Thursday, 16 January 2014

Spreading their oats: Reflections on the Wildseed Studios ‘Character Mapping’ workshop

Laurie Hutzler Character Mapping at Wildseedworkshop
My new years resolution is to get the wild story ideas in my head down onto paper and to not stop scribbling until those ideas have turned into characters that have turned into stories that have turned into plays that have been performed.

My worst self is shouting all sorts of abuse at me right now about how I shouldn’t have told you that and how you’ll laugh at me later this year when I have to admit that I’ve failed in my endeavour because really I’m just no good and I should give it all up and for god sake, get serious, get real.

Fortunately my best self was the one in control of things when a couple of weeks ago I stumbled across a not-to-be-missed offer of a free (my favourite price) character mapping workshop at the Alnolfini.

The event took place this Saturday and was the brainchild of Miles Bullough and Jesse Cleverly, Directors of new company Wildseed Studios.  (NB: Wildseed Studios are worth looking into because they have MONEY and are looking for creative types like YOU to pitch your ideas and work with them to make it happen.  There’s ton’s of details on their website if you fancy checking them out)

The one-day workshop was led by Laurie Hutzler, a television, film and online content consultant. The event promised to help me “create a visual map for my fictional character’s emotional journey” by applying some of the tools that Hutzler has created and used with household names such as the BBC, Channel 4, Aardman Animation, Disney and Dreamworks (amongst others on an exhausting  and overwhelming list).

Hutzler is a self-declared ‘practical mid-western girl’.  In no nonsense tones she politely threw out standard story theory as “very interesting, but just cocktail talk, nothing more”.  What she’s passionately interested in is great story telling and for Hutzler great stories have audience emotion and feeling at the centre of them.

Hutzler is a great storyteller herself and endlessly quotable (often repeating key phrases for us to dutifully write down and stick to our writerly work stations when we returned home).  Before the first tea break she had us answer six personal questions about ourselves (see box below).  After the tea break she took the answers from one ‘volunteer’ and used them to character map a fictional person ‘Sarah’.  These six questions form the basis to any character map.  Applying those questions to ourselves first ensured that we were sold on the effectiveness of the technique.

Audience hooked, mesmerised and emotionally involved
At ten minutes before lunch the auditorium of nearly 150 people was almost silent.  No hungry shuffling and coughing.  Hooked, mesmerised and emotionally involved Hutzler had the attention of the whole room.  Later, in the queue to the ladies, I overheard a couple of girls discussing how surprised they were (in a good way) about the extent to which the session was personal and emotional.  But for Hutzler everything starts with the artist.

Hutzler points out as writers we tend to shy away from being hard on our characters.  Subconsciously we want to protect them but actually that’s the worst thing we can do.  Both our characters, and ourselves as writers in Hutzler’s world, need to come bang slap up against those fears and, yeah you got it, do it anyway.

What we learned was that when stories and scripts fall flat: “the problem is very rarely with what’s on the page; the problem almost always is what’s not on the page”.  Hutzler recommends that we watch our characters ‘with the sound down’ to see if they are acting in a way that is believable given the parameters of the character’s personality.

Whilst characters may do amazing and surprising things, Hutzler explains this can only ever be on a continuum of who they are as a person.  Character mapping therefore is a way to understand that continuum - the ‘worst self’ and the ‘best self’ of a given character. 

It follows that all action in a story is driven by the tension between these two dynamics.  Through character mapping you know what buttons your antagonist has to press to get your protagonist to a crisis point, a metaphorical cliff edge.  If your character meets that challenge with a leap of faith they will be rewarded by being their very best self; if not they will go over to the ‘dark side’ of being, their very worst self.

In order for the audience to care your character has be authentic and the character map stress tests authenticity.  Once you’ve got a character your audience can believe in (note: they do NOT have to like them!) it’s time to generate an emotional response by making your character vulnerable.   

If at any time your story is getting boring Hutzler believes you need to figure out where your character is in relation to their fear.  All character development needs to fall out of the audience seeing how a character acts in response to events that trigger their fear, which triggers them behaving according to their strongest traits (learned coping mechanisms) leading to a crisis point to which they have to react (the payoff).

Whilst some of the motivational stuff was perhaps somewhat un-English it was inspirational and definitely the sort of stuff we need as writers to keep our ‘worst self ‘ monsters down at the beginning of the year.  What Hutzler and the Wildseed workshop delivered for me was some practical tools and the confidence to get on with writing ‘my best self’.   I’ve got my character map pinned up on the wall, and a notebook crammed full with Hutzler’s words of wisdom.  Let’s see what happens next….

Getting started the Hutzler way:

Start with the artist.  Answer the following questions for yourself:

1.     Among the people who know you but don’t know you well what’s the biggest misconception or misunderstanding about how you are?
2.     Think of a time when you were small and had trouble falling asleep because you were anxious about something – what was it?
3.     List your three strongest traits
4.     List three personality traits that you admire but you don’t have
5.     List the three qualities that get you into trouble
6.     List three things about people that really bug you and make you intensely dislike them

Be really specific when answering the questions above e.g. if your anxiety when you were small was being scared of the dark – why? What was the specific fear about being in the dark? 

Have a look at the free (still my favourite price!) character mapping materials on Hutzler’s website for more details on what each of these questions relates to in terms of character mapping)

Do the same exercise again but for your main character.

Some Hutzler ‘motivationals’ to tape to your writerly work stations:
“If you are constrained by fear you cannot write your best self.  Write your best self.”

“Storytellers are the most powerful people on earth because they have the power to move the human heart.  Go forth and be powerful.”

First published on Theatre Bristol Writers website

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