Writing and the Human Condition

There really is nothing new under the sun. I think Solomon was correct.

Perhaps, writers know this more than most people. Each time they string together a sentence, they are stepping on the toes of someone who has come before them. Each time they craft a character, they are describing countless other people who at one point roamed the face of the earth.

There are only a limited supply of storylines. Does the protagonist do it for greed or for love? Does she do it for revenge or for an ego boost? Is pride the downfall? Will he have the courage to go on?  etc …

This is what makes writing great fiction such a difficult task. How can one stand out of the crowd and do something unique? Do you think the “Hunger Games” was not influenced by “The Most Dangerous Game?” Everyone is standing on the shoulders of someone else. Perhaps this is where sci-fi and fantasy are so popular with some authors – creating new worlds and aliens which have never been seen before; but, remarkably, even those are limited to the tried and true human-condition storylines we have all come to know and love.

The names may change and the details may vary, but the story is very much the same.

A key, at least as far as I currently see it, is to be as creative as possible within this framework – maximize the human drama to such a degree as to pull on the heartstrings of the reader – but you can’t cheat and be cheap about it or you’ll end up writing a Hallmark movie without even knowing it. (Sorry, I do think that Hallmark has its place. I personally would rather watch one of those than a vampire story, but I digress.)

Authenticity is crucial, and so, in my estimation, is purpose.Because ultimately, I believe everyone in life wants purpose or at least hopes there is some grand purpose for the madness around them. This is the element I love to write about – giving a protagonist an ultimate desire – a spine – a superobjective – a goal that is bigger than themselves which can highlight the human condition in all of us.

The themes and struggles remain the same, but the stories remain fresh as long as the readers are moved to be believe in the characters and hope for their success. At that point, it doesn’t even matter if the characters achieve their goals because the writer has achieved his or hers.

So I will continue writing about the human condition because I love writing about humans. Nothing is more fascinating. Endless possibilities – tried already in the past – can still live on as stories worth telling.

That’s what I try to do. Sometimes, I might even succeed.

Can we identify a real person’s ‘superobjective’ by how they actually behave in real life?

As I think about writing and character development and human behavior and a ton of other things, I keep going back to the fascinating world of the superobjective.

A superobjective is what acting coach Larry Moss calls the overarching goal or desire of a character’s existence.  Whether acting or writing, keeping the superobjective in mind will keep your character grounded in reality and genuineness, while keeping their focus on what is most important.

But lately, as I’ve been thinking about how people react in certain circumstances, I started to think if people in real life actually have superobjectives? Is there something that I am striving for more than anything else? Hmmm …Can some reactions and behavior of the people around us be explained away by understanding what caused that behavior? Is there some hidden superobjective tucked under the surface which could make a person’s action suddenly make sense?

A few years back I was at a banquet where some individuals were being honored. A relative of a certain person who was to be honored discovered that this person’s name was left off of the program by mistake. Well that was it! The relative could not let it go. The complaining got boisterous and the person’t behavior so distracting that the event could not go on and everyone in the room was giving this person their attention. The relative demanded restitution and would not back down until promised that their due reward would be forthcoming.

Why was recognition so important to this person that she was willing to cause a scene of epic proportions over an honest oversight? Could it have been that this person has been fighting for respect their whole life? Could it have been that she was belittled at a child? Or made fun of? Or had the perception of not getting their just rewards for their effort? Was she a middle child who envied the praise given to an eldest? Was respect this person’s life superobjective and she was willing to go to any lengths to right the wrong of not getting what was perceived as her due respect?

Of course, this is all conjecture as I don’t know the person at all. But I find this whole line of pondering rather invigorating. It makes me want to go create a character and give her some tragic past which helps explain current behavior.

So are thinking about superobjectives useful in looking at real life behavior? I’m not sure. But this is the kind of stuff I think about in my free time. Only a writer, I suppose.

Drama & Writing: What’s your superobjective?

This is part two in an occasional series on the connection between drama and writing. Today’s topic: superobjective.

When taking apart a scene, there are certain specific items that any actor has to ask him or herself. First, what is the scene objective? What do I have to accomplish in the scene? The motive? Next, what is the obstacle? What is keeping me from achieving my goal? Finally, what are the stakes? How important is it for you to accomplish your goal in this particular scene?  To what lengths will you be willing to go in order to reach maximum achievement?

As a writer, all of these particular items are important to keep in mind. Every character needs an objective. Certainly there needs to be obstacles which create dramatic conflict. It’s also crucially important to understand what’s at stake? For example, in my novel Beauty Rising, when Martin’s father asks him on his death bed to take his ashes to Vietnam, Martin agrees and the stakes are extremely high. He goes to Vietnam against the wishes of his overbearing mother. He is on a quest to find redemption, and that means that he will go to nearly any length to see his father’s quest through. The stakes are what drives Martin far beyond his comfort zone – a crucial part of the story.

However, if a writer, or actor stops there with only looking at scene objectives, obstacles, and stakes, the full story and full characterization will not be realized. What comes next is the superobjective.

The superobjective in drama (sometimes called the spine) is the overarching goal or desire of the character. It is the one thing that keeps the character moving forward. Without an understanding of a character’s superobjective, an actor or a writer may find themselves twiddling around with a bunch of episodes – episodes of action only – without any clear connection between them. It may work well with weekly episodic TV shows, but it doesn’t complete the narrative in a novel (or play).

Where this gets tricky, however, is when the character does thing in one scene which goes against the superobjective. For example, if a character wants the love of a girl more than anything else in the world, he might have to give her up in one scene in order to win her back in the end. That means that the subtleties to the writing have to be true to the scene objective, but it also has to be true to the superobjective. It’s a challenge for an actor to play the scene of giving up the girl while being true to the idea that he wants the girl more than anything. Did I lose you?

Bottom line, a character may do and say one thing, but the truth might be completely opposite. This is where layers of complexities are built up on a character making them real, human, and truly intriguing.

Keeping the idea of a superobjective in your head will help keep your character grounded, moving forward, and staying true to him or herself. Back to my novel, Martin, more than anything, wants acceptance, love and a true family. That’s why he does what he does and that is why, in my mind, the ending makes sense.

So don’t forget your superobjective. Every character has one!