The Odyssey odyssey, part 12

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 12, told by Paul VitolsThe 1990s arrived, and with them my 31st birthday.

Apparently Ivan Fecan, then CBC’s head of programming (now CEO of the CTV Television Network), had not read our package on his skiing trip after all, and got to it only when he returned to the office in the new year. Later in January he was planning to make a trip west to visit CBC’s “regional” offices, including Vancouver. Meanwhile, via Michael Chechik, our producer, we heard an early glimmering of Fecan’s response to our show: it lacked “allegory”.

A meeting was set up so that we on The Jellybean Odyssey team could get direct feedback from Fecan while he was visiting Vancouver. We were to convene at the CBC building on Hamilton Street at, I think, 10:00 a.m. on Monday 22 January. I put on a jacket and tie, packed the script, proto-series-bible, and episode ideas into my attache case, and joined the other commuters driving over town to work–a most unfamiliar experience to me, who had not had to commute to a workplace since I’d moved to North Vancouver in 1985.

The meeting was set not in a conference-room, but in a “green room”–a lounge used by performers before going on to a soundstage. There was fairly elaborate security to get inside the brutal concrete mass of the Crown Corporate building (bomb threats due to their programming, possibly). I made it to the room, along with Warren, Michael, Hart Hanson, and I believe Phil Keatley (still the head of drama development in Vancouver at the time–help me out Warren if you remember differently). In came Angela Bruce, CBC’s head of children’s programming, tall, English, with pearl-colored hair and a cane, with her boss Ivan Fecan, a relaxed man, just a few years older than Warren and me, who had acquired quasi-Wunderkind status for having worked in L.A. with Fred Silverman, a famous TV executive. We all shook hands, Fecan dropped onto one of the modernistic foam seats, and we got going.

“I like this project,” said Fecan, “it’s a very creative idea. But as I read the script, I found myself wondering, what’s the allegory here?”

There was a brief silence, but I’d prepared for this moment.

“We heard about that,” I said, “so I looked up allegory in the dictionary.”

“Don’t quote the dictionary at me!” said Fecan with a laugh.

“It talks about using symbolic figures to make general expressions about the human condition–”

“I call it allegory,” said Fecan, “but what I’m asking is, what does this show mean? What’s its relevance? What is its sociological mission?”

A much longer silence fell on the room. Sitting beside Michael, I could sense his mouth working a couple of times, but nothing coming out. I realized that if anyone was to rise to this challenge, it should be the show’s creators. I sensed that here was the crisis–the crunch. Again it was I who broke the silence. I had no idea what I was going to say.

“Our vision of the show,” I said, leaning forward and sculpting something, maybe our idea, with my hands, “is not so much sociological…as intensely psychological. Here we have a kid going into the depths of his mind, and finding a world of adventure there. He can see his relationships there in a new way: his friends, his family, his missing father–relationships that everyone has, but doesn’t have this chance to kind of explore this way…”

In fact, I’m not exactly sure what I said after that first sentence, but it was along those lines. My basic thrust was that the vision for the show was not “sociological”–outward, but “psychological”, inward, and that this “inward” is just as universal as the the “outward”. But more than that I just wanted to respond: to return the volley and stick up for the show as being meaningful and important.

With the ice thus broken, other people chimed in with their views–Angela, Hart–that the show did indeed have the characteristics that Fecan was looking for. I recall Hart sitting with a sheaf of papers on his lap, lifting through them theatrically, and saying sotto voce, “It’s there–it’s there already!”

At length, Fecan cut off the discussion.

“Well, it’s not there yet. I don’t want a show that’s just a bunch of kids running around doing stuff. I think we need to see another draft of this.”

With that he was up and heading for the door. In the doorway, he turned to look me in the eye, and said with a smile, “You look like a deer caught in the headlights.”

He turned and left with Angela.

At that moment I became sure we had a series.

To be continued…

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creating characters, part 3

Welcome to another installment of my character-creation process for storytelling. I started out by calling the series “creating characters in epic fiction,” but really I’m talking about creating characters in general, so I have shortened my title accordingly. I would use the same method for any story I was creating.

Last time I talked about choosing a basic archetype for the character based on the 16 archetypes described in The Complete Writer’s Guide to Heroes & Heroines by Tami D. Cowden, Caro LaFever, and Sue Viders. That gets you off to a running start in creating a vibrant, distinct character, but I find that I need more to create the chassis for my character. For this I turn to another resource, and this time it’s not a writing text at all, but a spiritual self-help book: Sacred Contracts: Awakening Your Divine Potential by Caroline Myss, published in 2002.

Downloading characters from the 8th chakra

Why this book? Because Caroline Myss, like the authors of Heroes & Heroines, provides a list of archetypes. Myss’s theory is that, in addition to the 7 chakras of Indian yogic philosophy, there is an 8th chakra that is centered above the crown of our heads, and this 8th chakra contains a number of archetypes that manifest in the makeup of our individual personalities. She suggests that each of us is actually a blend of 12 of these archetypes, and she makes use of astrological techniques to arrange these archetypes in a horoscopelike wheel. In this view, we each embody different mini personalities that manifest at different times and in different departments of our life.

This sketch does not do justice to her idea, which I find fascinating, but for our purposes as writers it’s not necessary to buy into the theory or to use all of its techniques. All I want is the list of archetypes that Myss includes at the back of her book: about 70 of them. And Myss encourages the reader to discover more archetypes of his own to add to the list, which activity is also useful from a writing perspective. I won’t list them all here, but to give a flavor of her list I will note a few from the early part of the alphabetical list:

  • Addict
  • Advocate
  • Alchemist
  • Angel
  • Artist
  • Athlete
  • Avenger

In each case Myss provides a write-up for the archetype describing its main drive along with its positive and negative manifestations, and provides some examples of it from films, television, literature, and mythology. From a writing perspective, what’s useful here is that these archetypes are usually goal oriented: they all feel driven to do something.

Myss is not equally clear about this in each case, but it’s easy to see that the Addict archetype, for example, will be driven by an overwhelming need for something external. Typically this will be a drug, but it can just as well, as Myss notes, be work, sports, television, exercise, computer games, spiritual practice, or negative attitudes. The Addict feels that the drug or the behavior has mastery over his will, and he serves it, sacrificing everything else to it. An Addict is highly motivated: he must have his drug, he must have the thing he’s addicted to, and he will sacrifice everything else to get it. It’s bigger than he is; it’s stronger.

This motivated quality is what these Myssian archetypes bring to the character-creation mix. They all have something to do. They are not just standing around waiting for things to happen; they have a focus, a sense of purpose. In this way they are like the gods envisioned by the ancient Greeks. Aphrodite, for example, was the human sexual instinct personified. She had a single drive, a single function: to bring male and female together in the mating act. She never tired of doing this. Like the instinct itself, she was immortal and could not be eliminated. The Myssian archetypes are like this. They are personifications of human functions and drives, and they include the accessory qualities and attitudes that go with these drives.

So how do these archetypes relate with the archetypes in Heroes & Heroines? I see it this way: where the archetypal hero or heroine provides the chassis for a character, the Myssian archetype provides the motor. Another way of looking at it might be to say that where the Myssian archetype provides the what for a character, the hero/heroine archetype provides the how.

Let’s do a quick example. I’ll take the first heroine on the list of archetypes from Cowden, LaFever, and Viders’ book: the Boss. This woman is assertive and in control. She’s used to giving orders and having them obeyed. For her, worldly objectives are more important than people’s feelings, so she’s not very good at or interested in relationships. She’s capable of love, but this tends to be a project for her, as everything is, and she comes on strong. She doesn’t take “no” for an answer.

There’s more to the Boss than just these traits, but this will get us started. What we don’t know is what exactly she is trying to do. What is it she’s so focused on? Now we’ll grab a Myssian archetype. Let’s take the next one on the list: Advocate. In Myss’s words:

The Advocate embodies a sense of lifelong devotion to championing the rights of others in the public arena.

This Boss might be a lawyer or a lobbyist, or possibly a social worker or a nun, or maybe a politician or a journalist or a society lady. The choice will be dictated by the needs of our developing story. But we’ve added a motor to our chassis: our Boss lady has a focus for her energies. Suppose she’s a leader in an organization devoted to freeing journalists imprisoned by repressive regimes. Her Advocate nature makes her relentless in her drive to achieve her objectives here, and her Boss nature dictates her methods. We might imagine her cracking the whip over her underlings and fearlessly and effectively taking on powerful opponents.

This character reminds me of Jane Craig, Holly Hunter’s character in the 1987 movie Broadcast News, written and directed by James L. Brooks. Jane Craig is a television news producer, and she would probably regard herself as an Advocate for the public’s right to know what’s going on in the world. She has high journalistic ideals and takes her job seriously: she will run roughshod over anyone who stands in the way of getting her news stories on the air. And, true to the Boss archetype, she fumbles and stumbles in her personal dealings with people. She feels comfortable only when giving orders and pushing her agenda.

So we have the beginnings of a character: we have snapped together a chassis and a motor. There is much more to be done before the process is complete, but having gone this far we already know that our character will have a strong attitude and a sense of purpose. She will be able to grab and hold the reader’s or viewer’s attention.

With a chassis and a motor it might seem that we have the inner workings of our character all set to go—but we don’t. There’s more to do, but that will be for next time.

In the meantime, take a look at my Creating Characters reading list (one of a growing collection). If you haven’t already done so, now would be a good time to catch up on parts 1 and 2 in this series.

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The Odyssey odyssey, part 11

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 11, told by Paul Vitols“Guys, you’re gonna hate me for this.”

Thus Hart Hanson, the CBC story editor supervising the writing of the pilot script for The Jellybean Odyssey. He was close to Warren and me in age, but much more active and successful in his writing career. Enthusiastic and boyish in his high-topped sneakers, Hart, I thought, should be played by Dana Carvey in the movie version of our project.

“But you’ve got to get there sooner–in act two.”

Warren Easton and I had written a draft of “The Fall”, episode 1 of The Jellybean Odyssey, in which 11-year-old Jay Ziegler, while trying to retrieve his dead father’s telescope from a tree-fort in a wooded ravine, falls, bumps his head, and lapses into a coma. In our first stab, we figured we’d save the best for last and only show Jay’s new life in the dreamworld in act 3 (we had decided to write our half-hour in three acts–that is, with two commercial breaks–rather than in the two acts more common with a half-hour TV show). Our structure was, basically: act 1, Jay bonks his head; act 2, doctors try to save Jay’s life while his mom and friends worry; act 3, we discover that Jay is not as unconscious as he seems–but is in fact alive and on a new adventure…

My recollection is that we presented this story structure in the outline for the episode, which was approved, but when we actually wrote the script from it, Hart felt it didn’t work. This was an important early lesson: just because your outline is approved, doesn’t mean your story has made it. Beware!

Hart, a writer, was well aware of what a problem he was setting us. In order to show Jay arriving in the “downworld” in act 2, we would have to have a whole new downworld story worked out–the bulk of our pilot episode. Act 2 would be more of an intercut story between the efforts to treat Jay in the “upworld”, and his new and confusing adventure in the downworld.

“Sorry, guys.”

Warren and I went back to the drawing-board. We had to find a way to stuff more story into our downworld in this pilot.

In fact, it proved to be not too hard. In our first draft, we had already conceived the idea of showing Jay in his new environment, in the clutches of a boy-gang who were in fact a transformed version of the tree-fort gang that had stolen his telescope in the upworld. They look different down here, and Jay doesn’t remember where he’s come from. But now they have him captive, and in fact are going to put him through an initiation that involves dropping him from a Mad Max-style contraption, consisting of a modified shopping-cart, into a swimming-pool. Jay has his first moment of recognition of something when he notices that the gang leader, Flash, clutches the telescope that belongs to his father.

We realized that we didn’t have to junk this idea, which we liked. We just had to show how Jay gets into this predicament. So we came up with an “arrival” scene in the downworld. From the very moment Jay bonks his head at the end of act 1, we cut to a confusing scene of Jay riding downward in a creepy freight elevator, even as he is lying unconscious on the ground in the ravine. Then, baffled, he emerges from the elevator to find himself in a strange, ruined landscape, where oddly dressed ragamuffins are at some kind of a rally. It is in this scene where Jay sees Flash clutching his father’s telescope, and resolves to get it back–the action that was left incomplete back in the upworld. Jay attacks Flash, grabs the scope, and runs for it. Flash and his henchmen catch up with Jay, capture him, and take him back to their clubhouse, where they string him up over the pool.

There: done!

Warren and I put a lot of thought into (and logged many hours of discussion about) what our downworld would be like. What we wanted to see was a world not merely lacking adults, but that had been abandoned by adults. That is, we imagined this world as being like our own, but with all its buildings and institutions deserted–like an evacuated city into which kids come and take over. We saw it as a post-apocalyptic setting, rather than as a “fantasy” setting, such as Oz.

Another important influence I forgot to mention in part 10: Lord of the Flies. We liked the “edge” and creepiness of William Golding’s classic: how kids are treated not as cute little moppets, but as fully functional humans operating from a reduced knowledge-base. We wanted our show to have that kind of an edge.

Another idea that grew gradually (as I recall) for us: treating our downworld as a kind of kid version of a police state. If there was any one element that Warren and I thought was best about our concept, it was probably this. Who expects kids, when left to themselves, to form a police state? We did! Isn’t it a logical outflow, after all, of schoolyard bullying and sibling tyrannies? Kids are authoritarian by nature! This was maybe what made our show truly original, we thought–the idea was brilliant, if we said so ourselves.

As things developed, a tension would arise between the show’s art department, who wanted to create a “fantasy” show, liberating their imaginations to make fantastic sets, and the writer-creators, who wanted to set the episodes on derelict suburban streets and in deserted shopping-malls. The designers felt this a wasted opportunity–they could go nuts with this idea, given the chance! In the end, I think the result came out about right. Warren and I were probably too literal in our vision of a postapocalyptic, depopulated downworld, but we kept pulling the art department back toward a more grounded, recognizable downworld, one that had many imaginative, dreamlike flourishes. The result was unique, and over all, very good.

Warren and I hustled to get the script and other materials ready, for I think they were all supposed to be ready in early December 1989 for the desk of Ivan Fecan, CBC’s head of programming and the executive with the authority to greenlight our project. He was apparently going on a skiing vacation and wanted to have the package in hand. We wrote, rewrote, polished, and had it ready. Hart was happy with it, Angela Bruce in Toronto was happy, and therefore Michael, our producer, was happy as well. The material was bundled off to Fecan, and we could take a breather for Christmas. The fate of our show would be decided early in the new decade.

To be continued…

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and the winner is . . .

Last Saturday night Kimmie and I finished watching my 1970s Film Festival. We have been watching my catalogue of top films, breaking them down by decade, and within each decade I’ve arranged the movies in alphabetical order (I always look for new ways to order the movies). These are mostly movies we’ve seen before, and which I have rated highly enough to be suitable for reviewing. The movie that was alphabetically last in my 1970s Festival was Taxi Driver, written by Paul Schrader and directed by Martin Scorsese and released in 1976.

I reviewed Taxi Driver in a post here in May 2012, and gave it a score of 8/10. I gave it the same score this time. Actually, I’m now rating movies out of 100, since there are so many of them, and I gave Taxi Driver 83/100, which still rounds to 8/10. It remains a good, original, and thought-provoking movie, and I will be happy to watch it again, when its turn comes round in my next shuffle of movies.

I’m the one on the right

But now that I’ve finished my 1970s festival, you might be curious to know my pick for the best movie of the 1970s. After watching them all again and rating each one afresh, I discovered that my top pick was One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, written by Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman from Ken Kesey’s novel, directed by Milos Forman, and starring Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher (and I also reviewed that movie in May 2012). I gave it 95/100, which rounds to 10/10 for my IMDb rating. My next pick was The Godfather, at 93/100, and then Deliverance, at 92/100. Excellent films all, and so different from each other.

This time I found myself reflecting on the genre of One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, for it is a story of an unusual type. (Spoiler alert for what follows: see the movie first!) McMurphy bucks the system and is eventually defeated by it, but it is not a tragedy in the usual sense, for it is not the case that it is McMurphy’s flaws that drag him to his doom. True, he’s a criminal and a jailbird, but he’s not crazy, and it’s not his criminal tendencies, such as they are, that bring about his doom. No, it is his independence and his refusal to bow meekly to authority that bring the wrath of Nurse Ratched and the institution down on him. We in the audience are rooting for him, for we see that the system that has him in its clutches is a tyrannical one. It wields power without justice or accountability. In a more positive story, McMurphy would somehow prevail. In this one, he doesn’t. The institution has total power over him, and it crushes him.

Christopher Booker, in his book The Seven Basic Plots, makes mention of this genre of story, naming it “rebellion against ‘The One.'” Here’s what he says about it:

The essence of this plot is that it shows us a solitary hero who finds himself being drawn into a state of resentful, mystified opposition to some immense power, which exercises total sway over the world in which he lives. Initially he increasingly feels he is right and that the mysterious power must in some fundamental way be at fault. But suddenly he is confronted by that power in all its awesome omnipotence. The rebellious hero is crushed.

This is a pretty good summary of the plot of One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. And Booker finds three stories that exemplify this unusual genre:

These three stories are progressively less happy in their outcomes, as the omnipotent power in each case grows darker and darker. And they all go on to end more or less as Booker describes the finish of this plot:

He is forced to recognise that his view had been based only on a very limited, subjective perception of reality. He ends accepting the power’s rightful claim to rule over the world and himself.

This never happens to McMurphy in Cuckoo’s Nest; he never does acknowledge the right of the power to rule over him. They lobotomize him, but they never get his assent.

So maybe Cuckoo’s Nest is more in the category of the 1995 movie Braveheart, in which William Wallace stands up to the oppressive might of British rule, only to be crushed in the end. Cuckoo’s Nest is darker and less heroic, and it is also ironic, for McMurphy is not a hero but an antihero. But he’s a human being and he wishes, like William Wallace, to live free. And, to the limit of his power, he does. And even in this dark story the flame of freedom is passed on, for McMurphy inspires his fellow inmate, The Chief, to seek freedom and break out.

One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a wonderful piece of film-making and it fully deserves its newly won honor of Best Movie of the 1970s. Will The Godfather be able to nudge it out of its top spot on my next pass through the festival? Stay tuned.

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The Odyssey odyssey, part 10

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 written by Paul Vitols and Warren EastonSummer 1989: The CBC had expressed its interest in developing the half-hour kids’-adventure series that Warren Easton and I had proposed called The Jellybean Odyssey about an 11-year-old boy who enters a coma to discover himself in a new world populated only by other kids.

I worked out the terms of a contract with Michael Chechik, our producer. In the first place, the network wanted to see some descriptive material (the basis of a “bible”, the detailed description of the concept, characters, situation, structure, and other “rules” for a TV series used by writers to guide their work), a pilot script, and ideas for 12 more episodes to make up a first season, the first few of which were to be developed in more detail than the rest. Fantastic! Delighted!

To get going on it, we’d have to get Warren back down from firefighting in the Yukon. Plus I was to be married to Kimmie (in our own house) on 26 August. So we probably didn’t really get going until September. And now that I was “really” in show business, I couldn’t be developing my own TV show as a moonlighting effort, so once again I quit my day-job at ICBC. Warren and I would work at my house, which was otherwise empty during the day.

The writing would be supervised by Hart Hanson, a young writer (our age) who was on staff with CBC Drama in Vancouver. The development as a whole would be supervised by David Pears, a CBC executive newly reassigned from Toronto and an old associate of my father’s. I’m sure there were meeting in which Warren and I were asked to describe our “vision” of the show and where we saw it going. Warren and I, who were both “idea” men, were pleased to provide whatever we could in this vein.

We got to work. Our concept was wide-open: a fantasy world in which we could make anything happen that we wanted. What did we want? What kinds of adventures should our guy have? How would he set about the task of getting home? What would the kids be doing that he encounters in this strange place? What would be happening to the kid’s, well, body in the waking world where people would presumably be treating him for his coma?

We tussled with these questions and many others. We quickly realized that we couldn’t simply have our guy wandering aimlessly in search of his home, knocking on doors in this strange new world. He would need to have a sense of destination, of quest. What could we have him heading toward?

In stages we came to see that the notion of a goal for our hero could also provide structure to our imaginary world. We imagined that our guy’s father had died when he was younger, and that this father–named Brad–was now, in his teenage form, revered as the leader of this place inhabited only by kids. Yes! Brad could live at some remote and hard-to-reach spot–The Tower–and our guy would journey toward this powerful and mysterious figure (unaware that it was his father) to see whether Brad could help him return home.

If you look closely, you’ll see that this storyline is essentially the same as that of The Wizard of Oz–one of our inspirations in creating the show. (Our other main influences were Star Trek and Mad Max–and, unconsciously, I think, Stand by Me.)

We were excited by these ideas, for they gave our show a mission, a purpose. It would provide a skeleton along which to arrange the adventures of our epic quest.

Warren and I were conscious of, and excited by, the mythological potential of our story. We thought we might model our quest on that of Jason and the Argonauts for the Golden Fleece, with our plucky heroes arriving at some new hair-raising problem in each episode. We even made our hero’s name Jason. (In our scribbled notes we always abbreviated his name as “J”, and soon started calling him J for short. Eventually we figured that we might as well just call the character Jay and have done with it.) I bought a copy of Robert Graves’s telling of The Golden Fleece, and we also got other sources of possible story ideas, such as the collection of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. We had to come up with 13 great story ideas.

At the same time we studied comas and the therapies used for them. We made trips to the UBC library and even took a trip to Seattle to visit a state-of-the-art coma-therapy facility there. (The staff were very helpful, even excited at having these “TV people” arrive to study them–and even providing us with an excellent boxed lunch from Nordstrom’s.) We wanted to make our “upworld” (we developed the terminology of “upworld” and “downworld” to refer respectively to the waking world and fantasy world of our story–terminology that we would use in the scripts to denote where each scene was taking place) as realistic as possible. We wanted to give a sense of the trauma of coma and the eerie, long path back.

Our ideas were greeted mainly with enthusiasm. The real test though would be in the pilot script: that’s what would show what kind of a project this was. Warren and I, although we of course recognized the necessity for working out how the show was going to work and what it would look like, didn’t like writing the “marketing” material and wanted to get on to scriptwriting. And soon enough it was indeed time to knuckle down and write our pilot script. It was fall 1989, and we set out to draft the “origin episode” for The Jellybean Odyssey.

To be continued…

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The Odyssey odyssey, part 9

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 9, told by its creator Paul VitolsAt this stage of my story my memory is a little bit foggy. I just went up to visit Kimmie in our ensuite bathroom, where she is preparing to go to work, to ask about her memory of the evening of 20 May 1989, just a few days after my return from dathun, the month-long meditation program I had attended at the Rocky Mountain Dharma Center in Colorado. That evening, which was a Saturday, I had taken her to The Cannery restaurant down on the docks of Vancouver. There, in the parking lot, before we went inside to dinner, I asked her to marry me–catching her completely by surprise. (“Yes, of course I will,” she said, astonished and delighted.) (And by the way, Kimmie’s clearest memory was of what she was wearing: a short white skirt and a white jacket with polka dots and a peplum. I was in a high-quality tailored suit.)

So, in our window seat and over our delightful seafood dinner we had much to talk about–for not only were we now going to be married, but Warren’s and my TV-series idea about a boy in a coma had taken a step forward. It’s the exact step that I’m not totally clear on now–but I’m pretty sure.

Warren and I had pitched the boy-in-coma idea to Michael Chechik, the producer we were associated with (I’m not sure whether we had yet given the project a title). As I recall, we pitched it because Michael had heard the CBC was looking specifically for kid programming, and wanted to know whether we had any ideas. And of course, we did have an idea–so we told it to him.

I have a vague memory of talking about this in Michael’s office at Omni-Films (again, Warren, if you’re out there and have more concrete memories, feel free to comment). We would have described the basic idea, which as yet did not have any detail: just that a suburban 11-year-old boy falls out of a tree-fort, bonks his head, lapses into a coma, and suddenly finds himself in a world populated only by kids–including two of his friends in transformed guise. Amnesiac about how he got there, he starts searching for his way home–which also means consciousness.

Michael loved the idea, and would have peppered us with fast-talking questions to find out more, where the story would go, etc. We didn’t really know yet–hadn’t worked on the idea since about January, when we’d let it drop to focus on other things.

I believe what happened next was that Michael pitched the idea immediately to a drama executive at CBC Vancouver, probably Phil Keatley, a longtime producer of The Beachcombers. He liked the idea right away too, and told Michael he needed to pitch it to CBC’s executive in charge of children’s programming, Angela Bruce. He might have an opportunity at the upcoming Banff Television Festival, which Angela planned to attend. With “What’s Wrong with Neil?” in competition, Michael was going to be there too. So I think it was on that very day, Satuday 20 May 1989, that Michael had called me to say we’d got our first “yes” from the CBC, and to ask me for some more material on the show idea for him to be able to pitch it at Banff.

With that “yes” and Kimmie’s “yes” to my proposal, it was a pretty giddy evening.

Warren and I got together to try to flesh out the idea more. One issue was the title: what would we call it? We were thinking that the show was an odyssey–a heroic return home through many adventures–but just calling it The Odyssey didn’t seem right. It might be assumed that we were doing Homer’s Odyssey, plus there were any number of other shows out there already called Odyssey of one kind or another. Also, it didn’t seem like a very “kid” title. How many little tykes even knew the word odyssey?

“We could add something to make it more ‘kid’,” said Warren. “The Skateboard Odyssey, The Gumball Odyssey–something like that.”

Yes: I liked that. Spouting “kid” terms, we came up with The Jellybean Odyssey, and felt that clicked. It was an odyssey, but it was a kid odyssey–and conveyed a certain attitude, as well as creativity and mystery. Yes, that was it.

Under this title we typed up some briefing notes and gave these to Michael. Warren and I, in day-jobs and financially stretched, couldn’t go to Banff; Michael would have to represent the project there.

Soon Michael was back and we got the story. He had indeed been able to meet Angela Bruce, and had verbally pitched The Jellybean Odyssey to her.

“She loved it!” said Michael. “She thought the idea was great–but she wants to see paper on it. She told me to send some material for her desk in Toronto. So can you guys come up with that?”


Later I heard from Hart Hanson, who was at Banff, that The Jellybean Odyssey was the buzz of the festival. Its name was being whispered among people there: “What’s this Jellybean Odyssey? There’s no paper on it anywhere!” (By the way, this is a textbook example for how to generate “heat” around a project: hint at its existence and that it’s great, but don’t let anyone know too much–create thirst for it. Create a sense that there are insiders who know more about it than you do…)

I recall typing up about 3 pages of material–we didn’t have any more. We called our character Billy. I don’t remember whether we yet had the idea that his father was dead, and he thought that he could find his home by finding his dad. That was probably a later development. We did have the idea of the kid-only world, and that it would be self-organized into “clubs”–kids sticking together around common interests and activities, with their own politics, justice, etc., and with the older teenagers lording it over the rest like babysitters who never have to account for their actions.

I gave the pages to Michael and he sent them to Toronto. On 1 July 1989–another Saturday–he called me.

“I just heard from Angela Bruce,” he said. “The CBC wants to put The Jellybean Odyssey into development.”

My skin came up in goosebumps. I couldn’t believe it. A national network wanted to put my TV show into development. In show-business terms, I was becoming even more “real”. I started trying to phone Warren, who I believe was up in the Yukon fighting forest fires. I had to tell him that we were moving from TV writers to TV series creators.

To be continued…

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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 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.

Help me create more by becoming one of my Patreon patrons. If you’d like to support my work without spending money, I have just the page for you.

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