More of a Guideline Than a Rule

similar cubes with rules inscription on windowsill in building

I Dodged a Bullet Today

So, I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned this – apart, of course, from the entire post I dedicated to it – but a new play of mine has been released as a radio drama on all podcast platforms (It’s called Step 9 and produced by New Normal Rep). As such, I’ve been lucky enough to appear on some podcasts to help promote it. To a person, each podcast host has been kind, smart, and fun to talk to.


I was scheduled for a podcast interview today and so I listened to a few episodes of it this morning. Why did I wait until the last minute? Because it makes me feel like I’m back in college again; it keeps me young at heart. Anyway, it was unbearable. The host’s vibe was not unlike that of the host of a low-budget infomercial who’d recently scored some Ivy League Med School grade Adderall. And I soon discovered why it sounded more like an ad than a show – it’s because this person was selling something: in this case, their playwriting classes.

Now, to be clear, I do not begrudge this person doing that. The entire reason I was going to be on this podcast was in order for me to sell my play. So people who live in glass playhouses, etc., etc. What I begrudge, however, not to mention bemoan and flat out take great, mountainous heaps of umbrage with, was that each ‘cast (that’s what the cool people, I’m told, call podcasts. It’s a real time-saver) was loaded with rules. And when it wasn’t pronouncing rules, it was proscribing certain approaches, prescribing methods, dishing out dictates, and issuing edicts. And/or selling the necessity of their classes.

Let’s Get Real for a Second (Pulls Up Chair, Turns it Backwards and Straddles it, Resting His Arms on the top of its Back)

I had a friend with whom I would write comedy sketches; he was often very dark but just as often very funny. In one sketch, he created a deeply, delightfully (for some) lascivious and bizarre funeral director who tries to comfort a young widow. Well, things proceed in a typically dark but funny way, to the point he reassures her they have a company rule forbidding the staff from, how do I put this, violating the deceased in a marital way. When she reacts in horror, “That’s a rule???” the character responds with the deathless (bad word choice, let’s go with”one of my favorite”) lines, “Well….it’s technically more of a guideline than a rule…” Cue an admixture of loud laughs, gasps, and the sound of people leaving the theater, demanding their money back.

The point it is, yeah, there’s lots of good advice to give about writing. I’m always eager to hear some, and I try to occasionally provide some here. But they are more guidelines than rules. Let’s take just one of this host’s ABSOLUTES (emphasis theirs; the only way to accurately quote them is in all caps): “YOUR MAIN CHARACTER MUST BE LIKABLE!!!”

You’re the Boss of Neither Myself Nor My Characters

Sure. Your main character must always be likable. Absolutely. Just ask William Shakespeare about his Scottish King in the Scottish Play (you know the one), Arthur Miller about Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, August Wilson about Troy Maxson in Fences, Tennessee Williams about Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire, or Edward Albee about, hell, pretty much any of his characters in any of his plays, but especially George and Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Tragically for these well-meaning playwrights, these characters lack of “likability” (whatever the hell that even means) fatally sank what were otherwise promising scripts.

Oh wait, these are all considered supreme examples of the art.

What I’m assuming this person meant is that we must (and I’d very much quibble with that word, too) feel an emotional connection to the character (emphasis mine. Well of course it is, I’m the one writing this) for your play’s central figure. Yet the two qualities are very, very much not synonymous.

Shakespeare’s Scottish King slaughters (or delegates the slaughter) of family, friends, foes, children of friends and foes, their employees, and the people who slaughter the slaughtered for him. And yet we fully grasp his isolation and knowing sense of futility by the final act. Willy Loman is a philanderer, inveterate liar, casually cruel to his wife, and consistently insults the only person in the world willing to socialize with him. And yet…our hearts break for him (spoiler alert, although in fairness, a play called Death of a Salesman is kind of a giveaway. Also, I guess I should put “spoiler alert” before the spoiler.). And be honest, would you accept an invite for drinks over at George and Martha’s house?

Etc., Etc.

Here’s a Rule: Don’t Hector Writers on the Importance of Detail and Specificity and Then Use a Word Like “Likable

To describe a character as “likable” is a maddeningly vague and lazy choice of descriptor at best. It’s fundamentally wrong at worst. Now, do I think characters should be people we feel for? I think it’s certainly an excellent guideline, but there are exceptions even to that. Hedda Gabler leaps to mind. Yes, we understand, perhaps, why she behaves as she does. But very few people I’ve met who’ve seen or read the play can say they can deeply empathize with her. Although I’ll bet there are those who’d disagree with me.

Which is not only fine, it’s one of the main points of art. It’s a Rorshach Test; it’s the old mirror up nature thing Hamlet talks about, specifically, your nature. And if you’re honest with yourself, it can show your good and ugly parts, as mirrors tend to do.

Saying a character needs to be likable is not only cringingly nebulous and cliched but, from a writing standpoint, dangerous advice (Sorry, PRONOUNCEMENT!). That’s not to say central characters can’t be likable, of course; they are more often than not. But “Likable,” with all of the sweeping banalities that word implies, will likely sound to someone just starting to write as if their protagonist shouldn’t have anything problematic about them. Such an approach, and this is another guideline I’d suggest, is usually not conducive to creating interesting characters.

Didn’t You Begin This Rant with Something About Dodged Bullets?

Oh right. So anyway. This podcaster was sent a “media kit” with my bio, etc., by the nice people tasked with the thankless, well, task, of talking folks into letting me on their shows. Included in the media kit thingy are links to productions to two of my plays so, if they’d like, they can get a sense of my stuff. But this person wrote back in at least mid-level dudgeon that they do not read scripts for FREE!! . never mind that there would be no reading involved – they were fully produced works. They then summarily canceled the interview (hence the bullet dodged!!), as they saw my spending a not inconsiderable amount on a PR team as a transparent and cynical ploy for me to finagle their sage advice gratis on two plays that, it should be noted, have already been produced.

Of course they assumed that. How could they not? When you believe you alone possess the truth, locked securely away from the great unwashed and unproduced, everyone who isn’t a supplicant is a thief trying to con the key out of you.

Looks like we both dodged bullets today.

Published by Jack Canfora

I'm an award winning and losing playwright and screenwriter; I'm a dad of two great kids, an aggressive spoiler of dogs, and hopelessly addicted to baseball and The Beatles. I have no recollection of ever having worn a mullet, yet photos in the 80's say otherwise.

One thought on “More of a Guideline Than a Rule

  1. A very likable post, Jack! I’m still chuckling over many things – especially about listening last minute to the podcast so it feels like college, and the funeral director “guideline.” But mostly I’m so relieved you dodged that bullet! Whew!

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