Monday, March 5, 2012

The Harold and the Hero

In his pop psychology bestseller "Blink," Malcolm Gladwell talked about a few things that relate to how writers make decisions for their characters. The book is about the way our brains thin-splice the available information to help us make decisions better, in some cases, than if we spent hours or days gathering info and doing tests. He basically says, based on various studies (and they are varied- he goes from police shootings to art forgery to the Pepsi Challenge.) that people's brains make judgements behind closed doors. It's normal, but we should be aware of when those processes are likely to get us into trouble and what we can do to be more reliable in our snap decisions. You have to know what the really inmportant info is to make the particular decision. And practice can help. (I think there's some relevance to the Outline Vs. Pantser debate, and it gives some credibility to the Pantsers!)

A specific example: Improv groups will perform a skit called a Harold, where the actors get up on stage without lines or a setting or even a conflict, and based on a prompt from the audience, just start acting. (It reminds me of one of my favorite shows from back in the day, "Whose Line is it Anyway?")

Gladwell explains that the improv shows are often insighful, funny, and while not seamless, much more coherent than one would think. To explain why, Gladwell compares the actors to a basketball team. They've practised together so much that they understand and anticipate what will happen. They have a feel for the game and they follow rules. (Even improv has rules!) From "Blink-"

"A very simple way to create a story--or humor--is to have characters accept everything that happens to them. As Keith Johnstone, one of the founders of improv theater, writes: 'If you'll stop reading for a moment and think of something you wouldn't want to happen to you or to someone you love, then you'll have thought of something worth staging or filming...In life, most of us are highly skilled at suppressing action. All the improvisation teacher has to do is reverse this skill and he creates very 'gifted' improvisers. Bad improvisers block action, often with a very high degree of skill. Good improvisers develop action.'"

Very interesting book, loved it, as I have loved all of Malcolm Gladwell's books that I've read.

I think this is why (as Dave Farland pointed out in his writing seminar) a hero never acts in self-preservation. A normal person, at some point in the story, would block action. (Think of Captain Kirk in the recent Star Trek.)

I think most of us have heard the tip "get your character up in a tree and throw stones at him until the last page" but this says that the hero is also the kind of person taunting the stone-throwers, and he might even moon them, metaphorically speaking. He throws gasoline on the fire by being who he is.

Does this fit any other heroes you can think of? I think of Eugenides in the Attolia books by Megan Whalen Turner, and many others.

Happy Writing!


  1. I loved that show 'Whose line is it anyway?' At bedtime my kids give me a topic to tell a story about and I can spin off a tale, where the words just come out of my mouth. Granted, they are usually about animals, lol.

    Rachel,one of my characters in my novel, 'taunts the stone-throwers.'

  2. I love this concept. My husband read BLINK and thought it was really cool, too. And I love 'Whose Line is it Anyway?' but I'd never thought about what makes a good and bad improviser.

  3. Thanks for the comments, Jen and Amy! Is WLIIA on reruns anywhere? That show was just so funny.