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Write On!
Strong Characters
By Ken Robinson
March, 2007, 15:10

One thing that a writer needs is strong ideas and strong characters. In my effort to change careers and become a writer, I am substitute teaching. And yes it can be trying with a passel of restless sixth graders during the last hour of the day after keeping the lid on the previous five hours. And you know how they like to treat "the sub." But with each successive grade they do become a bit more human.

At the same time their problems become progressively challenging as they are mixed with the demon that every kid has to face – raging hormones. But a lot of my characters are teenagers and one thing you need to be able to do if you are writing for that audience is be real in they're portrayal.

Teenagers can sense a phony a mile away. If the problems or reactions aren't what they should be, they get turned off. I can't use my own emotional reactions for a teenager. I can't even use the reactions that I or my friends had as kids because: 1) I can't remember them, (they say that happens with old age) and 2) kids are different having exposure to different things than I did. Pong first came out when I was a kid; however, now my son robs people and runs over hookers for points. Go figure. So being around them allows me to see them react and interact.
I had my eyes opened very quickly upon overhearing the 14- and 15-year-old girls discuss their sex partners with each other loudly enough to be heard like it was everyday stuff. And then a basic question of why were you gone last year turned into a discussion about someone’s suicide attempts, in front of a semi-truck no less. Then, another told me that the state was taking her younger sister away from her family because she couldn't control her temper. At an early age she had hit her brother with a rock which gave him brain damage. She was throwing rocks at people again. Another gave me some poetry to look at. Her work is so good I've based an episode in one of my TV series on it and have decided to use her poetry as an introduction to all of the episodes. And this all came to me out of one classroom over two days.
Being in the classroom gives me a new perspective. But having a 15-year-old daughter also allows me a peek into their world. And it is very different than ours, almost alien as a matter of fact. Everything is new and exciting – unless you're trying to be cool, then you're nonchalant about everything. On the other hand, if you're going for a persona completely different from everybody else, then nothing is exciting.
I'm also working at a community center on the wrong side of the tracks. It's allowed me to witness real-life characters that I’d seen only on TV. One day while I was sitting in the car, one of the local characters, Big Time, a man in his fifties whose hard life is written all over him, was walking down the street with two of his friends. Three young guys, all in white T-shirts, came from the other direction. Big Time went to the building and picked up a bicycle while his friends walked on. He came back to the street and one of the young guys confronted him.
"Where's the man's money?"
Then it went from bad to worse. I hadn’t heard so much profanity since the last time I talked to my daughter. Her mother is from Ireland where those words are just part of the language. The next thing I knew the bicycle was lying on the street, the young dude was out of his flip flops, and Big Time was in a wide stance with his hand in his back pocket saying, "Take a swing, go ahead take a swing!"
I tried to act like I wasn't paying attention even though it was like 20 feet away from my car, which was the only one there, and I was sitting in the driver's seat facing them. It didn't look like there was a gun in Big Time's back pocket – it was most likely a knife – but you never know. The street drama continued with a few more blue words and the "N" word bandied about freely. A little later the confrontation migrated down to the end of the block. The wind was blowing in just the right direction so that I could still hear them. One said, "You don't take the drugs and mess with the man's money."
That's as close to a drug deal as I've ever been.
To take advantage of my situation, I take notes that I hope to use in my writing. I write when I have down time, whether it is in the classroom or waiting in the car while my daughter and her boyfriend enjoy a 5th Dimension concert with my tickets. While they were listening to Up Up And Away, I came up with a very emotionally twisting midsection and end to the TV series episode that started with the student's poem.
So whatever situation you are in take advantage of it and notice what people are doing around you, how they interact, react, and what types of problems they are dealing with. Life is happening around you. Notice what’s going on as soon as your feet hit the floor getting out of bed in the morning.
Write On!
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Ken Robinson, IN's Write On! columnist, winner of Bare Bones Int'l Film Festival Best Screenplay Award, has written over 10 screenplays, 3 episodes of TV series West Law, is executive producer for the feature Sacred Bloods, board member of the Oklahoma Film Society, founding member of Oklahoma Movie Makers. His email address is:

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