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Home » Archives » July 2006 » Even with a face like a durian, he can still be a nice guy
[Previous entry: "Didja Notice?"] [Next entry: "Please Don't Pet the Peeves!"]

07/27/2006: Even with a face like a durian, he can still be a nice guy

More from the mailbag. Sometimes, I get letters from the most amazing people. Daniel Wallace, who wrote the book Big Fish, which became the movie Big Fish, wrote to say he likes this humble blog – how cool is that? Check out danielwallace.org for more on him and his work. Great stuff!

Less famous 'round these parts is Monty Lo, the Hong Kong-based author of a kids' graphic novel called Captain Fried Rice. The book itself is a thick horizontally-arranged number with parallel text in Chinese and English, about a boy who has super powers only when he eats with impeccable table manners. Wild! Monty recommends spicy thai chicken feet and durian, thinking I might not have tried them. He compares the spiky appearance of durian with the demonic version of Doyle's face from Angel. Gotta love that. But, oh, Monty, I am no stranger to the stinky creamy goodness of durian. And I have had chicken feet, although not the boneless variety you describe in your letter. (Isn't it nice when people know the sort of thing that's going to provoke my genuine interest?)

Finally, Lilia from Houston, who writes of many things, includes a discussion of a number of problems with The Da Vinci Code. She provides an interesting analysis, with a specific point that I want to discuss more. She says:

"The author has Wizard of Oz syndrome, in which all the pretty characters are good and all the ugly ones are bad."

Nice observation, Lilia. It's really shocking the degree to which this particular rule is applied, not just in art, but in our actual interactions with the world. Positive qualities get attributed to attractive people. Negative ones to unattractive people. And it sucks. It sucks both if you're an ugly person trying to get respect for your good qualities, and if you're a pretty person seeking to discourage unwanted attention with your evilness.

When television writers apply this rule, of course, they are relying on human nature to do some of the work of characterization for them. Which saves time and space. If the fat guy is greedy, the short guy is petty, and the ugly woman is clingy, you don't have to do a whole lot of set up and explaining. Conditioning has the audience half-expecting those traits anyway. Another word for this sort of expediency is laziness. A clichéd description is just as bad as any other sort of cliché.

In a spec, you don't tend to rely on physical appearance as much as in a produced script. Your reader doesn't see a bald actor. But they do still read your description of the character as a bald man. And if you're using that trait as a sort of shorthand to suggest a character trait, then you're missing a chance to execute a trick of much higher difficulty – making the character's words and actions do that work. And any chance you have to show off a difficult trick – you should take it. A spec is an excuse to show off. Take it!

Lunch: a goat cheese and greens sandwich. Accompanied by a salad that was identical to the contents of the salad. Good but redundant.

(A final word to letter-writers. Although I was tickled to look through a comic book from Hong Kong, that was pretty much the one exception. I cannot read your specs, or fan fic or screenplays or plays, or even scripts for shows that are no longer on the air. This protects you, and it protects me and my time. )


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Walt Disney Writing Fellowship Program
UC Berkeley
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