Humans of New York Week: Backtracking is Always Likable

One last quick one: One form of dialogue that’s always likeable is a confidence collapse. The hero tries to do something strong (or supportive), then falters, so we get to admire their attempt at strength, and then empathize with their failure. As always Brandon Stanton at Humans of New York does a great job eliciting these little collapses.
And that wraps up another Humans of New York Week!

Humans of New York Week: The Power of Specific Syntax (With Kids, For Example)

Kids are some of the hardest characters to write because their syntax is so specific and inimitable. As with any type of syntax, every sentence the kid utters isn’t going to exemplify the syntax, so you can get away with writing lines that aren’t what “only a kid would say”, but if you can find specific syntax, it’s much better.

Let’s start with one of the few times that Brandon Stanton at Humans of New York didn’t elicit a particularly interesting response from a kid:
That’s fine, and she’s adorable, but it lacks the instant appeal of his other kid-profiles because she’s saying the same thing we would say in the same language. On the other hand, look at these two:
If you see this dialogue in a screenplay, you’re going to instantly believe in the reality of these children, who speak in that oddly-specific way (no kiddie-grammar required.)
This kid also has great kid syntax. It also shows Stanton’s talent for capturing unique syntax in his punctuation (a great skill for any writer). Stanton has each “And” starts its own sentence rather than stringing them together with commas, which creates the proper voice in our head as we read it.

Next: More likability

Humans of New York Week: Nailing the Quick Backstory

I’ve been quite dismissive of dependence on backstories, but they can be great if they’re quick, illuminating, and full of specific humanity. Let’s look at three real-life backstories from the Humans of New York site. I love this guy:
Really, for writing purposes, you wouldn’t need the bit about the ID, just the second half is a perfect one-line backstory to let us know that this character is volatile, compassionate, and tough-minded. Of course he’s not as tough as this tragic case:
Crying yet? What’s so powerful about this one is that it’s so hard to characterize hard guys: You want to humanize them, but you don’t want to go the obvious route and give them a puppy. Ideally, you’re going to give them a moment of vulnerable humanity that also explains their hardness. This intro makes our heart weep for him, but leaves us even more scared of him than we would be just from looking at him. (If you really want to weep, go to the site and read the next two parts of his horrifying story.)

Here’s a longer and sillier backstory, but it’s also great because it shows how a fairly-typical backstory can come to life through use of great specific details. The short version is “we met at a party”, but by the time we have all the details, we’re charmed:
Let’s pick up there next time with more about the power of specifics.

Humans of New York Week: Out of Character Intros

I’m still working on long-term stuff, but in the meantime I figured we could do another week pulling from the “Humans of New York” site. As I said last time, I am endlessly amazed at the ability of Brandon Stanton to do quick interviews, elicit interesting details, and then find the one that instantly humanizes his subjects. This is very similar to the job of a fiction writer, so let’s look at how he does it and how it’s applicable to our work.

Let’s start with some “always likeable” moments. One of his best tricks is to look for an instantly “out of character” detail.  We all make snap judgements, and then we love to have those presumptions upended. So here we have a Marine getting dragged around by his toddler daughter:
Young people who talk like they’re old:
Or vice versa:
This one only seems likable because of how he’s dressed. What a confident (and oddball) guy to casually humble-brag about this to a stranger:
When we meet a character, we instantly put up our guard: Is this going to just be a “type”? Will he be just what he seems, or worth paying attention to? As soon as you can set up and upend an expectation, we put down our dukes and take an interest.

Next: Nailing the one-line backstory

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Let Your Characters Re-Label Themselves

Let’s start by showing another post from the always-wonderful Humans of New York:
The takeaway is this: people like to re-label themselves. You see your characters as types, but they see themselves as individuals. This can especially be a problem in a movie like Do the Right Thing, which is all about types, as in “these are the types of people you see on an average New York street on an average summer day.” That’s a fine way to write. It’s okay for you to see them as types, as long as you allow them to reject those labels in the dialogue.

On the excellent Criterion Collection DVD, there’s lots of video of writer/director Spike Lee’s extensive rehearsal/workshop process and you can see him adjust the script to address the concerns of the actors, who were all invited to personalize their roles.

These leads to a wonderfully ironic moment, when Lee is rehearsing the first boycott scene with actors Danny Aiello (Sal) and Giancarlo Esposito (Buggin’ Out). Lee notices that, instead of saying “Only Italian-Americans on the wall”, Aiello has changed it to “Only American-Italians on the wall.” Spike instantly sees that this is better, and points out to Esposito that his mocking response should also change to mirror Aiello: “Well, I don’t seen any ‘American-Italians’ eating here!”

As Esposito is making the change in his script, Aiello explains that that’s the way he says it, because he visited Italy and decided that he was more proud of being American than Italian. At this point, Esposito gingerly points out that he himself is in fact, unlike Aiello, Italian-born. Aiello is of course totally embarrassed, but Esposito chuckles and says it’s no big deal.

Let your characters re-label themselves. Let them describe themselves in unique ways, so that their language will come alive. Let almost everything they say be specific to them and their particular worldview. Give them a chance to punch through the boxes you put them in.

Rulebook Casefile: Real Life Head-Heart-Gut Trios in “Humans of New York”

And here’s the last one:
I found this gratifying: more than once on the site, Brandon discovers genuine polarized ensembles wandering the streets of New York!  Even when advocating such trios, I usually stress that they’re more common in fiction than they are in real life, but it turns out that they’re more common than I thought.

First we get a Heart / Gut / Head (in that he’s risk-averse)

And a Heart (in that his goal is more childlike) / Head / Gut (with an extra gut tagging along...)

It’s simple enough to differentiate characters by giving them different responses to a question, but an even better way to establish their personality is to have each one interpret that question in a fundamentally different way, showing us that their brains are hard-wired differently, and so they’re inevitably going to create conflict.

So that’s it for HONY week.  I urge you all to haunt the site as I do, gleaning more insights into human nature and tools for establishing a blast of personality right away.  

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Kid Logic in “Humans of New York”

After yesterday’s heavier material, let’s look at the gentler side of “Humans of New York”: the kids. Once again, what Stanton does seems easy (Kids say the darndest things!) but there’s more going on. Whenever I’ve had to write kid characters, they utterly defeat me, because I can’t resist the natural urge to simply write them as little open-hearted adults. The key to writing kids well is to understand their bizarre logic. Stanton focuses in on this aspect like a laser.

Kids are worried about things that only kids worry about.  Sometimes this causes them to overestimate their challenges...

And sometimes to underestimate them:
And whoops, here we are back in tragedy-ville, because utilizing kid-logic fears can also be a great way of making the horror of a situation feel more real:
Kids have almost all of the same worries and anxieties as adults, but they process them in strange ways. Good kid-character dialogue reflects our own fears (large and small) back at us in a funhouse mirror, allowing us to see anew in a fresh and startling way.

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Keeping the Strange Familiar and the Familiar Strange in Humans of New York

Humans of New York creator Brandon Stanton recently expanded his focus radically by tagging along on a 50-day UN tour of 10 countries. Thankfully, he proved to be equally adept at getting great portraits and stories abroad as he has been at home.

Once again, it’s easy to undervalue his accomplishment. It might seem easy to generate sympathy simply by entering a refugee camp and letting people describe their troubles, but there’s actually a huge danger that such stories will alienate and even annoy audiences.  (Such as in the ads brilliantly parodied here.)

Stanton succeeds because he obeys the number one rule of world-building: make the strange familiar and the familiar strange. In other words, get us to identify with these people (They’re just like us!) while also making it clear that they’re going through some things that are totally beyond our experience (I can’t even conceive of what it would be like to have to live through that!). The trick is constantly keep your audience on their toes, not knowing if the next details will be universal or shocking.

So we get lots of horror stories such as this one:

Right alongside utterly universal worries such as this:

Once we get used to fact that some of these people are enduring epic struggles unique to their situation:

We then see others who we assume are also suffering from geopolitical terror, only to discover that their pain is the same sort of thing we can just as easily suffer here, such as this man…

…or this girl, who surprises us by offering an entirely atrocity-free reason for her broken arm:

By interspersing universal stories with shocking ones, Stanton keeps us alert, unable to “other-ize” his international subjects. In the link above, I showed how Letters from Iwo Jima did the same thing to instantly bond us to the hero. This is an essential skill for making your audience feel at home in an unfamiliar world.

Rulebook Casefile: Empathy in “Humans of New York”

Why am I spending time on Humans of New York? (After all, it’s not as if this material isn’t already widely shared on the internet) Because I think that what site creator Brandon Stanton does has many good lessons for writers.

Ideally, every writer would do what Stanton is doing: for at least an hour a day, walk around talking to people on the street, collecting unique language, unique life details, and compelling real life ironies. Unfortunately most of us lack the time and/or temperament, but the good news is that we live in the golden age of information, so we now have sites like this that provide treasure troves of perfectly chosen character moments.

As writers, we have two nearly impossible jobs to do: first we must create a great unique-but-universal character, then we must succinctly convey that greatness, that uniqueness, and that universality, in a flash, so that the character will swiftly blossom to life in the mind of the audience, allowing our stories to really begin.

And that’s what truly wonderful about Stanton’s work. It’s easy to credit the site’s success to his skill as a photographer and an interviewer, but there’s a third element that’s equally important: he’s a great editor. He asks several questions designed to create emotional and unique responses, gets a chunk of material to work with from each person, and then he cuts all of that down to just the right snippet to instantly make these people fascinating. That’s a lot harder than it looks, and it’s a big part of our job.

Let’s look at some of the ways he makes certain subjects instantly likeable. The trick, of course, is empathy, and one thing he’s good at is making opposite types of people equally likeable.

This guy’s humility is instantly appealing:

Whereas this lady wins us over with her swagger:

We love this guy’s humble appreciation of his job:

And this guy’s yearning to escape his, expressed with such telling specificity:

We sympathize with this man’s poverty:

But we’re also sympathetic to the problems caused by this man’s wealth:

Fiction writers have to be all three types of god: All-powerful, all-knowing, and all-loving.  Journalists such as Stanton, on the other hand, are denied the first because they cannot create their subjects, so they have to make up for it by focusing even more on the other two.  They can’t let their confirmation bias get in their way when they approach people, molding their subjects to fit their prejudices.  Instead, they must remember that everyone has some personal detail that will earn our empathy, if only we can find it. This is true in real life, and so it must also be true in our fiction.

More tomorrow…

Rulebook Casefile: Humans of New York #1

I don’t have time for a long post today, but I think I’ll spend this week looking at lessons that can be drawn from “Humans of New York” posts. I’ll have more to say about the site soon, but for now I’ll just start with this one, which is one of my favorites:

This exemplifies two rules: The importance of an “I understand you” moment at the beginning of a romance, and the importance of ironic positive developments. Presumably, both men came to the party determined to be antisocial sticks-in-the-mud, and then the two sticks saw each other across a crowded room. (Fun fact: I used to write songs in college, and one had the chorus “I don’t care and you don’t care so let’s not care together”)

More tomorrow...