Sunday, August 14, 2022

Character traits

There were many qualities that made Mr. Rogers renowned as a kind, caring person, a man of immense and admirable character. One quality was his innate decency, because that was simply the kind of man he was. It was always a beautiful day in his neighborhood because he made it so. And it was clear that he dearly loved the children who watched his show. He was genuinely caring and sought to teach the most vulnerable of our society, our children.

Another thing that made him so beloved was his creative ways to deal with issues that affected members of his young audience. This image, which popped up on my Twitter feed recently, is a perfect example:

Like a good neighbor...

As I read this, I had two reactions - one was being touched by his typically sweet and creative reaction to the blind girl's letter and her dilemma. Most people would might have taken the approach that since she's blind, there's probably a lot of things she doesn't know are happening (or not happening), especially considering television is a primarily visual medium. Not Mr. Rogers. He found a solution and put it into action. And it was minimal effort for him, but probably meant the world to that little girl. It was totally a Mr. Rogers thing to do.
The other reaction I had is how this one simple anecdote is worth a thousand words in terms of describing what kind of man he was...and how effective this would be in establishing him as a character in a story.
One of the things that is difficult for writers is describing their characters without making it a drudgery for readers, or turning it into a checklist of traits, both physical and non-physical. In screenwriting you really don't get into much description that isn't absolutely necessary. FRED ROGERS, gentle, grandfatherly, 60-ish, is about all you want to put in the script when he's introduced. Even in a novel you don't want the action to grind to a halt because you have to describe to the reader that the quiet, unassuming old guy in the red cardigan is the epitome of decency and here is a list of qualities to back that up, but don't assume he's a ineffective because he's also deceptively clever when it comes to dealing with kids, all as shown by the fact that he took it upon himself to find a way to resolve this girl's issue in a way that would benefit the child. And it's so simple.
You could explain all that with just this one anecdote about him - that when a blind child expressed concern that she couldn't see him feed his fish and worried about the fish going hungry, he made a point of narrating the feeding so she would know the fish was okay. Because not only does the story tug at our heartstrings, but it tells the audience everything they need to know about this character without dragging it out. One simple act that is so typical of Fred Rogers and that he probably didn't make a big deal about speaks volumes about what kind of man we're seeing here. Even if you were describing him to someone who had no idea who he was, relating this simple story about him would bring them up to speed.

Legendary screenwriting instructor Syd Field said, "Action is character." For me, this quick anecdote about Mr. Rogers is a perfect example of that. Don't tell us what a character is like. Show us who he is.

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