Tag Archives: To Kill A Mockingbird

Everyone’s Got A Story

If you meet me in person, chances are at some point I’ll ask you what’s your story. Who you are. What brought you from wherever you’re from to where you are what now. Because whatever the reason, it’s your story and tells a good amount about you.

So naturally, when I watch/play/read something, I’m looking for a character’s story. What made them who they are? Sometimes, you don’t need a particularly deep story (Dr Horrible wants to be inducted into the Evil League of Evil, Captain Hammer is going to stop him. Easy), and sometimes just a few hints along the way tells you everything (Russell’s dad isn’t around much, Han Solo made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs).

But sometimes it benefits us to know more about the character. To know why they are who they are.

Lost went super in-depth. Every episode (at least in the first few seasons) followed a character’s life before the Island. We learnt about Charlie’s struggle with failure and his desire to be able to do something right and why Eko sought redemption so fervently. We were introduced to Locke, the broken man who wants to show the world wrong.

We get to see the defining moments in their lives. We find out why Sawyer is so desperate to be hated, yet also why he will leap to protect someone else. No action is out of character for them since we know them so well. It’s because of the sheer amount of their backstory that we feel like we know them so well. We have their stories.

Similarly, How I Met Your Mother, tells us the story of the group through the narrator and flashbacks within flashbacks (and sometimes within more flashbacks). We learn how the met each other and how they became the pseudo-family that they are. It’s their story, the boyfriends and girlfriends, the wedding(s), the deaths, and the births. We know Ted and friends as well as our own because we’ve learned their story.

The trend of finding out a character’s story is one taken up by the recent Marvel films. In Iron Man and Captain America (and The Amazing Spider-Man too) we’re introduced to them as Tony Stark, Steve Rogers, and Peter Parker first.

Steve Rogers is the scrawny kid from Brooklyn with an indomitable spirit. We learn why he’s a hero before he becomes Captain America. For us, Steve’s story is enough to draw us in. We’ve seen where he comes from, before the serum, now show us where it ends. Had we met Steve as Captain America and just had hints about him being a skinny idealistic kid, it just wouldn’t be the same.

Uncharted 3 has a flashback too, to Nathan Drake as a teenager. He’s this orphan boy who’s somewhat lost, seeking adventure and wandering around. He meets Sully and we see where their bond came from. That bond then becomes the core of the story, and we care because we saw where it came from.

Then shows like Community or Firefly just hint around their backstories. Telling us key events but also hinting that these people are more than just skin deep. References are made in the Halo games to Master Chief’s prior exploits, To Kill A Mockingbird mentions that Atticus Finch has skills and a past that his children may never know. Hawkeye and Black Widow had quite the adventure in Budapest, Fezzik might have fought gangs for charity. Sometimes we don’t need to know what their stories are, just that they have them.

When we meet a character we want there to be more than just what we see. A good storyteller often has a biography filled with things we’ll never see and maybe just get a passing reference to. But it’s the mere existence — which will usually come out in the story — that helps make them real.

Point is: everyone’s got a story. So if it works for the plot (and it doesn’t always!), tell us. Tease us. Help us get to know them and make us want to follow them to the end of their journey.

Also: buy my book In Transit! Support aspiring authors with characters who have some pretty cool stories!

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One Kind of Folks in the ‘Verse. Folks.

A quintessential part of an American High School education is reading Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. Well, most educations. It’s presented as a classic coming of age tale set amongst racial tensions in the south as seen through the eyes of a young girl.

Cool.

Except that’s not what it’s about.

To Kill A Mocking Bird is about people. It’s about how people are just people. Most chapters highlight one person, be it Calpurnia, Boo Radley, or even the Ewell family and show that no matter how poor, rotten, or outcasted they may be, they are still people.

Scout and Jem have to spend a month working for Mrs Dubose, the mean old lady down the street who yells at them and insults their father. While yes, it’s a growing moment for both of them, the crucial part comes after she passes away. Scout and Jem still hate her, but Atticus Finch tells them what was really going on. She was a morphine addict desperate to get clean. Behind her ill temper was a woman desperate to be free. Atticus goes on to say that she was the bravest person he ever knew.

It’s not just the spiteful crone who get treated with a measure of sympathy. The white trash Ewell family are clearly malicious, yes, but Atticus demonstrates that they are still worthy of being treated with the respect befitting any people. Time and time again the book makes it clear — more often than not through Atticus’ example — that people are people.

Forty-two years after To Kill A Mockingbird was published another piece of fiction emerged with similar themes.

Granted, Firefly isalso a lot about family, freedom, and everything in between, but something crucial to it is the fact that folk in the ‘Verse are just people.

One of the members of Serenity’s crew is Inara, a companion. Companion here meaning prostitute. The captain of the ship, Malcolm Reynolds, isn’t a terribly huge fan of her profession and persistently berates it. However, the second someone dares define her by what she does and now who she is, Mal will leap to defend her. Be it challenging her client to a duel or risking his and his crew’s lives defending a brothel from a tyrant, Mal doesn’t like it when Inara and women like her are treated as less than human.

Because they aren’t.

We come to love Inara — a sort of person most people would look down on — not because of her high social ranking within the ‘Verse, but because we know that despite her day job she’s a woman too, a mostly-ordinary person like the rest of us. It’s easy to write her character off in the beginning as just being an excuse for sex-appeal or what-have-you, but she’s just as fleshed out as the rest of the crew. The question is can you see her as a person and not just eye candy?

Great deal is spent making sure we understand every member of the crew. The mercenary Jayne or the oddly-lethal preacher Book; they all come from somewhere different, but we learn that each and everyone of them is a person with a story worth telling. We learn not to judge someone as a ‘doctor’, ‘mechanic’, or ‘soldier’ but as the person carrying the title. They’re all people.

Towards the end of To Kill A Mockingbird Jem and Scout are discussing different types of people. White and black, rich and poor, accepted or rejected. “Naw, Jem,” says Scout at one point, “I think there’s just one kind of folks. Folks.”

That’s the point made by works like To Kill A Mockingbird and Firefly. Though Bob Ewell thinks the color of his skin makes him better than Tom Robinson, they’re really not all that different. Shepard Book is a preacher and Inara is a companion, but they’re both people caught up in life aboard the same ship.

Don’t matter if it’s almost eighty years ago in Maycomb, Alabama or five hundred years away out in the ‘Verse, people are people, folk are folk.

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Thrilling Heroics

Every boy has his favorite superhero. Doesn’t matter if they’ve never read a comic; pop cultural osmosis will take care of that. Growing up, my favorites were Batman and Iron Man. My brother was a Spider-Man fan. I’ve got a buddy who loved Green Lantern and another who liked Robin. But why is it that we love heroes (super or not)? Whether they’re named Tony Stark, Luke Skywalker, Frodo Baggins, Buffy Summers, or Atticus Finch, we have our heroes. But why? Why do we love having heroes in fiction?

Barring the rare invincible abnormality like Superman (in which case you’d need emotional tension to… that’s another essay for another day), heroes have a risk of death. Sure, we’re sure (well, kinda sure if it’s written by Joss Whedon) they’ll survive, but there’s that potential. Towards the end of Mass Effect 3, Commander Shepard’s armor has been destroyed and half-melted, but still our hero presses on, blood dripping from his wounds, in a final desperate attempt to save the galaxy. This is Shepard: the living legend who defended the Citadel from Sovereign, halted a Collector invasion, and united the races of the galaxy for the first time in millennia of history. He’s been augmented with cybernetics and carries enough firepower to take on a small army. Yet even he bleeds. Great, a lot of heroes get the crap beaten our of them. So what?

It proves they’re human! We love the everyman, the hero we can relate to. When creating Uncharted, Naughty Dog chose to stray from the trend of super-soldiers and overconfident protagonists and give us a fairly ordinary man dressed in a simple shirt and jeans: Nathan Drake. He’s a wisecracking smartass who spends as much time stumbling and falling as he does fighting bad guys. Drake’s snarky and funny, amusing us as he fumbles (sorry, improvises) his way through his adventures. It doesn’t take much to see that his bravado and bluster is just him trying to build himself up: an a attempt to steel himself for the perils that await. But he feels fear, he feels desperation. When Drake sees his friends get hurt his courage falters and we see the man within, we see ourselves. We like him because we’re like him. Drake isn’t that much different from us: he’s who we hope we’d be if we were in his spot, albeit wittier.

Similarly, Peter Parker, more so than most other superheroes, is terribly ordinary. He’s a teenager in high school striving for good grades and trying to win the heart of his girl. And he’s got spider-like powers. Nonetheless, he’s every one of us back in high school. Marc Webb captured this so well in The Amazing Spider-Man by introducing us to Peter the boy first. We get to know him before his powers, with his powers, and then when he finally calls himself Spider-Man. We’re not following the story of Spider-Man the superhero, we’re following story of this kid named Peter Parker. Even when he’s ‘officially’ a superhero, he’s still not invulnerable. Multiple times Peter shows up after a night of crime fighting battered, bruised, and bloodied. He’s just a teenage boy trying to do what’s right.

That’s the crux of our heroes. We want to know they’re vulnerable, we like them human (or at least mostly), but we want to see them do what’s right. We want our heroes to get beaten up and choose to go on because we hope that were we in their spot we would have the strength to continue. As an audience, we’re normal, powerless in our situations. None of us would stand a chance against the Reapers, Zoran Lazerevic, or the Lizard. But then, neither would Shepard, Drake, or Spider-Man were it not for their circumstances. Maybe, and just maybe, that could be us.

Our heroes aren’t perfect and invincible. Underneath the Iron Man armor is a middle-aged man on the brink of death. Green Lantern is just a guy with a fancy ring. Captain America was an earnest runt given a once-in-a-lifetime chance. The only difference between us and our heroes are our positions.

“I write to give myself strength. I write to be the characters that I am not. I write to explore all the things I’m afraid of,” said Joss Whedon once. In these heroes, super or not, we find our strength. We see our weaknesses and fallings mirrored, but more than that we see them overcome it for the sake of good. The exhausted Sam carries Frodo up the side of Mount Doom. Atticus Finch risks his standing in the community to do what’s right. Luke Skywalker refuses to strike down Darth Vader.

No matter how hurt or broken our heroes are, they choose to do the right thing, to carry on and fight again.

And we hope that we can too.

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