The Mamea family had a get-together earlier this year. With almost all of his progeny in one room, my father announced that this year he was turning 90 years and he expected a full and proper celebration. In the (brief) silence that followed, my siblings and I exchanged looks, jaws mid-chew, our mouths full of food.

Our father has always had good timing.

The thing is… we’d celebrated his 80th in 2006, which meant we’d all forgotten that last year, 2016, should’ve been his 90th birthday. But we hadn’t really forgotten because somewhere along the line, someone had unearthed this document:

He’s not officially 90 for another two years. He snuck in his 80th three years early.

“What’s with the numbers?” the numerically-bonded amongst you ask. “How could we forget his 90th birthday?” the emotionally-integrated amongst you cry out.

We did that 80th shindig on his say-so, and in the intervening years a fog of confusion has grown where official documents say this, our father says that — and our father’s answers have differed slightly with each asking/confirmation. Also, he’s 80-plus, for pete’s sake; his birthday/s was/were almost a century ago now, and, for a large part of his adult life, birthdays were irrelevant.

Some might say there’s a rich vein of family history here. For my siblings and I, it was another memorable moment in the life of being a Mamea.

Wearing my writer helmet, there’s an interesting character feature here that might come in handy at some point. Not the obvious age-defining-character angle, but more how multiple birthdates — all equally valid — inform backstory. A lot (could have) happened in that two to three year gap between my father’s possible birthdays: he was born either before or during the Great Depression; he was born either before or during the rise of the Mau movement in Samoa. The timing of his arrival on this planet could make a world of difference in his upbringing and character.

Like anyone and everyone else, both real and imagined, there’s more to Pater Mamea than meets the eye. It just requires some thought and a little patience.


Stalk and Leaf

I’m obsessed with Jerusalem cherry: I’m walking the dogs, I see it, I pull it; I’m dancing through the Orange Grove, inhaling its citrus fragrance when I see a certain leaf shape and I stop and pull it — you get the idea. And the thing is, there’s so much of it around that if there’s one, there’s usually his friends nearby (and those friends have their friends nearby, if you knowhumsayin).

So there’s the shape recognition thing going on (I can pick it out from a carpet of green — and I’m talking the non-fruiting plant), and there’s the method of pulling it out (grab it as low as possible to the ground for maximum effect). This weed is an hardy little bastard where if just the stalk is removed, the root will continue to grow.

I’ve come across pockets — goddamned handbags, more like it — where careful pulling on a tiny stalk and leaf reveals a substantial root.

This is the enemy: Jerusalem cherry, which may not look like much above ground, but is a bugger to remove intact.
The enemy.

Great characterisation does that, too: a mild-mannered wall-flower of a reporter is also a Son of Krypton with powers beyond imagining; a traumatised warrant officer returns to the planet she warned everyone about is also a natural leader, a resourceful fighter and mother; a taciturn consultant who joins a special task force steals the film right out from under the named lead… and so forth.

I’ve got a one-person theatre project where I’ve got all the first impressions down pat: funny, opinionated, long suffering, and compassionate. But I’m having some difficulty getting across the character’s history without turning the piece into a long recitation of who-done-wrong, how-I-got-here, and variations on My-Cat-Blackie.

I’ve got the stalk and the leaf to tempt the audience with. I just have to come up with the root.



I’ve always had trouble with women. Women characters, that is. Making them walk and talk was reasonably straightforward. Whatever made them tick always seemed tantalisingly out of reach.

In contrast, tortured (ex-)special forces guys, young idealistic lawyer-types, frustrated creatives – they’re no terrible stretch if one gets into a let’s pretend state of mind.

In my early years of ignorance and naivete, the bar I’d subconsciously set for writing female characters was frightfully low. My female characters would a). never scream unnecessarily, b). never merely stand by as the hero gets a beatdown, and c). react pretty much like I imagined my mother or sister or female-friends would react in whatever extraordinary circumstances they might find themselves in.

This three-step checklist worked well enough until life experience and reluctant maturity coincided with having to write character drama rather than wham-bam actioners or thrillers. Try as I might, just making shit up and tap dancing furiously —

There’s a knock on the door!

— OR —

THe phone rings!!

— OR —


— no longer worked. There was a Truth to be gotten at in the stories: a truth about characters and ‘where they’re coming from’. And try as I might to avoid or ignore it, the answer to this challenge was simple: backstories had to be written, especially for vexsome characters.

(Yeah, well, I’m pretty sure I’m on record somewhere on this blog as saying that backstories are for sissies. What can I say? I was young and foolish.)

Backstories are helpful wee things. Besides being something with which to brain shut up pesky actors with, they are part of the world building process that stories require. With each backstory, each character belongs that much more to the narrative – you can quickly see whether they are essential or not (and if not, start making them essential) – and when you do it right, there’s an inexorability to character arcs and interactions that do away with things like plot devices.

(Those of you who’ve always done backstories have likely known this all along but it’s nice to (eventually) get to this point at my own pace.)

And so one finishes a many-paged backstory for a female main character but there’s something in it that’s just not ringing true.

That’s when one swallows one’s pride and asks one’s wife or friend or colleague, What do women really want?

Once the initial response is over and done with, whether it’s hearty laughter or stunned silence or an impassioned speech on twenty-first-century feminist politics, one soon finds oneself en route to the Truth.

Just don’t hum I am Woman or (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman as you go about it.

Trust me: it’s not worth it.


Awful, Awful, Awful

It’s a four-hour flight to Melbourne and, despite the best efforts of the Purser, the in-flight entertainment wasn’t working so I took the opportunity to finish watching an action thriller Roger Ebert had awarded three stars to.
After about ten minutes, The Goddess, responding to my pained expression, asked, “If it’s so bad, why are you still watching it?”

“I think,” I said slowly, “that it’s good for me.”

Good for you? It’s making you grumpy.”

She had a point. Sure, I won’t get the two hours (two freaking hours!) back but I’ve been soundly reminded of what I don’t like to see in films, and why I intend to never ever use them in my writing.

1.  Kids who don’t listen

The following exhibit is a prime example of why I hate kids in films.



MOTHER and DAUGHTER peer vainly through the windows.


Mommy, I’m scared.


I’m scared too, honeykins.

She snatches up a CRICKET BAT.


You stay right here. Mommy’ll be right back.


The Mother creeps out onto the FRONT PORCH, cricket bat at port arms. A RUSTLE to her right beckons her over to an inconspicuous BUSH. She approaches it, hands gripping and re-gripping her bat. Ten yards. Five yards. Two yards. The bush rustles innocently.


What is it?



– and she turns to find her Daughter at her side.


I thought I told you –

The bush rustles – and transforms into a giant VENUS HUMANTRAP, its bulbous head SNAPPING FORWARD and neatly beheading the Mother. The Daughter is sprayed in arterial blood as her mother’s headless corpse drops beside her.


Mommy! ... Mommy?

What’d you freakin’ expect, kid? You were freakin’ asked to stay in the house! Why didn’t you bloody listen?!

2.  Stupid plot devices.

I’m all for devices to propel the story. Call me picky, but I’d like those devices to be, oh I dunno, naturalistic… characteristic… even logical.

I think Ebert refers to these as idiot plots – y’know,
–  BOY meets GIRL,
–  Boy asks Girl out on a first date,
–  Boy’s MEAN BOSS asks Boy to entertain a client’s HOT DAUGHTER on the same day of his first date with Girl or lose his job,
–  Boy asks his BEST MATE for advice,
–  Best Mate says If you’re honest with Girl about why you’re breaking your first date, she. Won’t. Understand,
–  Boy tells Girl that he’s got an old college friend in town that he has to entertain…


3.   Stupid characters

Stupid characters are the human equivalent of idiot plots.



In a tired and dented CRUISER, a HOT DOG COP and OLD BULL COP look at the WARRANT they have to serve.


This is just beneath me, old timer –

His whiney bitch-ass rant is cut short when the cops observe a STARK NAKED WOMAN run screaming from the apartment block.


(between shrieks)

He’s trying to kill me! Help me!

Hot Dog is out of the cruiser and heading straight for the APARTMENT ENTRANCE when his elder partner’s shouts make him pause:


Shouldn’t we wait for backup?

The slap of ceramic on reinforced plastic as Hot Dog draws his GLOCK PISTOL:


This is all the backup I need, old timer.

How will Hot Dog Cop appear in the next scene? Will he be –
A.   shot to death by assailant/s unknown;
B.   kidnapped then tortured to death at an unspecified location by assailant/s unknown;
C.   buried with full honours while his heavily pregnant FRESH-FACED WIFE weeps pathetically; or
D.   seduced by SORORITY SISTERS who’ve just sent out a new member (remember shrieking Stark Naked Woman?) on an initiation rite/run.


I feel better now. The bitter taste of that film has begun to fade, and I’ve unloaded onto you, dear reader, for which I’m always grateful.

I suspect however that the above three items are one and the same. Sorry. They reveal a couple of things though: lazy storytelling and a fear of incomprehension. In my next post, I’ll explain how these wonderful chestnuts can be made to work.


Needs Must and All That

Danny Stack‘s latest Story Vault about dramatic need, along with Jane Espenson‘s post on the need for story/character stakes, got me thinking.

My path to film analysis was as follows:

    • blind acceptance –

Okay. She has to go back into the house for the cat because she loves widdle Ferdie.

    • followed by a curious questioning –

But why would the previously right-thinking Bindy go back into the house she’s just escaped from? Shaka the left-handed half-blind machete surgeon IS STILL IN THERE!

    • until I realised that there was a correlation between the VCR counter and such out-of-character behaviour –

[With 0:62:25 elapsed and 0:28:42 remaining] Bindy has yet to run Shaka through the bandsaw, detonate the C4 in the basement, and have a topless clinch with Chad the newspaper boy*.

It was likely after a three-hour-long (subjective) ninety-minute film that I had my I could’ve done better’n that moment and, still in that bubble of complete and utter naivete, started plotting my ideal action film:

    • Draft one:

The Hero’s dog is killed. Vengeance is sought. A helpful dog joins our Hero as the Sidekick on his journey. The Baddies are vanquished. The Sidekick is adopted.

    • Hm. Draft three:

The Hero’s family is massacred. Vengeance is sought. A helpful Waif joins our Hero in his quest. The Waif is kidnapped by the Baddies but not killed. The Baddies are pulped. One. By. One. The Hero rescues the Waif and they kiss.

    • Meh. Draft fifteen:

The Hero’s family is threatened – there’s a close call involving the Baby. The Hero and his Plucky Family hit the road but the Baddies are always a step behind. The Hero’s Dog is revealed to be a mole. The Hero is conflicted but is interrupted by an extended Woo-drenched firefight, at the end of which the Hero sacrifices himself for his Plucky Family – but is saved by a last-minute, redemptive and fatal act by his Dog.

I learnt an important lesson during those rewrites**: if I don’t make the reader care it’s just another exciting-but-quickly-forgotten carnival ride (or an excruciatingly interminable cuppa with your parents’ friends).


* How do I know all this? Because these scenes are in the trailer I’ve seen a dozen times already and they haven’t happened yet (although in this instance I’m going to be short-changed by Chad and Bindy sharing a chaste kiss before an abrupt end-credit-roll).

** I also learnt that reusing elements from earlier, discarded drafts is Writing Smarter.