Monday found me sitting in a classroom at RMIT University for the second week of an eight week screenwriting course I’m attending with my brother and cousin. The topic was character.
Our teacher sought to have us delve into what made the central character of our television shows tick, and he went about it through activities designed to reveal every facet of our characters. We began with how our character would come off in public, the face they showed the world and how they were perceived. This was the mask they wore, the version they thought socially acceptable, and one designed to gloss over the darker parts of themselves. Or, as our teacher put, “What they use to hide the fucked up parts.” I like his phrasing better. It feels more honest.
This led to examining the parts they hide, the weaknesses and flaws they’re aware of and deliberately conceal. Their self under the mask.
Which led to the parts they think they hide, but what is in fact readily apparent to anyone who has known them longer than an hour. Example: Maybe they’re terrified when it comes to talking to the opposite sex, and attempt to hide this fear by talking loudly and endlessly when engaging with someone of a different gender. Said opposite gender would see their insecurity immediately while our main character feels cocky in their seamless concealment of their inner demon.
Lastly we analysed the attributes our character had that no one knew existed, excluding the god-like figure of the writer, of course. The latent characteristics that would boil to the surface given the right circumstances. Admirable or amoral.
As we worked through the layers of our character I found myself inevitably turning the magnifying glass around and seeing myself as a character. What was my mask? What did I hide? What did I hide poorly? And what potential, good or bad, lurked within me? The process felt like an unveiling, a therapy session exploring who I really am under the bluster and bravado I put up to get through another day.
The next activity looked at the four corners of a character. Picture a square. Each corner of that square represents an attribute of our character. Three of those corners can represent a positive facet of our character. Maybe they’re friendly, honest, and hard-working. A nice character, certainly, but, when boiled down, a boring one. Our teacher was keen to stress that this character, in their current state, bred no stories. This character was unrealistic.
Enter the fourth corner. The final corner had to represent a negative trait in our character. Maybe jealousy. Maybe selfishness. Maybe our character is friendly, honest, and hard-working, but underneath it is a fear that they can never be enough. This is a three-dimensional character. This character has stories to tell.
Again the process of self-reflection was inevitable. I sat and wondered what my fourth corner was, and it solidified when our teacher described the fourth corner as being “the thing that fucks things up when you’re doing well. The root of every time you felt you failed, and the trait overcame every time you felt you succeeded.” A fatal flaw.
I knew it then. For me, it’s fear of risk. Fear of looking stupid, fear of failing, fear of injury, fear of limiting options, fear of consequences, fear of not coming back. When summarised: fear of risk.
Every time I didn’t say something when I wanted to, every time I didn’t act when I should have, every time I looked back and felt that squirm of discomfort and embarrassment about something from my past was because I was too afraid to behave how a better part of me thought I should. I had weighed the risk and my resolve crumbled and I did nothing. It’s insecurity, and I hide it with a mask of confidence.
And every time I felt I succeeded? When I knew the risk but did it anyway. Asked the question and risked looking stupid. Said the words that needed to be aired. Acted without sure footing underneath. For me, my nursing career is an accomplishment because delving into the intimate and confronting aspects of health, death, and humanity is something I wanted to run away from a hundred times. I saw the reality and shrank from it. But I didn’t run, instead I waded into the risk-filled arena and made my peace with it.
It would be impolite of me to ask what your fourth corner is, but I going to ask anyway.
What is it?
Don’t tell me, but think about and see if you can find the answer for yourself. Dip down into that part of your brain where you hide hard truths and force yourself to look at it. Don’t act on it straight away. This isn’t an exercise in changing yourself. Just identify it and sit with it a bit. Get used to knowing this part of you. Make your peace with it.
And know that it isn’t a bad thing, it’s just a thing, and something that makes you three-dimensional. Something that makes you human.
Something that makes your story worth telling.