Coming Clean: Characters and Their Confessions

Cathy and I went to The Ohio Theatre last night to watch The Music Man, part of the summer film series. The movie is set in 1912 in River City, Iowa, where a con man, Professor Harold Hill, convinces the townsfolk that the appearance of a pool table in the billiard hall is a grave danger to their youth and the only way to avoid it is to enroll their sons in a boys’ band, and of course he’s glad to sell them the instruments, the band uniforms, and the instruction booklets. He means to skip town with the profits before the townspeople figure out he’s a fraud, but he ends up falling for the librarian, Marian Paroo, and stays to face the music. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist the pun.)

The Ohio Theatre is a fabulous old movie theatre, built in 1928, and restored in 1969. Back in the day, it had its own orchestra and a Robert-Morgan theatre pipe organ, which is still in use today. It’s quite a thrill to see Clark Wilson at the console rise up from the bowels of the stage for some pre-movie and intermission tunes. In short, a trip to The Ohio Theatre is a journey back into the past when a night out at the movies was an event.

Watching The Music Man is also a trip back in time, one Cathy and I found to be delightful. Of course, I know the past is always much more complicated than the romantic version that movies like The Music Man present, but these days it’s sometimes nice to hold faith in a simpler time when honesty and integrity still mattered.

At one of the pivotal scenes toward the end of the movie, Marian’s little brother, Winthrop—the withdrawn child who, due to his lisp, hardly speaks until he’s wowed by the spectacular cornet that Professor Hill puts into his hands—has been disillusioned by the news that Professor Hill is a fraud. Professor Hill, trying to soothe the boy’s hurt feelings, admits he’s a liar who knows nothing about directing a band. In other words, Professor Hill comes clean.

Which leads me to this writing exercise, one you can use to create a narrative or to enhance a narrative you’ve already written. When you think of your main character, ask yourself what he or she is trying very hard not to admit. Don’t we all have clues to our shortcomings that we repress or try to ignore? Don’t we all work hard to maintain a certain impression of the sort of person we are? Doesn’t life have its way of showing us the truth? Can you think of times when circumstances conspired to reveal that truth to those around you? A flash of temper, perhaps, or an unethical choice, an unkind word, a selfish desire, etc. What is your main character trying to conceal when it comes to his or her own nature or moral fiber? Have you written the scene in which he or she has to come clean, either via a conscious choice or a more indirect route (sometimes, we reveal ourselves without meaning to)? Write that scene. Think about how it comes to bear on not only your main character but also on those around him or her. How does the world of the narrative shift because of that scene?

The world of a narrative can seem uncomplicated on the surface, but sometimes for a story to have any lasting impact, there has to be another story beneath it—the story the main character would rather not tell. This exercise in coming clean may be a way for you to find what the character would rather not confess, would rather not face, would prefer to keep out of sight. Let the pressure of the plot bring the truth up from its hiding spot and into the light.

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