Starting when I was around 12, I loved Saturday nights. My parents would let me stay up late to watch my favorite show: Saturday Night Live. I don’t remember the exact year I got hooked, but it was during the Eddie Murphy/Joe Piscopo/Billy Crystal days. But some Saturday nights ended in disappointment. I would be in front of the TV at 11:30, waiting for the show to start, when I would hear the ring! ring! ring! of a bell. That would be followed by the loud, obnoxious voices of Vince McMahon and Jesse “The Body” Ventura and I would realize that SNL wouldn’t be seen that night, having been replaced by the World Wrestling Federation’s presentation of Saturday Night’s Main Event. I would see these idiots parade around in their tights, acting a fool, and I would shut off the TV in disgust. Even though I had been granted a later bedtime I still just stomped off to bed. I hated wrestling.
Years later, I became friends with a guy who loved pro wrestling. I still couldn’t take it seriously, but I would watch it to try and see what he got out of it. I mean, he knew it was fake (as do more wrestling fans than you might think), so I just couldn’t figure out why he liked it. Long story short, over time it started to grow on me. For a period of maybe five years, I became consumed with pro wrestling. I don’t watch it very much anymore, but I still have an affinity for it that surprises a lot of people when they get to know me. (Fun fact: I actually went to a pro wrestling school and worked out once. Once. But that’s a blog post in and of itself.)
One thing that becomes apparent when you watch wrestling is that it can get very repetitive. The storylines repeat themselves over and over with different wrestlers. During the time I was watching it a lot they found interesting ways to tweak the stories to update it for a new generation, but it was still basically the same story – good vs. evil.
A lot of times, what I found more interesting than the storyline itself was who was in the role of the good guy and bad guy (the ‘babyface’ and the ‘heel,’ if you’re interested in wrestlingese). The reason was, with a few exceptions, wrestlers would always change sides at some point. A guy could only be on one side or the other for so long before people got bored with him (or his character just didn’t work) and the powers that be would decide to ‘turn’ him.
Whenever a wrestler turned one way or the other, they’d usually get the chance to explain themselves. A few minutes either in the ring or backstage to give their side of the story-their motivation for the switch. Going from heel to babyface was interesting, but as someone who naturally rooted for the bad guy I lived for the heel turn. And if you’re still with me, don’t worry, I’m getting to my point. Those few minutes when a wrestler held the microphone could make or break their new direction. If they weren’t believable (in a pro wrestling sense of the word), the fans wouldn’t really get behind it. But if their promo made sense, the turn could propel them into bigger and better storylines, which made for more dramatic matches and payoffs. And when it came to promos and heel turns, one man stands head and shoulders above the rest.
Mick Foley, aka Cactus Jack/Mankind/Dude Love. This guy is quite the case of not judging a book by its cover-he’s one of the smartest, funniest, most charming guys you can imagine, even though he looks like someone who’s never heard the cracking spine of a book opening. The absolute insanity he subjected himself to in and out of the ring might also make you question his intelligence. On the mic, however, he was peerless.
In his book, Have A Nice Day, he describes how he prepared for promos explaining his various turns. He said that he thought for days, if not weeks, about why his character would turn on his other wrestlers and the fans; his motivation. He said that once he understood why his character would do theses things in his head, then he could go out and deliver a convincing, emotional promo that would engage the fans. And he did just that each and every time.
I was reminded of this as I sat blankly staring at my empty computer screen the past few days. Last week I enthusiastically announced I was going to start writing the continuation of the story I had thought was already done, and I thought I’d start in a day or two. Well, now it’s been over a week and I still haven’t started. Before I began, I started to think about my new protagonist and her relationship with the prior one (they are exes). How would they have met, how long would they have been together before calling it quits, that sort of thing. I realized I needed to know those things before I felt ready to tell the rest of the story.
I can’t remember where I read it, but at some point in the past year or so I read some advice for getting to know your characters – interview them. Ask them questions and just let them talk, tell you about themselves. It seemed a little silly at the time, but here we are all this time later, and what do you suppose I’ve been doing? I decided to let my characters tell me how long they were together, how they met, when they decided to split, everything.
Now that I feel like I understand who my new protagonist is, I think I’m ready to tell her story. Here goes nothing.
How about you? Have you ever done anything to get inside your character’s head? How do you prepare to tell their story?