I’ve included a new element in my “I’ve Got Character” workshops as of late—a quick tutorial on the difference between fact and fiction.
As a screenwriter, I create characters with conflicts that help move the story forward—to convey a message of some sort. Usually, the conflict in question requires both a good guy and a bad guy. When I write scripts with kids in mind, the characters with less than perfect behavior provide a prime example of what not to do. I try and make the consequences of bad choices obvious. I look at it as an opportunity to get the audience thinking, while still being entertained.
When I watch movies with my kids, I look at it as an opportunity to parent.
Some parents may disagree, but I tend to screen what my kids watch based more on the message than the rating. Watching movies of all kinds with my family has been a great starting point for some very enlightening conversations, and has made for some pretty valuable character building. I’d rather expose them to the world while I’m there to help them put it in perspective than shield them from it and hope for the best when they see it anyway.
Some elementary school classes have begun emulating the “cheese touch”—inspired by the Diary of A Wimpy Kid movie, which I really enjoyed watching and discussing with my kids, by the way. So I decided to have an open discussion about it. More than a few students in my workshops didn’t seem to realize that there’s a big difference between the conflicts and resolutions played out on the screen and the consequences of treating a classmate with that much insensitivity. Actually, they seemed slightly shocked when I’ve brought it up, as if nobody has pointed it out before.
It’s not just the “cheese touch” either. I’ve visited many classrooms and I’ve noticed that films and television have a great deal of influence on their behavior. Again, I feel the need to stress that I don’t believe in censorship, but without a little guidance, the simplest concept can be misinterpreted by a vulnerable child. Tragic circumstances can be seen as romantic, and embarrassing someone else for the sake of humor can appear to be the road to popularity.
It may seem obvious to adults (OK, maybe not all adults) that the bad behavior of characters in films is simply a vehicle a writer uses to make a point, but we can’t assume the same for children. We need to look them straight in the eye and make it clear that it is not appropriate to humiliate, exclude or intimidate people under any circumstances—no matter what they see in the movies.
For the most part, as a writer, I feel that art imitates life. But children like to imitate the characters they see on both the big and small screen. I know mine have anyway. And I feel as a parent it’s my responsibility to make it clear that life is not a movie or television show.
Real people have real feelings. It’s that simple.
Taryn Grimes-Herbert is a screenwriter, performer, the author of the I’ve Got character-building book series for children, and was 2010’s Woman of Achievement in the Arts Honoree for Orange County, NY. Calling upon her professional acting experience on Broadway, film and television, she speaks out and takes her books into classrooms hoping to help kids build character, develop empathy and learn to create a positive future through creative dramatics activities.