Character and Country June 4th, 2008

It was one of those parties where it is somehow decided that now we are all going to tell a personal story.  Like you, I try to avoid these kinds of parties.  Like you, I dread being manipulated and peer pressured into humiliating myself.  Like you, I tend to find these experiences – in retrospect – to have been more interesting and valuable than those parties where nothing in particular happens. 

In this evening’s parlor game we were all, one at a time, to admit our past acts of thievery: “Have you ever stolen anything?”

Actually, it wasn’t even, “Have you ever stolen anything,” but more like “What was the biggest thing you ever stole?”  There was an assumption of guilt!  There was an assumption that this specific character flaw was universal.  Even more despicable than that, there was a kind of gleeful braggadocio involved, the telling of thievery so bold and outrageous as to inspire awe.

It was fun in that way, but I still found it surprising.  Certainly somebody besides me actually has an ethical code of conduct and tries to follow it.  Don’t they?  They don’t?  How did I possibly become an adult and still believe this?  By the way, the only other person at the party who seemed taken aback by this den of thieves was my wife, Louise.  I guess chumps of a feather flock together.  But how strange: it was as if the host had brought out a platter of roast child and everyone else at the party had dug in with gusto.  

You think you know a person.

In writing it’s axiomatic that to create a character who feels real and alive it is necessary to create for them a flaw of some kind.  Well, what constitutes a flaw?  A week ago I might have given the example of “dishonesty”, but apparently this is not a flaw at all – for 13 out of 15 partygoers this is standard operating procedure. 

I exaggerate, of course.  These stories wouldn’t even be stories unless they were the remarkable exception to the rule, “Don’t steal.”  Still, there was an equally remarkable lack of guilt or remorse.  Pretty much everybody saw in their experiences not a lesson learned but a happy ending to their tales of larceny most foul: “…and that’s how I paid for three months in Europe!”  Etcetera. 

What I noticed in the discussion that followed the stories was a universal sense of  personal exceptionalism.  All of these fine people saw themselves as moral and ethical stalwarts.  Not just living upstanding lives, but living particularly upstanding lives.  And nobody saw their illegal and immoral transgressions as anything but fine stories to tell, and an exception to their otherwise upright living.  This unshakable believe didn’t even waver when the admitted criminals added new stories – “Oh, yeah, and then there was the time when…”  That too was an exception.  They were all exceptions.

As an audience we look for clues to the nature of a particular character.  First we listen to what they say.  Then we watch what they do.   We also watch for how the people around them react – including how animals treat them.  If the dog doesn’t like somebody, there’s a good chance the character is not as trustworthy as they seem.   By the way, there were no pets at this party so there was nobody to warn me.

When looking for clues to a person’s character, we know that believing what they say is the least reliable method.  They could be lying to us or they could be deceiving themselves, or perhaps they use language for a different purpose than for passing along reliable information. 

Getting character clues by watching how others react is also potentially deceptive.   You can, after all, fool a lot of the people a lot of the time.  We all recognize the ostracized bad guy who lives in a drippy basement and sharpens knives and walks with a limp.  But we also recognize the bad guy who is the most beloved, unassailable do-gooder in the room – heck, we usually pick him out of a cop drama in the first five minutes.

Watching what somebody DOES, that is a better insight into character.  If I see somebody steal, I don’t care what they have to say about the incident – I still know them to be capable of thievery.  If they constantly make excuses and explanations for themselves, I know them to be capable of self-deception.   Now, self-deception – that’s a good character flaw.

There is yet another thing to look at when developing a character, and that has to do with what the audience is bringing to the party. What is their cultural bias, or their own personal relationship with a moral code?  Will a society of one-time crooks even recognize criminal behavior as a character flaw?   I mean, I watched these people divide thievery into acceptable (I stole from a big corporation, but they’ll never miss it, plus they screw us all the time) and unacceptable (He stole coins from blind begger’s cup?  I’d never do that!)  Plus we tend to make exceptions and excuses for ourselves and for people we like, because love is blind.

Here’s another question before I reveal the true meat of this meal:  Can the behavior and attitude of the 13 Thieves best be characterized as the behavior of a child or the behavior of an adult?   I ask because we may disagree on this point, and because the answer is not in fact obvious.

Who is it, child or adult, who believes in following the rules except where they themselves are concerned?  Who, child or adult, is most likely to make an exception for himself rather than to take personal responsibility?  Is it a child or an adult’s attitude that everybody cheats and anybody who doesn’t cheat is a fool, and that the rules only apply to you when you decide that they do?

All of this folds into one of the great and interesting public debates that this country keeps almost having: should there be American Exceptionalism, or, as a screenwriter might put it, Does the character of our country need a re-write?

While watching the Santa Fe 13 rationalize their way into sainthood, I was wondering if American Exceptionalism is so strong a feeling in our country simply because the American people feel the same way about themselves – that they want to be in control of which laws they get to break, and to feel justified in breaking them.   I have no idea whether people in other countries are more honest to the core, or whether everybody makes exceptions for themselves.

Personally speaking, I think I rationalize like hell.  Maybe not about stealing because I really try not to do that, but certainly, in general, I know that I try to construct a universe around myself in which I get to be the most upstanding citizen.   Still, I don’t necessarily assume that my own character ought to be the national model.

Anyhow, I don’t think it’s such a worthless exercise to think of America as a character.   Maybe seeing it through the screenwriter’s lens we can be more clearheaded about how we know what our national character is, and what we can do to reveal our best self to the rest of the world.


Comment by E.C. Henry
2008-06-04 17:08:11

Deep thoughts, Danny (You make my head hurt!)

I think everyone rationalizes and assumes themselves to be the standard of good, Danny. Even downright evil people have some twisted rationale that makes the standard.

I think most movies out there today portray a moraly corrupt America which IS NOT indicative of many people I know, and is a key reason a lot of people I know stay away from the movies.

Screenwriting alows you a forum to express your utopia, your morals whatever they may be. I TRY to inspire people by grafting in religeous matters that I think are uplifting and would inspire people, but even my parents (my biggest and ONLY supporters at this point in my career) contsantly tell me, “Hollywood would never produce that, it’s too religious.”

But what if that’s what America needs?

Morals/being able to tell right from wrong is learned. Movies teach morals. A movie can’t NOT teach morals. Some worldvies/slant is always there. “American Beauty” had a world view and morals… and I still shiver when I think to myself what that worldview and morals were. “Groundhog Day” had somethint to say too: sometimes God makes you do things over until you get it right.

Anyway, I take MY respociblitly to re-inforce “good” morals in story telling very seriously. I TRY to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.

– E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

Comment by Danny
2008-06-13 09:35:36

Lovely sentiments, and I agree with all of it.
I always teach my students to take responsibility for the world they are creating, because, as you say, it is impossible for the movie NOT to be taking a point of view. I had a teacher once who said, “When you write, you are god. The question you must ask is What kind of a god do you want to be?”
I don’t know your thoughts about religion – although it is clear you hold them dearly – and I support your inclination to write to your most strongly held beliefs, regardless of what Hollywood might think. That being said, my own way of dealing with this is to think about the universal truths within my beliefs rather than using the language and doctrine of a specific discipline. Being doctrinaire can turn people off before they even hear the argument. I once wrote for a Jewish children’s tv show in Chicago. The producers (the Chicago Board of Rabbis) kept trying to emphasize Hebrew prayers and “Moses said such and such”. But I always thought of the program as being for all children, not just the Jewish ones, and attempted to emphasize the more universal contributions of Jewish culture, such as “justice” and “charity” and “education.” My point is that there are ways to be honest and true to yourself without becoming a scary evangelical.

As a final point, I want to defend myself as not as naive as I may have sounded about people doing good in the world. Of course we all see ourselves as heroes – even the bad guys – and of course we all bend the world to serve our self interests. What interests me is the relationship between structured rules and unstructured life. When do we hold onto our codes – rules, laws, vows – and when do we let go, and why? As a writer I experiment with these ideas all the time, just by pursuing the process of writing. When do you cling to an outline and when do you deviate from your structure? Story is the backbone, the structure, of your screenplay. What if the story is wrong for your character? Do you force the character to fit the structure? When do you cling to formula and conventional wisdom, and when do you fly free of the safe branches? What do you get for letting go, and what do you lose?

Coming from this perspective, I watch public figures pound their fists to defend the rule of law, then break whatever laws appeal to them. Is it hypocrisy, or is it the necessary wiggle room we all like to allow so that, no matter what we say we believe, we insure the possibility that we can “win”?

Comment by Danny
2008-06-06 06:23:04

My comment section seems to be working just fine. If you are experiencing any issues while trying to argue with me, this is not my fault or that of my really hot webmaster. Please send one of us an Email to let us know what’s not working and we will alert the appropriate agency.

Comment by A Long
2008-06-06 19:21:19

Excellent piece. I hope there’s a movie or two in this topic

Comment by Rachel Bradford
2008-06-15 13:42:18

do you consider your movie groundhog day as creating a sacred space/message within the mundane world?

or as simply bringing religion to the masses in a more modern form?


UCCS Student

Comment by Danny
2008-06-18 15:13:33

I’m basically bringing Religion to the masses. Yeah, that’s it. You see, with the weaknesses of the Catholic Church exposed of late, I thought What a great time to cut in on their territory. The opportunity was ripe to establish a new religion for the betterment of all souls and, of course, merchandising rights.
Rachel, I’m not sure what the heck you’re talking about – but you have amused me to no end (I’m thinking Are these the two choices?). Without understanding the question I would answer that what I consider Groundhog Day to be doesn’t really matter. If you’re asking do I think there’s any there there, I’d say There is, which I believe to be true simply by seeing everyone’s reaction to it.
Hey, I’ve got a question for all you out there: Do you consider the movie Groundhog Day as creating a sacred space/message within the mundane world? or as simply bringing religion to the masses in a more modern form? Rachel? Anybody?


Comment by A Long
2008-06-20 20:04:37

Someone once told me, “Always be the one who gets to ask the questions.”

Part of the genius of this movie (revealing the gutsiness of those of you who made it) was how you didn’t explain everything. That is bound to prompt questions that cannot or should not be answered.

Comment by jerry mcconoughey
2009-10-01 08:19:40

I definitely agree. The American character needs a rewrite. We are hung up on exceptionalism. We will go to any extreme to same American lives, including destroying other’s lives brazenly and indiscriminately, and at any expense. We have never outgrown the European attitude that white men are simply superior to men of color, or that Christian civilization is simply superior to any other. It’s time for us to join the community of the human race on equal terms and accept our common mortality.

And how can we possibly deny another nation the right to possess nuclear weapons when we have an arsenal of thousands of them? Isn’t that hypocrisy?

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