The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Sunday, December 04, 2005

The "Casablanca" Secret

Hi <$firstname$>,

     Good writing is often designed around a character
who has a distorted vision of himself or of the world.
During the story, he is placed under sufficient pressure
to force an epiphany, a moment of clarity in which,
he sees the world as it is, not as he wished it to be.
     A classic example is “Casablanca,” where Bogart’s
immortal Rick has managed to create an insular world
in which he can pretend to be utterly detached and
uninvolved.  He supposedly has no political beliefs,
and no real human connections.  But the reappearance
of Ilsa forces a cascade of events that cause Rick to
reexamine his attitudes about love, fate, patriotism,
courage, fidelity, friendship, and life itself. 
     Rick begins as a damaged, closed off character,
carrying wounds to his heart and ego.  What he WANTS
is to be left alone to his self-pity. What he NEEDS is to
be re-awakened to a life of purpose.  The writers,
wisely, give Rick what he needs, not what he wants,
and in that manner a classic was born.
     In Lifewriting™ we trust that the quality of a writer’s
skill will be heightened by his evolution as a human
being—in other words, his ability to write people will
be based on his capacity for honest observation of
himself and others.  His ability to turn a plot creatively
will be based on his understanding of the world as it
is—not as we often fantasize it to be.  This ability to
create moments of suspense, revelation, humor and
horror often triggers an “ah!  Life is just like that!”
response from the audience, a recognition of universal
humanity that can transcend culture and time.
     The easiest way to learn this is to look at our own
lives.  None of us make it through our years without
wounds, damage, pain.  Just as physical scar tissue
shortens muscles and limits mobility, emotional scar
tissue creates “armoring” around our hearts.  It also
begins to warp our reality, as we create justifications
for why THIS relationship self-destructed, or THAT job
crashed and burned…once again.  It’s never our fault
, of course.  The opposite, and even more damaging
reaction is to take not just responsibility for our
failures, but massive guilt as well.  Our lives don’t
work (so the reasoning goes) because we are bad,
terrible, horrible people undeserving of healthy bodies
or relationships or careers.
     Either attitude clouds our vision, makes it difficult
to see the world as it is.  Those clouded inner eyes
and warped “reality maps” make it very difficult to
navigate a path to our chosen goals.  Again and again
we will bark our shins on invisible rocks, crashing into
invisible walls, almost as if life is trying to teach us,
to educate us, to enlighten us as to the realities of
     What we WANT is the comforting womb of our
illusions.  What we NEED is to be born into the world
as it actually is.
     Often, we are dragged kicking and screaming
into clarity, forced ultimately to accept the ways
we’ve been wrong.  “Too soon old, too late smart”
is one rather fatalistic way of speaking of this process.
  Too often, we must be old before we grasp that WE
are the ones who sabotaged our dreams of success. 
We are the ones who refused to exercise and eat
reasonably—that our bodies are more the result of
our behaviors than our genetics.  We are the ones
who broke communication in our relationships, who
lied and withheld and blamed, and thought  that “the
other person” was responsible for our misery. We
are the ones who refused to grow up, to stop blaming
our parents, or society, or racism, ageism, sexism or
any other “ism” for our lack of happiness.
     Too late, we are battered by one failure or
disappointment after another, until the ego walls we
created to protect our self-image are shattered, and
we’re forced into contact with our true selves.  The
moment of death is supposed to be absolutely first
rate at creating such clarity, a realization of our true
values, and regret at the way we sold out our true
     But there are events that create clarity.  The
birth of a first child.  A near-death experience. 
Accomplishing some worthy and transforming goal. 
The first deep and true moment of love or friendship.
  Transformation. In such moments, we see ourselves
for the magnificent, wounded, earthy, spiritual beings
that we are.  We forgive ourselves, and our families,
and the world around us, knowing that we have no
right to expect more perfection from others than we
ourselves possess.  And as the saying goes, “all have
sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”  No
perfect people in this world.  Accept it.  And move on.
     Stories that deal with these core stressors--life,
death, birth, transformation, love—are always, and
have always been the most popular stories in human
history.  Under this stress, your character, robbed of
their self-justifying lies, must speak the truth.  Under
these stressors, they are revealed in their
magnificence…or sometimes (especially if they refuse
to acknowledge reality) revealed in their venality,
cowardice, and dishonesty.
     This is one of the functions of story.  The writer
must create story pressures beyond the capacity of
the characters to maintain their illusions. Then, and
only then, can you reveal their true natures.  To do
this, just look at the times in your own life that you
awakened, transformed, grew, went kicking and
screaming into the next level of your life.  Then
create dramatic exaggerations or simplifications of
these passages, and create characters to experience
them.  Let them be as human—as flawed and
magnificent—as you yourself are.  As we all are.
Heighten their qualities for the sake of drama, to
be sure, but always, always, at their core, let them
be human, whatever it is that you believe human beings to be.
     Let them struggle.  Let them learn. Let them love.
     Let them live.
     Do this, and it will mark the beginning of a beautiful
friendship…between you, your muse, and a world
audience starved for entertaining truth.

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