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What I Learned About Character in an Old French Prison...

9 May 2018
 May 9, 2018
Category: Uncategorized

This is the view down from behind prison walls.


One of the excursions we’ve taken as part of the Storytelling Institute in Cannes, was to Île de Sainte-Marguerite, an island located a short boat ride away from the city. An ancient fort turned prison, the buildings once incarcerated the Man In The Iron Mask, rumored to be the older illegitimate brother of Louis the XIV.


The prison/fort is now in ruins, but the idea that this masked man lived as a prisoner here, and that his identity is still debated in historical circles, caught my interest. Earlier in the day, one of our writers sent around a link to a YouTube discussion of how masks work in character transformations. And then, as we wandered down the overgrown stone steps and entered a strange museum/aquarium onsite, I saw a local sea creature in a tank– one that was so beautifully camouflaged that it was hard to tell where it and the surrounding rocks began.


The universe was talking to me about masks and camouflage!


So here are my thoughts on how you might use character “masks” in your books or screenplays.


What mask does your character wear at the beginning of your story? Who is he or she trying to be? Is he/she trying to fit in or stand out? What does he/she do that reveals the desire to be something different?


How can this mask be ripped away? How can your character be forced to drop the front and access whatever’s behind the mask to achieve his or her goal? What part of themselves have they been hiding, or disowning, or burying?  Is it their vulnerability? Their strength? How can you orchestrate, through action, a crumbling of the mask to reveal the true man or woman underneath?


What are the obstacles you create to chip away at your protagonist’s mask? And how are these obstacles specifically suited to do so? If your character is trying to hide a tender heart, what are the moments that will connect with this heart, in an attempt to crack the iron shield? Is your protagonist pretending to be on top of the world, and someone sees the truth of his or her situation, just for a fleeting moment?


Could you use masks for your supporting characters? Could they wear one mask at the beginning of the narrative (mentor?) and turn to foe (shadow?) Could they be a trickster who turns into a threshold guardian? Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung went hog wild talking about archetypal masks and how they can be used and shifted. What masks do your secondary characters wear and how can these masks help push and pull your main character?


The Man in the Iron Mask’s identity has never been revealed. And this is part of what has created the legends and stories that grew up around him– most famously, in the concluding book of Alexander Dumas’ cycle of The Three Musketeers.


The mask creates a dramatic question. What’s behind it? This holds the reader/audience to the narrative (they want to find out) and also allows you to use this front as a shield to be cracked in service of giving your main character an arc.


TAKE ACTION! Could you create a mask for your protagonist that gets removed in service of his or her transformation? What is this character trying to hide? How can he/she be forced to use this hidden self in the climax of your book or screenplay? Could you play with masks in your secondary characters?  Could they too have their masks shifted in the course of the plot?


Welcome to the weird musings of my brain brought on by a trip to an ancient ruin.


Check out the sea creature wearing his camo in Île de Sainte-Marguerite’s aquarium below.


Happy Writing!


xo pv

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