, but comas are a downer: they’re sad and depressing. We certainly wouldn’t want to treat the coma as something comedic; indeed, we’d want to treat it as realistically as possible. But the more realistic we are with the coma, the more dark and un-kidlike the show becomes. So I thought. I started to feel that the idea would be a tough sell, especially as a kids’ show.

Therefore, in those dark winter days of 1989, while Warren remained bullish on our boy-in-coma idea, my pessimism caused us to shelve it for the time being to try to come up with other ideas that might be more salable. Our mood was still up: “What’s Wrong with Neil?” was about to be broadcast–another milestone for us. I had just turned 30, and felt I had arrived at a career I had long wanted: to be making TV shows of my own.

Warren and I kept at it, meeting in the dim, deserted, and now stylish offices of the Omni-Films suite in the evenings, talking, writing, and still, I’m sure, sometimes laughing. Eager for a series of our own, we kept hammering away.

To be continued…


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knowledge is power

I like to let my reading follow its own natural course. By that I mean that I like to read whatever interests me at the moment. I want to follow my passion, as far as I can, and staying consistent with what my projects and my long-term goals call for.

Recently I was excited to read The Dictator’s Handbook by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith; it gives a clear-eyed account of how politics at all levels really is driven by the basic imperative of power. That is, the functioning of all political organizations, from nation states down to your local strata council, is determined by the nature of the forces that keep the leader in power. The leader’s behavior is dictated, finally, by this dynamic: all leaders seek to gain and retain power, and they do whatever they need to in order to secure the continued support of their essential backers. In the systems we call democratic, these essential backers are many, and leaders in these systems necessarily have to enact policies that are congenial with large sections of the electorate. But in the systems we call autocratic, which form the great majority of political systems in the world, the number of essential backers is relatively small, and the method of holding on to power is always the same: to grease these backers as lavishly as possible. If you fail to do this, they will replace you with someone who is more forthcoming with goodies. Among many other things, this is why aid from the rich world to the poor world is almost entirely embezzled before it ever reaches its intended beneficiaries. That money goes to the bank accounts of the leaders’ backers.

Mesquita and Smith have persuaded me that this is indeed the way the world works. But when I finished their book, I wanted to know more. What is power, exactly? How does its chemistry and plumbing work in human interactions and organizations? Where does it fit in psychological theory? I found that I urgently wanted to know why the world functions in the way described by these authors. Follow the passion!

I searched Amazon.ca for books on power, but didn’t find anything that really matched what I was looking for. Possibly the psychological theories of Alfred Adler are a place to look; I made note of a book there. Then I thought about my own library, and remembered a book I got in December 2005: The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene. It’s a large, carefully produced paperback, and is a textbook on the strategies and tactics of gaining and holding power. Perfect! Once again, my own library held just what I was looking for.

One book to rule them all

I’d started to read the book when I first got it, but was soon put off by its Machiavellian tone. I found the “laws” repugnant for the most part, and dismissed the text as a manual for psychopaths. Even though I had acquired the book as a tool to help me understand character construction in my writing, I found its message too depressing for me to wade through all 452 of its pages. I shelved it, thinking that I could get back to it later.

Well, later has arrived: 152 months later. What was an unappetizing slog in 2005 has become a much more congenial, if still depressing, read in 2018. I’m now 129 pages in and have read 17 of the laws.

What are these laws like? Law 1 (and I don’t know why they are ordered the way they are) is: Never outshine the master. When you’re under a boss who has power over you, your aim must be to make your boss look good: pass all credit up to him, and your own path to power will be smoothed.

Law 2 is: Never put too much trust in friends, learn how to use enemies. Friends are not to be trusted, for they show you only their best side and are often driven by envy. When recruiting, you’re better off hiring a former enemy than a friend; you already know where the enemy stands and he has more to prove. Indeed, enemies are so useful that the text actually says, “If you have no enemies, find a way to make them.”

The other laws continue in this vein. If you’re a decent, good-hearted person, they are thoroughly dispiriting. They provide a detailed rationale for some of the worst human behavior. Maybe the most disheartening part is the attitude taken by the author: that everyone is really driven by these motives, and that a life spent pursuing power is a worthwhile one.

It’s not a view that I can agree with. I hold, with Carl Jung, that:

Where love rules, there is no will to power; and where power predominates, there love is lacking. The one is the shadow of the other.

Human happiness is much more connected with love than it is with power. Indeed, I suspect that power is what we seek—or one of the things we seek—when we feel, for whatever reason, that love is not an option for us.

As a spiritual person and a caring human being, one who seeks love in his life and cares about others’ happiness, I cannot subscribe to the 48 laws of power. But I’m reading them anyway. For there are useful tips here which are not all necessarily evil, and furthermore, as noted above, most of the world is run by people who do subscribe to these laws—or would if they knew about them.

And, even more importantly for the storyteller, power is a key dynamic in every story, and the storyteller is well advised to become educated in its dark alchemy.

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The Odyssey odyssey, part 6

Here’s the latest installment of the spine-chilling tale of the creation and production of my 1990s TV series The Odyssey. If you want to start at the beginning, go here. Otherwise, read on!

And if you have questions or observations, just make a comment here, or post to Twitter or Facebook.


Ryan Reynolds in The Odyssey, created by Paul Vitols and Warren EastonWhile “What’s Wrong with Neil?” was in production in early November 1988, Warren and I were bending our heads to the task of coming up with an idea for a viable TV series, so that we could provide ourselves with writing gigs on into the future. I mentioned in part 5 a walk we took through Grousewoods while the show was being filmed. I recall we also took one or more walks through my own neighborhood, down the mountainside from and east of Grousewoods. What kind of a TV series could we create?

We wanted to do a show about kids. We liked the innocent energy and comedic potential of kids, and felt that they are mainly poorly portrayed on TV, written condescendingly, either as cute moppets dutifully obedient to adults, or as precocious smart-asses who are really just adults in children’s bodies–more like the jesting midgets at the courts of medieval monarchs than like real kids. We knew we could do better than that, and had already proven it with “What’s Wrong with Neil?” It was obvious to us: most adults are not able to get into the mind of a child, to see the world again through a child’s eyes. They’ve forgotten. Children are almost always written from the outside; we were able to write them from the inside–and that gave us a big edge, surely.

How to get a show that focuses only on kids, without having annoying adults get in the way? How do you get kids on their own? At school? But school is so structured, and is run by adults. We thought back to when we were kids on summer vacations: long days spent among friends and neighboring kids–leaving the house in the morning, playing and adventuring through the day, then returning home for dinner at night. In all that time, you lived in a kid world, having kid adventures: riding bikes; collecting pop bottles to turn into candy-buying cash; getting into pine-cone fights with unfamiliar kids in the park; sneaking into public swimming-pools; speculating on mysteries like sex; exploring woods and ravines…

Yes! That would make a cool show: kids on vacation, having adventures with other kids, with never an adult in sight. They have their own society, their own politics, their own justice. They return to the “adult” world only at dinnertime, when they become subordinate members of the family once again, awaiting the next day and another tour of freedom.

But you can’t make a TV series out of kids on summer vacation. It’s too random; there’s no goal. It’s just kids playing and fooling around. And even in a show like that, you wouldn’t be able to exclude adults altogether–they’d have to be part of the action, even if only because we’d need to know about the family situation of each of our characters. The problem: how to have a world of kids without adults? We puzzled over it.

Meanwhile, “What’s Wrong with Neil?” wrapped: a very pleasant and successful shoot. A short time later a wrap party was thrown at the cinematographer Rob McLachlan’s house in North Vancouver. While I munched snacks from a table, I met a man I hadn’t seen before: a pleasant, softspoken guy with his face set in a faint smile. We introduced ourselves, and I learned that he was Michael Conway Baker, the composer hired to do the score for the show. When I told him I was one of the writers he made a point of complimenting me on the quality of the script.

“In my work I see a lot of scripts,” he said. “Very few are anywhere near the caliber of this one.”

“Thank you very much,” I said.

He said that the script was funny, but what he liked was that the story was so good.

“Yes,” I said. “A good comedy first of all has to be a good drama.”

Michael nodded emphatically. I was intrigued to learn that he was using “What’s Wrong with Neil?” as a teaching tool for his students in a course at UBC on film scoring. He told me he had screened the rough cut of the show for his class, and got them to write music for it. (Michael’s score for the show was very good; he’s one of the premier composers in Canada, and later on would do the music for The Odyssey.)

“In that opening sequence,” he said, “when the kid’s running home–” (After Neil’s love-note is read aloud to the other kids by his sadistic classmate, Neil runs from the school and sprints home “like he’s being chased by killer bees”, as we put it in the script.) “–they were writing this very romantic, Romeo-and-Juliet music.” He shook his head.

Michael had seen it quite differently: he’d written a tempestuous score there, a dramatic score–something more like the New World Symphony or “Ride of the Valkyries”. The music was expressing Neil’s feelings–his point of view, not our point of view, the audience’s. By treating the show as drama, he was liberating its comedic energy: making it funnier.

I was very pleased to meet Michael, and felt that he was a kindred spirit. It was excellent confirmation of our approach to writing.

As December 1988 drew in, “What’s Wrong with Neil?” was approved for broadcast by the network and slated to be aired in March 1989. Warren and I continued to tussle with the question of how to get a TV show populated only by kids.

To be continued…


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The Odyssey odyssey, part 5

Here’s the latest installment of the spine-chilling tale of the creation and production of my 1990s TV series The Odyssey. If you want to start at the beginning, go here. Otherwise, read on!

And if you have questions or observations, just make a comment here, or post to Twitter or Facebook.


The Odyssey created by Paul VitolsNovember 1988: principal photography for “What’s Wrong with Neil?”, written by Paul Vitols and Warren Easton–one of several Vancouver-produced episodes for the CBC anthology series Family Pictures.

Brad Turner, an experienced TV director, was hired to direct the episode. Michael’s partner at Omni-Films, Rob McLachlan, a former competitive cyclist, was to be director of photography. David French was cast as Neil Kozak, the 12-year-old boy whose love-note to a girl in his class gets read out loud, causing him to flee home in mortification and feign illness so he never has to return to school to face his peers. Sarah Bowling was cast as Heather, his narcissistic older sister. The episode was filmed here on the suburban slopes of North Vancouver, using a house up in the Grousewoods neighborhood as the location for the Kozaks’ home, and using Handsworth Secondary School to stand in for Neil’s elementary school. The sets were a five-minute drive from my house.

When Warren and I first went up to the set, it was day one of filming at the school. There were equipment trucks outside and electrical cables snaking through the weekend halls. The crew was competent and busy, but the atmosphere was relaxed and fun.

In high school I had made films myself, and so had had the experience of being on sets where my own writing was being filmed. But those were small, low-budget, self-financed efforts–which I also coproduced and directed. The feeling was altogether different from walking on the set of a full-blown professional film production on which everyone is carrying around pink copies of the script that we’d written, all marked up with their own technical concerns. It was a huge thrill.

I’ve just fished out the file on “What’s Wrong with Neil?” from a box under my desk that contains “old projects”. My gosh: here’s acopy of the “final draft script”, with the title page on Omni-Films letterhead; a copy of the shooting schedule; a copy of our 3-page writer contract (our total fee: $5,346–very nice in 1988); our resume; and a couple of black-and-white still photos from the production. One is a cast-and-crew group shot; the other is a shot of Warren and me looking on at the filming: an intent and wonder-struck pair of young men.

The second scene filmed one day 1 was scene 1, the opener of act 1. Here’s the beginning of that script, which I have right in front of me:

1. INT. – SCHOOLROOM – LATE MORNING

OPENING TITLE SUPER over a BIG CLOSEUP of the HAND of a 12-year-old BOY, drawing something carefully on a folded-up wad of looseleaf. It’s a heart.

PULL BACK TO ESTABLISH the boy in a grade seven classroom, where the kids are all bent over some kind of worksheet. He is NEIL KOZAK, an outwardly unemotional, nerdish boy, and he has finished his worksheet some time ago. He covers the folded looseleaf with his hands, afraid of having it seen. He glances at the desk beside his. From his POV we see the girl working there: BETH ANDERSON, an outspoken girl who can order around boys her own age. There’s a book satchel on the floor by her desk. When we CUT TO NEIL’S FACE again, we can see that he adores her. His reverie is broken by a whisper:

JASPER
Neil–what’s the answer to number seventeen?

It is JASPER GOPAL, Neil’s loyal Indian-Canadian friend, who is more at home with skateboards and NHL players than school worksheets. He sits in the desk in front of Beth.

NEIL
(whispers)
The Holy Roman Empire.

The BOY in the desk in front of Neil’s also turns around. It is RANDY SINCLAIR, class showoff and sadist.

RANDY
(whispers)
Hey Kozak–what’s number four?

JASPER
You’re only on number four?
Randy reaches across the aisle and whacks Jasper with a flexible plastic ruler.

RANDY
Shut up, retard. I left this one for last, okay?

BETH
Stuff a sock in it, Sinclair. Do your own work.

Randy pretends to tremble.

Thus page 1 of the script. For most of the filming Warren and I were allowed into the classroom, stuffed in a corner among lights and so on. Brad Turner was very good with the kids, relaxed and easygoing. After each take he would laugh at the humor of the scene. In one shot, where Neil had to pass his note at a certain point while the camera moved, and David kept missing his cue or timing it wrong, Brad had a rope tied around David’s leg, which Brad pulled in order to cue him at the right moment during the camera move.

People working on the show were very complimentary to us about the script. Everybody liked it and wanted to realize it to their utmost. The atmosphere on the set was very relaxed, creative, and “up”. Warren and I loved being there. Writing isn’t always fun, but watching people film a (good) script that you’ve written is fun.

The days went by and the filming went well. Warren and I spent lots of time on the set, eating catered lunches with the crew under a tarp while the cold November rain fell around us.

On one of the days when it was not raining, Warren and I went walking through the neighborhood around the set. We agreed that having our script produced was an altogether excellent experience. There was only one thing wrong with it: it was only one script. A single episode. After that: nothing. In order to keep this experience happening, we’d have to create our own TV series–a whole bunch of scripts.

That focused our minds: we need a TV show. But what?

That was the question. Flash Dispatch, the pilot script we’d written four years earlier, going on five, was pretty much a dead issue. The fax machine had arrived and the bicycle courier’s day was already in decline. We needed something new–but what?

We liked writing for kids and knew we could do it well. Everyone commented on the vivid and nonpatronizing way we had written the kids’ parts in “What’s Wrong with Neil?”. We saw kids as distinct, passionate individuals, not different from adults except in their level of knowledge about the world. Yes: we wanted to write kid material, but with a comedic take.

But what?

To be continued…


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creating characters in epic fiction, part 1

I’ve been writing for a long time, and I do it professionally, but nonetheless I regard myself as a student of the craft rather than some kind of master of it. So if you’re a writer, or perhaps a deep and inquisitive reader, then I would like to share what I’ve managed to learn of the craft so far, student to student, if you will. I won’t be able to put it all in one post, but let’s see how far I get with this one.

I have long felt that character creation and portrayal has been one of my weak points. It’s not that I’m bad at it or untalented; rather, I think that I have relied on my talent—that is, my instincts—rather than on a knowledge of the craft of character creation. My perceptiveness about people and my knowledge of psychology powered my character portrayals up until maybe 10 years ago, when I started studying the craft more seriously.

Creating Characters in Epic Fiction Part One by Paul Vitols

This sculptor works in the ironic mode

My major work in progress is The Age of Pisces, an epic. How do I handle character development for it? There are a lot of characters, including 5 point-of-view characters (at last count). And it’s not a perfect textbook case, for I am developing characters that I first began working on as long ago as 2002, so there has been a long process here where the characters have grown and evolved in my mind along with the story. That process is still happening. But I have developed a methodology—one that I’m still working on—for creating characters, and I’ll share my thoughts on that.

First of all, there are 2 important considerations that affect the way characters should be handled for any given work. These have to do with the kind of work it is—and by this I refer not to the genre of its story, but to factors which are antecedent even to that. One is what could be called the story’s level. Northrop Frye, in his Anatomy of Criticism, distinguished 5 modes of story based on the powers and moral status of the hero. In descending order of power and status, they are:

  • mythic mode: the hero has powers far beyond our own and is operating in a world where extraordinary and wondrous things are possible—so, stories of the gods. Example: Zeus in the Iliad
  • romantic mode: the hero is superior in degree to us, but not in kind, as in the mythic story; he still operates in a marvelous world, but his exploits are basically human. Example: Odysseus in the Odyssey
  • high mimetic mode: the hero is still superior in degree to us, but now operates in a world that is recognizably like our own in terms of its laws and possibilities. Example: John McClane in Die Hard
  • low mimetic mode: now the hero, superior neither to other men nor to his environment, is one of us; this kind of story is about the common man. Example: Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye
  • ironic mode: this hero is inferior to us in power, intelligence, or integrity, and we have a sense, in Frye’s words, of “looking down on a scene of bondage, frustration, or absurdity.” Example: Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver

Task 1 for the writer, I would say, is to locate your story on this scale of modes. The characters you create will need to conform to the mode in which they’re operating. Are you writing about a powerful figure who is changing the world, or about a schmuck who’s going to have the crap kicked out of him?

The next task is to decide on the priorities of your story in terms of its presentation. Here I’m referring to a system described by Orson Scott Card in his book Characters and Viewpoint. He calls it the “MICE quotient.” Here MICE is an acronym for:

  • milieu
  • idea
  • character
  • event

Card suggests that every story places these factors in some kind of hierarchy. For example, the milieu of a story is its setting, the world that it portrays. In some stories, this is the most important factor, for example, Lord of the Rings, or possibly the Harry Potter series. The reader is drawn in by the world of the story even more than by its characters or what happens in it.

Some stories have idea uppermost. In this kind of story, issues of theme weigh heaviest; the meaning of what happens is more important than anything else. The Divine Comedy of Dante would be an example of this.

More commonly, stories are character driven: the portrayal of characters is their chief interest. I think that David Copperfield would be an example here.

Finally, many stories focus more on events or plot. Probably most “genre” stories fit into this category: thrillers, science fiction, romance, horror, and so on. Kimmie and I recently watched Jaws again, and I think it is a good example of this kind of story.

All stories contain all of these elements, but they prioritize them differently. Right now, for example, I’m reading Joseph and His Brothers by Thomas Mann, a 1500-page retelling of the Genesis tale of how Joseph is sold into slavery by his brothers and rises to great prominence in Egypt. I think that here Mann ranked the story factors thus:

  1. idea
  2. character
  3. milieu
  4. event

So Joseph and His Brothers is not a MICE work, but rather ICME. Not long ago I read The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger. In that story I think Salinger stacked the factors this way:

  1. character
  2. milieu
  3. event
  4. idea

or CMEI—quite a different flavor of story from Mann’s.

In any case, I think that you as writer need to know how you value these factors, and rank them for your own story. When it comes to developing characters, you need to keep your priorities in mind. The characters in, say, The Lord of the Rings all have a lot less complexity and depth than, say, Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye. And this is due mainly to the different missions of these stories. J.R.R. Tolkien put milieu at the top of his stack and character at the bottom, because that was what his story required. So character development for him was a relatively simple process. He couldn’t present the full richness of his imagined world and have deep, complex characters; it would have made things too complicated and muddled the mythic quality of his tale.

Those 2 tasks done, you the writer are ready to embark on the project of actual character creation. Stay tuned.

In the meantime, take a look at my Creating Characters reading list (one of a growing collection).


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The Odyssey odyssey, part 4

Here’s the latest installment of the spine-chilling tale of the creation and production of my 1990s TV series The Odyssey. If you want to start at the beginning, go here. Otherwise, read on!

And if you have questions or observations, just make a comment here, or post to Twitter or Facebook.


The Odyssey odyssey by Paul VitolsWarren and I wrote “What’s Wrong with Neil?” on weekends and evenings in 1988, as I recall (you reading this, Warren? feel free to elaborate), mainly here in my home office. We took it through the stages laid out in the Writers Guild of Canada Independent Production Agreement, from step outline to first draft to final draft. I typed the material on my electric typewriter, and we received actual payments for each step.

(For Flash Dispatch we had never received any actual money payment–just the use of the spare room in the Omni-Films suite in the Dominion Building. The only person, as far as I know, who was actually paid for “working” on the Flash Dispatch script was a woman writer whom Michael Chechik had engaged to critique the script, who received $100 essentially to trash the project. Warren and I were choked about that. Michael, as ever, laughed the whole thing off as though it had involved people he didn’t know personally and he were merely hearing about it third-hand.)

Where was I. When we delivered the first draft of the script, probably about June 1988, the series story editor, Jana Veverka, was favorably impressed, and conceded that we had indeed found plenty of story in our idea to fill the half-hour (a commercial TV “half-hour” is actually something just under 24 minutes of storytelling). As a professional scriptwriter herself, she offered good, focused comments on how to improve aspects of the script, and kept her hands off the stuff that worked–which was most of it. We would eventually learn how different that type of story meeting was from one with network executives who had never written anything and who had to guess at what they liked and didn’t like about a script.

In all, the writing process was pleasant. People found the script engaging and funny–the people we were dealing with, that is. For the decision on whether to go ahead and shoot the script would be made by CBC honchos back in Toronto. That’s the big decision, the expensive decision. Warren and I split about $3,000 to write the script, and that was essentially most of the cost associated with the episode up to that point. To produce the thing (and for this Michael had to submit a budget to the network) would cost (I’m guessing, thinking back to 1988 prices) something on the order of $200,000. Not all of this money would come from the CBC, for in Canada, with its small population, even a national network doesn’t earn enough to be able to finance full-blown drama productions on its own. Funding had to be tapped from Telefilm, another federal cultural agency, and then also from other sources–hard to find, since TV shows in Canada had an even tougher time then making money than they do now.

However, with a broadcast commitment from the CBC, that other funding could definitely be found. Would they go for it? How did we compare with the other scripts and productions being dreamed up across the country for this Family Pictures anthology? Warren and I had seen some of the other concepts being developed, and thought ours compared very favorably. For one thing, it was one of the few comedies in the mix, and of those, it had probably the catchiest premise–the intercepted love-note. Jana Veverka liked it–but the decision was not hers.

It would have been in the summer, July or August, that I got the call from Michael: the network had green-lighted us for production.

Yahoo! Another big increase in “realness” for the writers: our script was actually going to be produced! All kinds of expert help would be hired, film would be purchased, expensive equipment rented–people would be poring over our little script, figuring out how to get it on film! Plus, on day 1 of “principal photography”, Warren and I would get another lump-sum payment–the balance of our writing fee, which was contingent on the show actually being produced.

This was it: the true watershed of film writing. Years later, at a writers’ conference, I heard a presentation by a literary agent talking about the difficulties facing writers known to the publishing world as the uns: unpublished and unrepresented. In the film world, the un writer is unproduced. When you cross the divide from unproduced to produced, you enter the realm of the professional: you join those who also have persuaded people to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars, maybe more, to realize your work. Let me tell you, it’s a great feeling. Especially for something so flaky and creative, something created by, as Warren and I sometimes said, “two kooks in a room.”

Michael quickly got things rolling, hiring people, getting the rest of the financing together. Meanwhile he, the producer, like producers elsewhere, was having to provide his own “bridge financing”–fronting his own money to meet expenses, trusting that the big corporations who have made the promises will eventually cut him checks, as stipulated, when all the gears have turned in their internal bureaucracies.

Production was slated for early November. I did my utmost to arrange some days off, for by day I was still a clerk at another Crown Corporation–a writerly Clark Kent whose everyday identity earned his crust by helping keep B.C.’s vehicle fleet licensed and insured. Now I really had something to look forward to: watching people film the material I’d written.

More of that anon. To be continued…


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The Odyssey odyssey, part 3

The Odyssey odyssey by Paul VitolsFor better or for worse, the work for which I am still best known is The Odyssey, the fantasy TV series which I created and wrote with my writing partner and longtime friend Warren Easton. In it, an 11-year-old boy, Jay Ziegler, falls out of a treehouse and ends up in a coma, which somehow has transported him to an unsettling world where children rule because adults have never been heard of. The Odyssey starred Illya Woloshyn, Tony Sampson, and the late Ashleigh Aston Moore, and provided many other local kid actors, such as Ryan Reynolds, with their career starts. The show was produced here in Vancouver and initially aired by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, with 39 episodes appearing between 1992 and 1995.

In Canadian terms our show was a hit, with a peak audience of over 1 million viewers, and many more than that when you look at other countries. It was also a huge critical success, drawing praise for its intelligent, hard-hitting material aimed at kids without talking down to them. Many, perhaps most, of the show’s fans were adults, intrigued to find mythological, psychological, and political themes entwined in a kids’ adventure story. The series was a darling of festivals, winning awards such as a Top Ten World Program at the Cologne Conference—that is, selection as one of the 10 best TV shows ever made.

The Odyssey was a successful story, but the creation of the series, its writing and production, was a perilous ordeal for the inexperienced writers whose brainchild it was. In February 2008 I started to tell the story of its creation in a series of posts at my old blog, Genesis of a Historical Novel. I have decided to repost the series here on my new site for readers new and old. You’ll find a new episode here every Wednesday.

Below is part 3 of The Odyssey Odyssey—enjoy! And if you have questions or observations, just make a comment here, or post to Twitter or Facebook.


In 1987 I got away from scriptwriting. I was back at the Insurance Corporation; I became a Buddhist and took up meditation; Kimmie and I bought a townhouse together; and I was working on my New Age thriller novel, Truth of the Python.

I recall that Warren and I prepared more material for our would-be TV series Flash Dispatch, ideas for episodes for a first season, plus a description of how each episode would look and feel, and descriptions of the characters–material that in the TV world constitutes the “bible” of a series. Michael Chechik got the material in front of CBC drama executives in Vancouver, but their verdict was that the pilot script did not live up the potential in the accompanying material.

So there we sat.

But later that year, CBC headquarters in Toronto, no doubt responding to ongoing prodding and complaining by independent producers across the country, and making one of their occasional token efforts to give substance to their mandate to be a “national” broadcaster and not merely a Toronto broadcaster, came up with the idea of producing an anthology of one-off half-hour dramas from non-Toronto producers (that is, from “the regions”, in CBC-speak). The intent was to give producers in “the regions” a chance to get some experience in producing drama for the CBC, and, of course, to give voice to “regional” perspectives from across Canada. It will help Canadians learn more about each other! Just what the CBC is supposed to promote! Warm glows all round.

The anthology was to be called Family Pictures, and the theme was Canadian family life. CBC corporate ambassadors were sent out to meet with “regional” producers to explain the concept and give them documents describing what the network was looking for in the dramas. Michael was at the Vancouver meeting, and he called Warren and me up to suggest that we come up with an idea to pitch to the CBC. We said sure.

I came up with an idea. It was on 7 December 1987. I thought back to when I was in grade 7 at Brooksbank School here in North Vancouver, when I heard a rumor about a boy in another grade 7 class who had passed a love-note to a girl in the class, and the note had fallen into someone else’s hands and then been made public. I don’t know whether that actually happened, and I don’t recall the boy in question acting any differently than usual (strange in any case), but I thought: what if we wrote that story, and had our lover-boy feel, in his humiliation, that he can’t return to school ever again to face his peers?

When I pitched the idea to Warren he liked it right away; we knew it was a winner. And it was exactly the kind of thing we wanted to do: a comedy focused on kids. Thus was born the idea for “What’s Wrong with Neil?”: the story of a 12-year-old boy who passes a love-note to a girl in class, which is intercepted and read out loud by the class showoff, thus causing the boy to run home and pretend to be sick–so sick he could never go back to school…

We wrote up a couple of pages of material sketching the story and gave them to Michael. He sent them in to the CBC, and we waited.

A few months later (fast in TV-show-development time), probably early spring 1988, I got a call from Michael: the CBC liked our story and wanted to go to script.

Wahoo! I experienced the next big leap forward in “realness”: it wasn’t just a producer now who was interested in my work–it was a network, the people who would actually pay for it to be produced, and then broadcast it! Jubilation!

But I didn’t quit my job–not this time. This was only a one-off half-hour drama, and I had two mortgages now. Warren and I would have to write in our available off-job time, as when we’d written Flash Dispatch. But now we were not on conflicting shifts; I was on days and it would be a lot easier.

Michael held a meeting at Omni in which we met with Jana Veverka, the story editor contracted by the CBC to supervise the writing of the scripts for Family Pictures. (Later she’d go on to produce TV shows such as Bordertown and Airwolf.) As I recall, that first meeting was still in the Omni suite on the 11th floor of the Dominion Building. Jana was very positive about the story idea, and liked the fact that our hero was a nerdish love-sick 12-year-old. Her concern was that there might not be enough story there to fill a half-hour of TV.

“There’s plenty there,” we said. We saw some nice farce opportunities in the story.

There: we’d just had our first meeting with a network representative–our first “story meeting”. We were on our way.

To be continued…


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words are made to be heard

It’s always interesting to hear someone else read what I’ve written. Novelwritingfestival.com runs a recurring competition for novels and short stories. The short stories are actually short-short stories—under 400 words. Xera Rondlings, festival director at the Monthly Novel Writing Festival in Beverly Hills, sent me a message on LinkedIn to invite me to submit something.

At first I thought that I didn’t have anything that qualified. But then I remembered my new work in progress, Sparkles on the Inlet, which is a collection of memoir sketches from my earliest childhood. Perhaps one of them would fit the bill.

I wound up choosing “Moving Day,” just 315 words. The good people at the festival selected it for production, and created a video of the story, read by actress Val Cole. Take a look (it’s under 2 minutes long) and see what you think.

Moving Day, a short story by Paul Vitols

 

As for the book, that will be appearing before long. How far back in your own life do you remember? And how do you feel about those earliest memories? To me, all memories have a bittersweet flavor; but the memories I’ll be presenting in my book are basically good. Watch this space.

PS If you agree that words are made to be heard, you may be interested in getting two free  audiobooks from Audible:

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