creating characters, part 5: combining archetypes

I’ve been sharing my discoveries about the art of character creation in storytelling. The idea here is to build characters from the inside out, to make vital, interesting characters from scratch instead of trying to create characters based purely on people we know. There’s nothing especially wrong with basing characters on people you know, but there are limitations to that approach:

  • the number of people you know personally is finite—especially if you’re an introverted writer!
  • the people you know may not make a good fit with the needs of your story

This second point is the more important, for, if your story is to achieve its maximum effect and its full potential, it needs to be populated with the right characters to make that happen. Yes, you can make tweaks to your family, friends, and coworkers to get them to fulfill the functions required by your story, but at the end of the day what we’re talking about is altering off-the-rack people instead of tailoring them specially from whole cloth. It’s much more powerful, as well as more useful and more satisfying, to invent vivid characters from scratch. That’s what we’re trying to do here.

In part 1 of this series we looked at how to assess your character needs in terms of the kind of story you want to tell. In parts 2–4 we looked at using different kinds of archetypes to serve as the nucleus for a character. For convenience I’m calling them:

  • story archetype
  • heroic archetype
  • psychological archetype

A proper major character will need to use all of these (minor characters are a different case—I’ll talk about them too in the future). So how to put them together?

Recently Kimmie and I watched the movie Gone with the Wind again: the 1939 production based on the novel by Margaret Mitchell, published in 1936. The heroine, Scarlett O’Hara, is a famous character; why don’t we take a look at how she might have been built from scratch using my method? (Spoiler alert: in what follows I will be talking about the plot of Gone with the Wind, including its ending; you may want to read or watch it before continuing on.)

I admit that I have a slight problem in trying to categorize this story. In my opinion, the author herself was not quite clear about what she wanted to say with it. The story certainly has an epic dimension: its events unfold as Georgia and the Old South are ruined by the American Civil War and reconstituted in its aftermath. Gone with the Wind is also famous as a romance, with a major triangle formed by Scarlett’s desire for the gentleman Ashley Wilkes, who is married to his cousin Melanie, and her status as the love object of another man, Rhett Butler, a swashbuckling rogue from Atlanta. But in my view the story is really a tragedy, since the pigheaded and purblind Scarlett never wakes up to her own true feelings of “love” (the word must be used in quotation marks for her) for Rhett until it is too late—or is it? The ending is left ambiguous, for Scarlett thinks she can get Rhett to love her again, and . . . she’s used to getting her way! However, Rhett is no pushover, and he seems truly fed up with her. So we don’t know. If you take the view that Scarlett will recapture Rhett’s love, then the story might be classed as what Christopher Booker would call a Rebirth plot: the tragic hero, or in this case heroine, emerges from his flawed approach to life to a new, more fulfilling approach (think Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol). Scarlett, by the end of the story, at least has figured out what she really wants, but she still doesn’t know what love is, so there are still big problems ahead. For me it’s a muddle.

“Ruthless, selfish, and envious–that’s how I like ’em.”

Because Scarlett remains basically unreconstructed (unlike Georgia) by the end, and she is made up mostly of negative traits, I will class her as a tragic heroine: she has flaws that get the better of her in the end. But in that role she’s a dynamic, larger-than-life character, and, starting from scratch, that’s what we’re trying to build. Since we haven’t created her yet, all we know at this stage is that we want a passionate, headstrong character who stubbornly clings to her negative traits.

We have thus already specified her story archetype: she will be the heroine of our story, but a negative or “dark” heroine, a tragic heroine. That is her role or function in the story.

Next let’s look for our character’s heroic archetype, taken from the list provided by Tami D. Cowden, Caro LaFever, and Sue Viders in their Complete Writer’s Guide to Heroes & Heroines, as discussed in part 2 of this series. Two of these spring out: the Seductress and the Boss. The authors maintain that it is perfectly possible to combine archetypes in forming a character, as long as the archetypes are compatible and there are no more than two of them. In Scarlett’s case we appear to have a young Seductress in the early part of the story, but who, when we look more closely, actually bears traits of a young Boss, in the variant called the Princess. As the story wears on and Scarlett is buffeted by more  and more challenges, the Boss in her becomes ever more dominant. Just listen to the description of the Boss:

The Boss takes charge of her circumstances and makes things happen. She is strong, tough, and gets her way no matter what. She remains unconcerned when she ruffles feathers. Her goals and priorities are far more important than hurt feelings. She is outspoken, resourceful, and persuasive.

Winning is everything to the Boss. To achieve her ends, she can be calculating. She will shade the truth in order to gain her object, and she is not above manipulating circumstances to make things go her way. Whatever helps her get across the finish line is all in a good day’s work.

Yes, that’s our Scarlett all right.

The final archetypal component I call the psychological archetype, and this I draw from the list of archetypes provided by Caroline Myss in her book Sacred Contracts: Awakening Your Divine Potential, as discussed in part 3 of this series. Perusing this list, I find that the best fit is provided by Femme Fatale:

The female counterpart of Don Juan sometimes adds the twist of killing her conquests as an expression of her ability to dominate. As with Don Juan, the Femme Fatale represents refined skills at manipulating men without investing personal emotion. The Femme Fatale is both a sexual and a financial archetype and either comes from or is drawn to money and power. Seducing men with money and power and for the sake of personal control and survival is a classic part of this archetype, although the Femme Fatale is not looking for a home in the suburbs and the pleasures of family life.

Yes, there is a close link here with the heroic archetype of the Seductress. Sometimes that happens, probably especially with principal characters. But this still allows us to know our character better. Putting our three archetypes together, we can now say that Scarlett is a tragic heroine whose main motivational engine is that of the Boss, but that her behavior, her way of trying to reach her  goals, is often that of the Femme Fatale. She has the hard, calculating, businesslike attitude of the Boss, but she finds that the strongest tools in her arsenal are the seductive and manipulative wiles of the Femme Fatale. Thus Scarlett O’Hara, one of literature’s most memorable female characters.

Please note that we have not drawn the whole character here; we have only identified the archetypes on which this character will be based. In doing this I would say that we have formed the armature of the character; we have identified what type of a character she is to be. But in doing this much we have come a long way. Even though our character is not yet fully formed, she already has strong motivations and attitudes; she even has a certain past history, since the book Heroes & Heroines sketches in the childhood experience of each of the archetypes. Our proto-Scarlett is already set to be a dominating presence in a story, especially when contrasted with the insipid, wishy-washy impression that so many fictional characters make. She will overpower any other characters unless they are also established with similar care and firmness.

We have finished, for now, with using archetypes for creating a character. What comes next? In recent years some sophisticated tools have appeared that allow the writer to work directly with a character’s inner emotional nature, to give the character a richer inner life and to map out the character’s moral structure. Next time we will get started on that process. Join me!

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 – 4 in this series.

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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The Odyssey odyssey, part 15

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 15, told by Paul VitolsWith the arrival of 1991, Warren Easton and I were again tinkering with the pilot script for The Jellybean Odyssey, and with the other scripts we had written (I believe by that time we had also written the next two episodes, “No Fair”, in which our hero Jay is “tried” by a kid-tribunal in his new fantasy world for being “different”, and “Out of the Woods”, in which he becomes involved in a conflict between a Robin Hood-like band of “outlaw” kids and the quasi-police state of the distant and mysterious Brad).

Warren and I were eager to explore these overtly “political” scenarios of our kid-world, and deliberately turned toward issues of justice, power relationships, and civil administration, shown in the distorting (but clarifying) mirror of our fantasy-kid-land which we called the downworld. While I can’t be sure, I believe that this path satisfied CBC head of programming Ivan Fecan’s wish for a “relevant” show with a “sociological mission”. Our show definitely was not simply “a bunch of kids running around doing stuff”.

However, the new tinkering with the material was not bringing us much extra revenue; that had been tapped long since, along with some advances against future work for our show. With my two mortgages, I was heading deeper into debt and had to find a way to scare up more income. Kimmie was of course still working full-time at ICBC; I, the big-time TV creator, was bringing in next to nothing.

One place I turned was to the CBC itself. I found out that the new junior drama executive in Vancouver, Linda Coffey, was responsible for reading and responding to unsolicited submissions from would-be scriptwriters, and that she retained a few readers to go through the projects and write brief reports on them. Probably after one of our Jellybean Odyssey meetings, I asked Linda whether I could maybe be one of her readers.

Linda, recognizing my predicament, readily agreed, and in March 1991 I received my first sheaf of scripts from The Wall: a set of shelves at one end of her office, covered with submissions. From then on, each Friday I would drop off my reader’s reports (these documents are called “coverage” in L.A.), pick up a fresh set of scripts, and collect a check for $150 at CBC’s payroll counter.

(The scripts I read, by the way, were almost all shockingly bad–not even the least bit professional.)

Another effort I made to keep body and soul together was to approach a newly formed scriptwriting fund set up by the Canadian pay-TV channel called First Choice (the fund was called the Foundation to Underwrite New Drama, or “FUND”–cute, huh?). I’d heard a radio interview with someone who had attended a school for butlers in England, and was now the butler of a rich American family. This had intrigued me, so I looked into the school, and came up with an idea for a kid’s movie that I called My Dad the Butler, about a divorced dad who attends such a school and winds up as the butler to a female pop star. While the star visits Vancouver to record an album, the butler’s 13-year-old daughter tries to reunite with him–an impossibility in his new post, or so it seems…

I got Michael Chechik to write a letter saying that if this script got written, he’d be willing to produce it, then I sent the proposal to FUND. They responded with a go-ahead to write an outline on the idea. Yahoo! I had another project in development! This project would later go on to a story treatment, and would bring me about $8,000 or so in writing income, all told–a lifesaver. As I told Michael: “the CBC is going to be calling story meetings for our show, and I won’t be able to come because I’ll be delivering pizzas.”

Reading other people’s scripts and working on a butler story were keeping my head above water in 1991.

Another thing that happened that year was that the CBC, meaning the local drama-development exec David Pears, got our story editor Hart Hanson to write a draft of our pilot script. Thinking back, I can’t quite remember the exact reason why. Was it that Warren and I were “busy” working on other scripts or outlines for the show at the time? Or was it simply a “normal” step toward getting the show ready to shoot, by having its story editor rewrite the writers’ material?

For this is how TV series are done: some scripts may be written by writers on staff, in the story department, and some by freelance writers. In either case, the scripts are rewritten by the story editor–who is the head of the story department–so that they all have the same “voice” and conform to the requirements of the series, which the story editor is supposed to know better than the contributing writers. Scripts also change as shooting progresses, and the story editor normally makes those changes.

Hart was already our story editor through the development process, and had provided much valuable and friendly help, in effect teaching us important aspects of TV writing. As a writer he himself was excellent and fast. But Warren and I saw no need for anyone to be rewriting our pilot: it was already good–excellent in fact; even brilliant. We saw this as a step toward removing creative control of the series from the hands of the creators–and we didn’t like it.

But no one asked us what we thought about it. We may have created the show and written the scripts, but to Pears and the CBC we were newbies and amateurs, and would have to take a backseat to the “pros” as the show got closer to production.

No, we didn’t like it one bit.

To be continued…

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The Odyssey odyssey, part 14

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 14, told by Paul VitolsI think it was in about November 1990 that Phil Keatley left his position as head of CBC Vancouver’s drama department and was replaced by David Pears, an executive returning west from Toronto–a move that, in CBC terms and in Canadian corporate and government terms generally, could only be called a demotion. Pears (and I call him “Pears” because that’s what he called himself: when he called you on the phone, he’d identify himself by saying, “It’s Pears”) had been involved in the production of the then-flagship CBC drama Street Legal, often referred to by those of us in the Canadian TV biz as T.O. Law, since it was widely seen as an imitation of the highly successful Steve Bochko series L.A. Law in the U.S.

Meanwhile, Hart Hanson, the story editor for our developing Jellybean Odyssey show, had outgrown his junior post at CBC Drama in Vancouver, in demand elsewhere as a freelance TV writer, a story editor for TV series in production, and also as a professor of creative writing at UBC (whew!), and had left, to be replaced by Linda Coffey.

I don’t remember now whether it was our first meeting with “Pears and Coffey”, but I think it was: another summit-meeting to talk about the show, this time held, more formally, in the boardroom at CBC Vancouver. Again I (no doubt) packed my attache case and put on jacket and tie (although this time I no doubt also took transit to get there; who needs the stress?). Warren and Michael were there, of course, and possibly Hart, maybe even Phil Keatley. We took our places at the long conference table, sitting in chairs with absurdly high backs, furniture that felt like some kind of modernistic throwback to a medieval dining-hall.

We had all introduced ourselves. In fact I had met Pears years before, in the 1970s, when he had come to visit my father one day in West Van. I didn’t remember anything of his appearance, only an impression of someone who thought rather highly of himself and who regarded his issues and problems as very important. Now, in 1990, he came across as an older man, short, with a long gray ponytail and drooping mustache, and very casually dressed in things like jeans, huaraches, and untucked shirts left open to the chest. If smoking had still been permitted indoors, he would have chainsmoked his way through the day.

Pears ran the meeting. His style was folksy, soft-spoken, and, I thought, rather long-winded. He praised our show and its concept, talking about the “arcs” of the series (TV-writing speak for the overarching stories that continue beyond individual episodes) and comparing this with his own experience working on Street Legal, a show which, he claimed, had A, B, and even C arcs running through it–an example of subtlety and depth. (For the record: Warren and I did not think too much of Street Legal as a show; we really did see it as a “me too” imitation of L.A. Law.)

But, although the concept and the writing were on the whole very good, the CBC execs back in Toronto, having examined the material, had discovered that it had a Flaw. And this Flaw was what was holding back the show from being as good as it could be–and as good as it needed to be in order to get a production order. If we could find a way to address the Flaw, then we could very likely have a TV show that could indeed be produced and broadcast. Pears saw his first task with this project as being the correction of the Flaw.

I should’ve counted how many times Pears said the word Flaw; it would have made a great statistic as part of the lore of the show. It was quite a few times. At length Pears revealed what the Flaw was that had been discovered through the perspicacity of the CBC execs: the Flaw lay in the writing of the upworld.

The upworld, as I’ve mentioned, was the term we gave to the parts of the show set in the world of waking life–the world where Jay lay unconscious in his coma, watched over by his mother and his friends Donna and Keith. Warren and I had wanted this world to have as much impact, if possible, as the downworld of Jay’s fantasy-adventure. We wanted to be gritty and real with how comas actually happen–their real effects and symptoms, and the real methods of treating them, when done in the advanced and creative ways then being developed. We wanted the audience to have to work as hard to follow the upworld coma-therapy adventure as it would to follow the downworld adventure. We didn’t want a “cute” or soap-opera-type coma; we wanted to do real coma–scary coma–and dish that up to our kid audience. Why not? They’re only one skateboard-accident away from the same situation, after all.

It appeared now that this vision was not flying with the network–anyway, not with David Pears. The next push of rewriting would involve mainly our upworld stories.

After the meeting, Warren and I felt a bit depressed about Pears’s assault on our upworld, but agreed that it could have been worse–an assault on the downworld story. After all, when a new executive comes in, they have to make their mark somehow. It seemed the core of the show was being left intact. Pears’s enthusiasm for the show idea seemed genuine, and I believed that he saw it as a show that could and would get produced. So it would be worth the extra effort. He had not come to kill it.

Another thing: when I met Pears before the meeting, I immediately recognized him as the figure described to me by the psychic Sarah Scott Simonson: short, egotistical, powerful. We would have to watch out for him. Not that there was a lot we could do, besides say, “yes sir, yes sir, three bags full…”

To be continued…

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creating characters, part 4: story archetypes

In part 3 I described how to start building a character by snapping together 2 different kinds of archetype:

I likened the heroic archetype to the chassis for a character, and the psychological archetype to a motor, to give the character a sense of drive and purpose. In part 3 I suggested that there is still more to do. By this I meant that the character must be created with the wider context of the story in mind. A character, unlike a real human being, is not an end in himself; he exists to serve the needs of the story in which he occurs. He needs his own integrity, and to that extent he is a whole, but in terms of the story as a work of art he is a part, and everything about him must serve the needs of that greater whole. Like an engine part, he needs to function well in his own right, but that functioning must serve the greater good of the overall performance of the engine.

creating characters part 4: story archetypes, by Paul VitolsTo that end, we need to consider our characters from another archetypal point of view: that of their story archetype. This amounts to asking what role the character is going to play in the story, or what story function the character will have. The most central and obvious role is that of the hero or protagonist: whom the story is about. And while this role is, in one sense, covered by the choice of heroic archetype mentioned above, in another sense it needs to be specified in a different way, looking from the higher vantage of considering the mission of the story as a whole. Our story needs a hero, but whether he will be a romantic hero, a tragic hero, a comic hero, a dashing “hero hero,” or maybe an antihero, depends on the kind of story we’re telling, and this will affect our choice of “heroic archetype.”

Different writers have broken down the different kinds of characters that appear in stories—that is, the different story roles or functions that they can perform—in different ways. The two that I find most inspiring and useful are presented in:

The first of these was written specifically as an aid to writers, the second is a scholarly (and massive) work aimed at the serious student of storytelling, but both, in my opinion, provide excellent help for the writer working at the early stages of character creation. Christopher Vogler, inspired by Joseph Campbell’s ideas about myth, presents storytelling as an account of the primordial journey of the hero, which goes through certain archetypal stages in what Campbell calls the “monomyth.” Christopher Booker, examining critics’ efforts through history to categorize the basic plot types, discovers that the deepest way to understand the story functions of characters is in terms of the psychological archetypes described by Carl Jung. In this view, stories are like maps that help us in our own journey toward wholeness, and their characters represent forces within our own psyches as we each make that perilous but fulfilling journey.

All right, so what does that mean for us as storytellers? It means that by using these methods of discovering or assigning the story functions of our characters, we get our story organized. For each character we get a sense of what he’s doing in the story, why he’s there; and this contributes mightily to a character’s sense of purpose and mission. And, contrariwise, if we can’t find a real purpose for a character, it may be a sign that he needs to be fired from that story, or, possibly, combined with another character who does have a definite function. Combining two characters can make for a richer single character: the, say, whiny little sister and the socially climbing girlfriend meld together into a single, whiny, socially climbing person, whether sister or girlfriend, and that person becomes a more rounded character in the process. (You could also meld positive traits, or combine positive and negative: a compassionate sister and a socially climbing girlfriend can become a compassionate, socially climbing girlfriend—a complex and potentially interesting person.)

Let’s look first at Christopher Vogler’s mythic archetypes. When he examined Joseph Campbell’s breakdown of the monomyth of the hero, he found 7 characters in that archetypal adventure:

  • Hero
  • Mentor
  • Threshold Guardian
  • Herald
  • Shapeshifter
  • Shadow
  • Trickster

He devotes a chapter to each one of these; I won’t try to describe them in detail here. Their names give you a sense of their functions, and they tend to appear at distinctive stages of the hero’s journey. It’s well worth reading Vogler’s book to learn more about this.

Now let’s look at Christopher Booker’s archetypal characters, based mainly on Jung’s psychological theory of the process he calls individuation, or the individual’s journey toward wholeness. In Booker’s view, all storytelling is ultimately about this journey. Psychic wholeness is represented by the archetype Jung calls the Self, which he also calls the “God-image in man.” The quest of the healthy ego is to realize and become one with this Self, which is equivalent to supreme spiritual realization. When the ego falls off that path and starts to focus on its own importance, then you have the phenomenon of selfishness and the vices that go with it. In Booker’s scheme, the characters in stories group themselves around these two poles, with “light” or good characters representing aspects of the Self and the journey toward it, and “dark” or bad characters representing the fixated ego. He sets them out thus:

Positive/centered on the Self:

  • Light Father/Good King/Wise Old Man
  • Light Mother/Good Queen/Wise Old Woman
  • Light Alter Ego/Friend/Companion
  • Light Other Half (girlfriend/boyfriend)
  • Child

Negative/centered on the ego:

  • Dark Father/Tyrant/Dark Magician
  • Dark Mother/Dark Queen/Witch
  • Dark Rival/Dark Alter Ego
  • Dark Other Half/Temptress

These lists, both Vogler’s and Booker’s, provide different schemas or grids to lay over a story. I think of a command I remember from earlier versions of Windows, for when icons on the desktop became scattered and messy: it was called “snap to grid,” and it caused all the icons to be moved instantly into an orderly arrangement of rows and columns. These lists of archetypes allow story characters to be snapped to a grid: the grid of the functions they serve in the story. Depending on the kind of story you want to tell, you might want to have a villain for a character. Well, this character might then partake of the qualities of the Shadow archetype in Vogler’s scheme and the Dark Rival in Booker’s scheme. This will tell you a lot about the kinds of qualities and story duties this character might have.

I’m referring to all of the archetypes on these lists collectively as story archetypes, and I think it might actually be best to start here, that is, to decide on the story archetype that a character will be based on before moving on to the other kinds of archetypes, what I’m called heroic and psychological archetypes.

You might think, Wow, that’s a lot of archetypes to be juggling; it sounds complicated. But I don’t see it that way. To me it’s like a process of triangulation: using these 3 or 4 different schemes allows you to start pinpointing your character. The character begins to emerge from the gray fog of uncreatedness to become somethingsomeone—specific and definite. You’re still just beginning the process, but you’re making a strong beginning. You can already feel sure that this character will carry weight in the story.

Creating characters is difficult. I have been working on the characters for The Age of Pisces for years now, and the work is not finished; I am still getting to know these people. And the tools to do the job have only gradually come into my hands. This is my effort to share what I have learned with you. May you—and all readers and viewers—benefit!

Next I think we’ll need to look in more detail at how to combine these archetypes. Stay tuned for that.

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, 2, and 3 in this series.

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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The Odyssey odyssey, part 13

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 13, told by Paul VitolsThe upshot for Warren and me of our meeting with CBC’s head of programming Ivan Fecan was that we had to do more work on our would-be series, The Jellybean Odyssey, before he would give us the go-ahead to produce the pilot episode. I don’t remember exactly what that extra work was, but I believe it may have been at this time that scripts for the next two episodes were commissioned, and no doubt we had to beef up the other episode ideas further and flesh out the proto-series-bible. Scripts are cheap; the network wanted more security in the project before actually causing film to be shot.

As Phil Keatley, the executive heading up CBC Vancouver’s drama department, expressed it after one of our meetings there: “This show, if it goes ahead, is going to cost something upward of a quarter-million dollars an episode. They’re going to say yes slowly.”

So the result of the big meeting was disappointing in the sense that we didn’t get a green light for making the pilot, but it was good in the sense that the project was alive, and indeed Warren and I got a bit more work out of it and could look forward to some more script fees. There was hope that we could turn the work around quickly and get the pilot into production for the summer, when the good filming weather would be here.

But within a couple of weeks of the meeting, I fell sick. At first I thought it was simply a cold, but I acquired a high fever that I couldn’t control, and was diagnosed with pneumonia. I spent most of February 1990 lying on my sofa, reading, drawing the snow piled high on my back balcony, watching TV, and climbing slowly and weakly up to bed each night.

This was a setback. But I don’t know whether it was a decisive setback in the sense of (apparently) killing any sense of urgency in the network to develop our series. However, for that reason or some other, this is what appeared to happen. Warren and I came to understand more exactly what Hart Hanson, our story editor, had meant early on when he referred to “development hell”.

I’m trying to think of how I would define and characterize development hell. First of all, development hell is experienced primarily by writers, and secondarily by producers. The hellishness consists in doing seemingly endless revisions of existing material–long past the point when you’ve cashed your last check for writing it–and waiting long, long times for feedback from the network, all with no guarantee that the project will ever, in the end, actually be picked up. With no production date even tentatively in mind, the senior network executives, who are all earning six-figure salaries in any case, can let the project float along while they mainly attend to more pressing concerns.

Warren and I met here at my house to work. Often we would walk down the hill to have lunch at Fran’s Cafe–a cheap Japanese-Canadian diner near the foot of Lonsdale Avenue that we dubbed the Development Diner: where writers in development could afford to eat. Neither of us had a real job–at least I didn’t–although I did have two mortgages plus a personal loan to finance the purchase of my house three years earlier. Money started growing tight, and Warren and I were driven to borrowing money–that is, getting “advances” against future work–from our producer Michael in order to keep going. (He had a sideline of selling real estate.)

Spring passed. Summer. The long days and beautiful filming weather started to fade, still with no breath of confirmation from the CBC about whether they would be wanting our show or not. The writers tightened their belts and looked ahead to another winter.

One day in September 1990 I paid a visit to a psychic named Sarah Scott Simonson. She lived nearby in Lynnmour, so I rode the new (cheap) bike I had just bought down the long hill to her townhouse. Sarah was a very pleasant, ordinary-seeming middle-aged woman who just happened to have psychic abilities. Kimmie had consulted her during a psychic fair held on the PNE grounds, and was impressed with her. I thought, what the heck–I wonder about my future too.

In her little consulting-room I asked her about my TV show: would it get made?

“Yes,” she said, “it will get done, it will get shown. It will be successful. Someone’s going to come along who will help it get done. He’ll be shorter–a powerful person. Very direct. He’ll help you, but be careful of him. There’s ego there–and envy for what you’re doing. Just be careful.”

“All right,” I said. “I will.”

Elated by Sarah’s prediction, I rode energetically back up the long hill, again feeling that the wind of destiny was behind me, and that our TV show would finally find its audience.

To be continued…

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The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene: the nice need not apply

The 48 Laws of PowerThe 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A comprehensive manual on how to gain worldly power. Not for the just, the kind, the ethical, or the fainthearted—but is that a surprise?

I acquired this book in December 2005. I was doing character research for my epic in progress, and wanted to know more about the thinking and actions of politically ambitious people. This looked promising, so I bought it (you’re welcome, Mr. Greene!). I started it, but was soon put off by its chilling tone. I characterized it as “a manual for psychopaths” when I referred to it in my review of another of Greene’s books, Mastery. Yes, I was intending to get inside the heads of those who seek power, but I found the point if view so depressing that I just couldn’t go on with it.

Now it’s 2018. Not long ago I read, with much interest and even excitement, The Dictator’s Handbook by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith; this too is a book that most readers find depressing, but I found that I did not. No, in my case I found myself energized by exposure to truth: this is how things really work. The fundamental law of politics is to acquire power and keep it. It is not a game that is bound by rules. In the world of politics, we are all in what Thomas Hobbes would have called “the state of nature” with respect to each other: the war of every man against every other. It’s survival of the fittest, dog eat dog, to the victor go the spoils. Mesquita and Smith make a strong case that this is the real dynamic driving all political activity, not just at the state level but at every level where the leadership of a group is at stake. A leader takes power with the help of certain key supporters—supporters who expect to benefit from his rule and to help shape it. Once installed, his first and most pressing ongoing duty is to reward these backers. The more gravy he is able to ladle on them, the more loyalty he buys, and the stronger his grip on power.

When I finished that book I immediately wanted to know more: more about power, its psychology, its strategy, its tactics. Searching Amazon, I found that one of the most prominent results was The 48 Laws of Power. But wait a second—I already had a copy of that. Sweet! I searched my library, found it, and got reading.

My response was different than it was in 2005. People call Greene’s book and his advice amoral, but that might even be flattery, for injustice, deceit, and betrayal are the key implements in the power-seeker’s toolkit, and to me this means that we are setting out to be not just lacking in morality, bust positively seeking to be wicked. For while it’s true that the author sometimes speaks of one’s “opponents” or “adversaries,” his more usual vocabulary for the people in the power-seeker’s world is “victims,” “marks,” or “suckers.” You, the power-seeker, are the predator, and the people around you are the prey. Your object is to trick them, exploit them, and crush them. As you do this, you will conceal your chicanery and bad faith; you will take credit for others’ good work, and shift the blame for your own mistakes and crimes. You will seduce people and make them love you, then leave them in the lurch when the moment is right. All of your interactions with people will be instrumental: use those who can help you; ignore all others. Everything you do is a matter of calculation and cunning, with a single criterion governing every exchange: how will this help me get ahead?

There is no doubt that this is how we all behave some of the time, and how some of us behave all of the time. What is disturbing is to find a manual that speaks only to that dark side, that implicitly or sometimes explicitly puts the higher human feelings, the better part of our nature, down to mere weakness. The author gives the appearance that he genuinely thinks that this is the high path in life, that the pinnacle of human life is to hold power, that this is the only form that human happiness can take. The fact that the path there requires us to lie, cheat, and betray is simply the way things are; nay more: these things, as means to such a sweet and desirable end, are themselves a positive pleasure. I think of an interview I read years ago with the chess champion Bobby Fischer. He described how, for him, the sweetest part of the game was not simply victory; it was the moment when he realized that he had crushed his opponent’s ego. That was what got him off; that was what drove him. Fischer is held up as one of the examples in this book.

It’s a big book and Mr. Greene draws many examples from a wide variety of sources and times. Three of his favorite examples are Talleyrand, Bismarck, and Joseph “Yellow Kid” Weil, America’s most successful con man, at least in the early 20th century. Interestingly, he never draws on the lives of Hitler, Mussolini, or Stalin, even though in some cases they would have made especially striking examples of the principles he is setting out. But a number of the examples he does use are also people who came to a bad end: prison, destitution, or dying at the hands of those they have cheated. Greene does not dwell on those things, tending to treat them as the consequences of failing to follow the laws of power fully and properly. His eye is on the prize ahead, not on the abyss that may lie beyond it.

There’s no denying that death awaits us all, whatever we’ve done and whatever sort of life we’ve lived. Why not enjoy the crystal meth of political power for the short time we have on Earth, if we have the desire for it and “the illness should attend it”? After all, there are plenty of people around us who are perfectly willing to use us and discard us when it’s convenient. Do we want to be the patsies and suckers? Do we want our faces to be mere stepping-stones in others’ climb to the top? Why should other people get all the glory and all the gravy? Shouldn’t we at least take a shot at being winners too?

One of the people that Greene mentions as an example for one of his laws of power is Abraham Lincoln. Under Law 25, “Re-Create Yourself,” Greene observes that Lincoln invented an effective public image for himself: that of the homespun, common country man. He was an Illinois lawyer who wore plain clothes, a rustic beard, and spoke in earthy epigrams. He was a president for the man in the street.

But is that all there was to Lincoln? An effective chaser after power? Even if he did not originate this famous earthy saying, he apparently quoted it with approval:

When I do good I feel good, when I do bad I feel bad, and that’s my religion.

To whatever extent Lincoln may have believed these words, to that extent he was not a powerful man, at least by the calculus of The 48 Laws of Power. The book certainly would acknowledge the necessity of professing spiritual values, of covering the tracks of one’s machinations; and Machiavelli does the same in The Prince; but can we really just write Lincoln and other admired leaders off as hypocritical knaves? Is the existence of tender feelings, spiritual feelings, in our breast a sign that we are cannon fodder, mere prey animals to be used by those who understand the world better?

The great psychologist Carl Jung, in his book Two Essays in Analytical Psychology, says:

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.

Personally, I think he’s right. To use, betray, and crush people are not loving actions. In the game of power, the person we love is ourselves. All others are thrown under the juggernaut of our own ego. This is the path to the “happiness” of power. Such, presumably, was the happiness of Joseph Stalin, hiding in his fortified palace from the vengeance of those many he had harmed, having physicians around him—the Jewish ones, anyway—tortured and killed on suspicion of conspiring to remove him from office.

No, love is the path to human happiness. I suspect that power is what we seek if we feel, for whatever reason, that the path of love is closed to us. Power is a consolation prize. It may even be revenge on a world where one has failed to find love. And if you actually enjoy hurting others, then you can experience pleasure in your climb to the top and pleasure in keeping yourself there. Until, that is, you yourself are pushed out—or die.

The world we live in is, in many respects, a jungle, and it operates by the law of the jungle—the laws of power. But the world we can see and touch is not all that is; such is the unanimous teaching of the spiritual traditions of the world, and such is the intuition in the hearts of many or most of us. We may not know how, but we suspect that we will all face a reckoning for our actions in this world. The 48 laws of power are the laws governing Vanity Fair, the dazzling worldly fair created by Beelzebub in John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, where human pleasures and lusts are catered to. If you want to be a player there, then the 48 laws will certainly help you.

I can’t subscribe to the basic outlook and premise of The 48 Laws of Power, but I read this book with much appreciation and enjoyment. Robert Greene comes across as a cold but thorough and effective adviser. He at least takes on the persona of a hard-boiled realist who does not whitewash anything. He’s speaking to the prince in the privacy of his inner office while they relax at the end of the day, having a scotch. No pretenses here, just plain talk. The book is well thought out and well researched. If this doesn’t sound too contradictory, it reads like a labor of love. The writer may be helping you to deceive and betray, but he’s doing it because he wants you to succeed.

And there’s plenty in here that I think even a good-hearted person can use with benefit, not only to smoke out the ploys and stratagems being used by others, but also to adopt aspects of the 48 laws that do not cause harm to others. There’s nothing wrong, for instance, with guarding against outshining your superiors, or adopting an unhurried approach to things, or forbearing from pressing an attack too far. These strategies are about being smart in the real world. Indeed, it might be interesting if someone created a “white hat” version of the 48 laws—power principles for loving people.

In the meantime, loving people can study this book with profit. Just don’t forget what really matters.

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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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