Thursday, November 09, 2006

Alex Haley and the Big Canoe

I don't know why I haven't posted this story before now, but it's a great example of point of view and the process of doing character research.

Back in college in 1986, I had the pleasure of meeting Alex Haley. He was in town on a lecture tour and agreed to drop by our playwriting class to hang out and answer some questions. We were all thrilled and eventually not disappointed in the slightest.

Mr. Haley was a quiet, gentle, and well-spoken man, who was eager to take the time to help us better understand the writing process in general. It was a very intimate setting, with only seven or eight of us sitting in the small Theatre Arts Department faculty lounge.

When the time came for questions, I was ready with mine: "What's the most important thing you've learned about researching characters?"

He looked up, thought for a second, and proceeded to relate the following anecdote:

When he was researching his most famous work, Roots, he did extensive study into the kind of ships that were used to transport slaves from Africa to America. The kind of wood used to build them, the rigging, the size and shape of the sails, the cabin and below-deck layouts. Everything. He said he spent close to six months exploring every aspect of the ships and became quite an expert on them.

Then, as he began fleshing out the character of Kunta Kinte, it occurred to him that since the beginning of the book is written from Kunta's point of view, all of the information about the slave ships was absolutely irrelevant. All Kunta knew was that the ship was a "big canoe". How the sails were stitched made no difference. It was a boat and it was big and that was it.

So, throughout the book, the slave ship is referred to as a "big canoe". Six months of research rendered useless simply by placing the story from the point of view of a single character.

We all immediately realized the importance of this lesson. For a character to be truly real, he has to know what he knows and nothing more. Except for the commentary in the DVD's special features, the screenwriter won't be doing voiceovers in a film to explain what the character is experiencing. The character's world has to work for the character first, then through the character's experiences, the audience will figure it out.

John August Gives Birth

John August is such a generous guy. And I'm not saying that just to butter him up so he'll read my script. He really is a generous guy. If you've checked out his site (and I highly recommend you do), you've gotten a taste of the vast amount of valuable screenwriting information there.

Now, John's decided to dig his pool of knowledge deeper still. He's just launched jaWiki, a Wikipedia-like compendium of wisdom for the aspiring screenwriter. Like the standard wiki model, it's a place where we can all contribute whatever we can.

He does warn that jaWiki is a bit unstable and could self-destruct at any moment. But, hey...we're not scared. We're tech-savvy scribes, right?