Why Characters? Perspective and Sketch Comedy

Why characters?
If you’re ever at a restaurant where people drop their business cards in a fish bowl for the chance to win a free lunch, when you’re taking other people’s cards out to have a better chance at winning and you see my business card, you’ll notice that under my name it reads “Keynotes With Character(s).”

As someone named Jessica probably would say: “What even is that?”

Put simply, I do keynotes as characters to make audiences realize that we’re all characters, then I show them ways to build character.

That sentence was 134 characters.

As a writer, to build more effective (read: realistic) characters, it’s necessary to see the world from your character’s point of view. Every character has a completely unique background and has been met with completely unique life experiences, so they have a completely unique perspective from everyone else. This means, my POV has to change from my own to that of someone else – someone who doesn’t think, feel, or respond like me.

When writing comedic characters, the key is to write each character to be completely serious, because the humor comes from them seriously trying to get what they want, but mucking it up. People aren’t funny because they’re trying to be funny, people are funny because they’re trying to get what they want and they don’t know how. That’s comedy! Each of my characters is dead serious about getting what he or she wants. Each of my characters has a fully formulated backstory so that I can determine why they would each behave a certain way when confronted with what life throws at them. Each of my characters has shown me the value of seeing the world through the eyes of someone else – a skill I remember to use in everyday life when I’m not quite seeing eye-to-eye with others. Having this background allows me to take a step back and examine a new point of view, because I know that every single person I see comes from a completely unique background, and I wish more people could pause and take a moment to see the world through the eyes of another.

Because everyone, even you, is a character.

Rejection is Feedback and Feedback is an Opportunity

“[We are] going to rescind our request to have you speak to [us].”
I stared blankly at the text of the email, mouth agape.
“This has never happened to me,” I thought aloud. “What did I do?”
I kept reading.
“Eight members of our chapter were in attendance and all were offended by your presentation,” the email continued.
“Offended? I was trying to make you laugh!” My fight-or-flight response had kicked in, but before I found myself going off on a tangent, I decided to continue reading to learn more.
“Specifically, you told a ‘dick’ joke.”
Ah… that’s fair. Using my character, Perspective Detective Dick Ransom’s first name strategically for laughs is admittedly juvenile, but it’s something that people remember. The premise of the bit is based around the fact that when we blame the circumstances or other people when we fall short of our goals, so we should “become a Dick” because “we all have a little Dick inside of us.”

Later in the email, he writes “I won’t comment on the rest of your presentation.” This is what hurt me most, not because they didn’t enjoy my presentation, but because once the Dick joke was on the table, they missed out on the message of the rest of the presentation.

That’s on me.

My talks aren’t your standard HR presentation because the current business climate is mired in complacency, so I take some risks – some pay off and some don’t, which I live with. The key, though is to analyze where I am and ask, “Is where I am better than where I was before this?” To get a more accurate answer, it’s vital to consider all feedback from other perspectives. I only have one way of looking at my reality – my own – so I admittedly have a bit of a bias. However, when other people say to me, “We were offended by your presentation,” that’s a sign that, instead of resisting their POV and getting hostile, I have an opportunity to consider another perspective.

I can’t possibly follow through on all feedback given to me, but I can at least listen, appreciate the fact that someone is willing to take a risk to even give me the feedback, and consider what to do next. My aim is to always improve in some way after every presentation I give, and in order to do that, it’s important to listen. This is as true for me as it is for all of you – even if no one approaches you and says, “Hey, here’s my feedback,” if you listen to the world around you by
-evaluating where you are vs. where you want to be
-paying close attention to the nonverbal clues of others
-considering the perspectives of those who do offer explicit feedback
you’ll learn more than you ever would simply looking through your own eyes.

Though another group approached me after the presentation about speaking at one of their upcoming meetings because they enjoyed the presentation and felt motivated (proof that multiple people can see the exact same thing but get something completely different out of it), my aim is to leave everyone feeling better when they see one of my talks. I don’t expect everyone to leap out of their seats and change the world when they leave, but at the very least, I want people to have laughed and felt good. To have not been able to do that for one group leaves me in a state of self-examination where I realize that “I too have a little Detective Dick in me,” now it’s up to me to figure out how I can do better next time, and it’s all thanks to feedback.

“Rejection is just feedback designed to show you how to be better.”

Check Your Privilege, Kermit

EVERY. YEAR.

Every damned year, Al Roker/Matt Lauer and whatever physically appealing female co-anchor that happens to be working for NBC go flipping crazy when that Kermit balloon appears in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. All we hear about is how everyone loves him, how he’s one of the main attractions, and then there’s some obligatory joke about Miss Piggy. The heaps of praise and unwavering love for this frog isn’t equal to the love for many of the other balloons and I say, “No more!”

Where’s the praise for cartoon characters? Corporate mascots? And there’s not even a Caitlyn Jenner balloon; it’s blatant disrespect.

Check your privilege at the door, Al Roker. There’s more to this parade than just Muppets.

What about Sonic the Hedgehog? “There’s Sonic. He’s making his 6th appearance in the parade.” That’s it!? That’s all you got!? No mention of his rings or the fact that he SAVED THE WORLD FROM DR. ROBOTNIK!?

Hello Kitty? They’re just like, “Hello, Kitty. So anyway, how’s your turkey coming, Hoda?”

When Bart Simpson appears, it’s a bullying slugfest. “What trouble will he get into this year?” “He’s probably been up to some mischief.” What, because he’s yellow that automatically means he’s been doing something mischievous?  Get off your high horse, NBC.

I’m sick of the puppet privilege this amphibious ass gets every. single. stinkin year! Enough is enough!

When you see that smug son of a salamander snake his way onto your screen, switch off the set and watch something that DOESN’T rub puppet privilege in our faces. Like football.

Big Bird too! Such an avian a-hole.

Just watch and see what I mean. How do you think the other balloons feel about all of the attention these Muppets get? It’s time to take a stand. I, for one, won’t be watching the parade and will be watching Home Shopping reruns. I won’t be shopping at Macy’s anymore either because I can’t, in good faith, give my money to a corporation who obviously doesn’t care about equality. Join me in my defiance and let’s tell the man that we won’t stand for this inflatable injustice any longer!

Krush Kermit

People Who Chew With Their Mouths Open Can Fall Down Stairs

Assuming they don’t get seriously injured – I don’t want anyone to really get hurt, I just want them to learn a lesson. I’ve been sitting next to a girl who has been smacking her lips for a good ten minutes. Apparently she’s eating the biggest muffin in the world. Either that or it continually re-generates (Future business idea: The Infinity Muffin). Regardless, she has been chewing, pretty much nonstop the entirety of our time together. Now that I’ve accepted that this is my current reality, I can appreciate it. Rather than getting on my nerves, she’s making me laugh. Little does she know, she has inspired me to write her as a comedic device as a background character in a future scene, annoying our protagonist as he sits in a library doing important research. She just choked a bit on her muffin. Hilarious. Maybe she’ll learn her lesson and stop eating the muffin. Damn. Another bite… Anyway, if we allow ourselves to be annoyed by something, we miss the opportunity to get a positive experience out of it since we’re focusing on what we don’t like. HOW DOES THIS MUFFIN STILL HAVE SO MUCH MUFFIN LEFT!?

You Are the Writer of Your Own Life

Breaking News: You Have Been Given Full Creative Control Over Your Life!

As someone who received a Bachelor’s Degree in political science and wanted to pursue a dream in comedy writing, I had to train myself on how to write scripts – screenplays, TV scripts, sketches, etc. As I researched and wrote, I realized that the characters I was writing were rather robotic and way too similar too each other. So I began reading books on psychology and why people do the things that they do. What I discovered is that there are undeniable parallels between writing a strong script and life itself. As a writer, I have the ability to create characters and put them in situations where they must grow and achieve what they want in order to tell a well-rounded story. I have full creative control over what they say, do, and think. When I really analyzed this, I realized that I also have control over what I say, do, and think. In fact, all of us do. We’re the writer in charge of our own lives. We decide the ending and what it’s going to take to get there. So get ready to pick up a pen and start brainstorming because you have been given full creative control over the script that is your life. You know the phrase, “The pen is mightier than the sword.” Well, figuratively speaking, that little stick of ink (or feather quill – which is what I hope you’re imagining), is the most powerful weapon in your arsenal. We have full control over whether the protagonist, you and me, saves the kingdom, wins the championship, falls in love, learns and grows, and has a happy ending. Or do we write a flat script with a stagnant protagonist that no audience would pay a penny to see produced? In this piece, I take five of the steps for writing a good script and turn them into five steps for writing a great life for ourselves. We have full creative control over our lives, so why would we choose to write anything other than the best? I’m going to show you how to write the life that you want:

1.) Research

As a writer, you don’t just begin writing a script without learning how to write a script. If you write a screenplay with no structure, it’s going to suck no matter how good the idea was. Life is the same way: if you don’t know how to live before you live, your life is going to suck, no matter how good your ideas are. This means learning about ourselves, including our psychology (our thoughts, conditioning, and emotions), our bodies (nutrition and exercise), our spirituality (meditation and prayer), and interpersonal relationships. If we don’t, we go through life letting our thoughts run on autopilot and we fall victim to our emotions, our bodies weaken and break down and we fall victim to sickness and fatigue, we fail to maintain meaningful relationships without conflict and we become spiteful and untrusting of others, and we never discover ourselves and our callings. There are thousands of books, documentaries, and online articles available that cover all of this thoroughly so this vital information for our everyday lives is very easy to access. Instead of “researching” Mila Kunis’ relationship with Ashton Kutcher, who is rumored to be in the new Star Wars movie, or a video of a toddler hugging a chicken, why not research ourselves? You wouldn’t trash your new car if you plan on driving it for the next ten years. You’re going to be together with yourself every day for the rest of your life, it’s probably a good idea to figure out how to make things run as smoothly as possible. I wouldn’t write a script about a congressman without doing research on how being a congressman works. You shouldn’t write your script without doing research on living a life worth living either.

2.) Brainstorm

This is my favorite stage of writing. It’s when I unleash my creativity without censoring myself or worrying how everything will work. I simply let loose. It’s when I’m in touch with myself most and I value that time because I know many people who don’t know who they truly are. Sometimes hours fly by without me even realizing until they’re long gone. Conversely, sometimes I worry about how I’m going to do something for so long that I miss the opportunity altogether. We all do this. How am I going to pay the bills? How am I going to find the time? How am I going to make a career doing that? All of the “hows” do nothing but create self-doubt and disrupt the creative process in your brain. I have to turn off the WiFi in my apartment when I write so I don’t distract myself on Buzzfeed or Facebook because it takes another half hour to get back into a creative flow. The same goes for stopping to ask ourselves “How?” It halts our creativity dead in its tracks. There is a place for “How” later in the process, but asking it while brainstorming will stop ourselves from considering all possibilities. Worrying about what might not work makes figuring out what will much more difficult because our focus is diverted from what we want to what we don’t want. If I write a screenplay about a character with super powers and spend too much time worrying about how realistic it is, I’ll never consider introducing a pond with radioactive waste that he swam in as a kid. All thoughts need to be considered because you never know which ones will end up growing legs (which is what happens when you swim in a pond with radioactive waste). As humans, we have a gift of creativity that no other creature has, so why do we stop ourselves from using it by worrying about something that hasn’t even happened yet?

3.) Create your character

There is an ongoing debate between writers about whether character or conflict is more important. The truth is that there should be no debate – character and conflict work in unison with one another. Without character, there is no conflict, and without conflict, we have no character. They’re two sides of the same pillow. Characters create and respond to conflict and their results come directly from their choices. If an external conflict arises – a tornado, an affair, or a murder – how the character chooses to respond determines the outcome of the story. Even if the character isn’t directly responsible for this conflict, how he responds to it defines him as a character. If the character creates the conflict himself, it is up to him to grow and overcome what he did. If the character spends his time relying on other characters and fails to resolve the conflict himself, he fails to show any growth and the writer has failed to create a true protagonist. You’ll never see a Jason Statham movie where the supporting characters kick the bad guys’ asses while he does nothing. No one would turn that script into anything more than tinder for a fire. The same goes with your life: if you let everyone else fight your battles, you fail to grow and your life becomes tinder for a fire since everyone else is living it for you. Create a dynamic character for yourself and grow to overcome conflict to reach your happy ending.

When you create a character, you have to start in the present. Where is the character when your story begins? What is he doing with his life? How does he view the world? Everything that has led up to right now has shaped these things. In writing terms, these past events make up the backstory. Every character comes equipped with a backstory, but what determines a dynamic character is what he does with it. You and I both have our own conditioning, or backstories, and they shape every facet of our current predicaments – our thoughts, ideas, beliefs, attitudes, emotions, and actions – all are based on our backstories. How a character recounts his past determines the course of action he will take in the present. Bruce Wayne watched his parents get murdered, so he vowed to wipe crime from the streets of Gotham so others wouldn’t have to share the same fate. He easily could’ve been traumatized and remained reclusive inside Wayne Manor, but then no one would tell the story of Bruce Wayne. Just like Master Wayne (Michael Caine accent), how we recount our past determines how we approach the present. If we’re paralyzed by the negative things that have happened, we fail to grow and we never become a strong character, ruining any chance of writing a compelling story for ourselves. Molding our own character means being fully self-aware and it sometimes takes being brutally honest with yourself, but this honestly will create a much more dynamic character in the long run.

Strong characters compel us as an audience, because they eventually overcome a limiting belief set by their backstory. We’re sucked into the story because we too want to overcome the limiting beliefs set by our own backstories, and we do it vicariously through the main character. The protagonist is never able to overcome conflict until he overcomes a limiting belief and acquires the necessary tools to become victorious. That’s exactly what our character must do to strike down the conflicts and obstacles that arise in our own lives. If we overcome a limiting belief set by our backstory, and grow to overcome our obstacles, we have created a compelling character that will achieve what we want.

4.) Outline

Outlining is one of the most important stages of writing your story. It is used to write screenplays, sketches, novels, plays, articles, and college research papers. I had a political science professor spend an entire week lecturing about outlining for an 80-page research paper that I wrote. Without that outline, I would still be in college trying to figure out how to write page after page on sex offenders and the rate of repeat offenses. Outlining gives structure to our writing and allows us to lay out our thoughts in a way that’s easily accessible and customizable. If I get off track when I’m writing, which I often do, I simply refer to the outline to get back on task. Just like outlining in writing is essential to create a successful piece, outlining in life, or setting goals, is necessary to create a successful story for yourself. In a study of Harvard MBA graduates, 84% had no specific goals, 13% had goals but didn’t write them down, and 3% had clearly written goals. In ten years, the 13% were earning twice as much as those without goals, and the 3% were earning ten times as much as the other 97% of graduates on average. Although this is simply a snapshot, it has become clear to me why the top 1% earn so much more than the other 99 – they have an outline for their lives. Try writing a screenplay with no outline or story board. Chances are, you’ll give up because there’s no structure and nothing to put you back on track, making the process frustratingly impossible. As you write, sometimes the outline will change and improve the screenplay. As you live life, sometimes your goals will change and improve your life as you grow. Sometimes something better than you planned will come along, but since outlines can be easily customized, we can make room for these unexpected surprises that can occur taking our screenplays from good to great. Remember as you write your life “a failure to plan is a plan to fail.” So outline, outline, outline!

5.) Write and rewrite

No one writes a perfect script the first time, but we have to write that first draft to see what needs to be improved and better understand how and where to make those improvements for the next draft. Sometimes you write a bad script, but as the jokes fall flat during the table read and no one laughs, you know what parts need strengthened or removed altogether. There’s nothing worse than hearing crickets when your script is being read aloud as joke after joke bombs, but once you get past that initial discomfort and all of the thoughts saying, “You’re terrible! It’s best to just give up!” you’re going to write a better script. You never learn to keep your eye on the ball if you don’t strike out first. The most successful people see adversity as a stepping-stone rather than a brick wall. Leading positive psychologist Tal Ben-Shahar states that it’s better to face difficulties and drawbacks early so that we’re better prepared to deal with the inevitable obstacles that will arise in our lives. There are even companies who train their new hires to fail so that they can choose to think dynamically and overcome their failures to succeed better at their new jobs. When crisis eventually rears its ugly head, these employees are ready to meet them head-on. If we meet adversity by curling up into a ball and giving up, we never learn what it takes to overcome it. In fact, we have a terrible habit of using the experience of one failure to expect failure in all other facets of our lives, a paralyzing choice that is anything but true. Yes, failing is uncomfortable, but we’ll never write our story to its fullest potential if we crumple it up and throw it away after the first draft. So instead of meeting failure with submission, meet it with the enthusiasm to write draft after draft until you tell the compelling story that you’re meant to tell. So pick up your feather pen, dip it into your ink well, and get writing without worrying about the first draft being great, because as long as you keep writing, it eventually will be.

Please comment – I would love to hear your POV!