Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Eleanor Roosevelt and Mrs. Alf Landon

PBS broadcast a tremendous documentary about Eleanor Roosevelt as part of their American Experience series last night. Catch it if you can.

Mrs. Roosevelt has a lot to teach writers about character. She was a hero both in a historical sense and in a narrative sense. What made her a hero? What makes her a good character?

She began life in the shadow of a grandmother who felt she had not lived a fulfilling life. She was a woman of wealth and privilege who had raised a large family. But for some, that's simply not enough -- even for a grandma in the early 20th century. Eleanor saw this, and immediately identified what a screenwriter might call her universal desire: the need to make her life into a contribution to something larger.

Eleanor Roosevelt isn't the first or last person to feel this. We all feel it at some point. But very few of us have either the drive to make ourselves happy or the will to bend away from what's socially expected of us. Eleanor very quickly developed that will. This is what screenwriters might call a misbehavior, or a character 'flaw'. This is the trait in the character that they are unable to resist. They must fight. Or they must love. Or they must steal. That's who they are.

So Eleanor has the two very clear traits that a screenwriter might use to structure her character around in a narrative film. She's also got tremendous character sympathy, because she's fighting for her own happiness (something we don't always do ourselves..) and she's fighting for those less fortunate.

Eleanor fought to make an independent life for herself within her marriage. She fought to make a role for herself that her high social class would not allow her to have. She found her way into politics almost by accident. When she started to win battles within the New York Democratic Party, she was surprised as anyone.

And she found a new identity for herself. She found new friends and colleagues. She grew more exposed to problems of the poor and minorities in the Great Depression. And then when her husband was elected president, he asked her to give it all up. No more politics. No more charity work. No more advocacy. Time to serve tea to heads of state.

The adjustment threw Eleanor into a depression. She was nothing like the picture of a First Lady. She wasn't pretty. She wasn't proper. She jaunted around with lesbians and a slightly too dashing bodyguard. All gone.

But only briefly. Enter the misbehavior and the universal desire. Eleanor reasserts her power in her marriage. Before anyone can say anything, she's back to advocating, and now on a much grander scale. She's pushing forward new planned communities in West Virginia, fighting poverty in Puerto Rico and supporting mine workers in Pennsylvania. America has never seen anything like her.

I don't need to recount her whole life -- most of us know that she supported her husband as he fought polio, the Great Depression and Germany and Japan. She chaired the UN committee that created the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

But one very small moment in the documentary really struck me as getting to the heart of good character. In the 1936 election, Eleanor's unlady-like behavior became a campaign issue. The Republicans put together newsreels of her covered in coal dust hanging out with the boys, or slogging through mud and chatting with farmers while dressed almost mannishly. They opposed her to Mrs. Alf Landon, the wife of the Republican candidate. Mrs. Landon plays a harp, fondles orchids, and pats toddlers on the head while smiling demurely at the camera.

Mrs. Landon is a picture while Mrs. Roosevelt is a journey. When we start writing, often our characters look like Mrs. Landon when they should grow and breathe like Mrs. Roosevelt. I don't think Eleanor ever really planned to become the person she did become, but somehow it was also inevitable. It's scary to embrace that in a character. How can you include a free radical like that in your carefully thought out structure? But it's that uncertainty that IS drama. That's what brings a story to life. It's the reason we're writing.

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