What Lightning in a Bottle Music Festival Taught Me About Writing Great Characters

A music festival might not seem the ideal place to spend a lot of time thinking about writing, but that’s pretty much all I thought about while I was at Lightning in a Bottle, an electronic music festival at Lake San Antonio, California.

Lightning in a Bottle is no ordinary music festival. It’s not like Sasquatch or Outside Lands or Lollapalooza. It’s a totally different type of beast, because the people who organize it and the people who attend want it to be a wildly expansive, mind-bending experience.

The costumes are ridiculous. The lights shows are off the chain. The colors are extraordinary. And the combined power of the sun, the moon, and the stars, all while in isolation on a four-day camping trip in the desert, make it one hell of an experience.

And I haven’t even started talking about the music yet.

So why did I spend the entire time there thinking about…well, work?

Well, first of all, because writing isn’t work to me. It’s art. And Lightning in a Bottle is all about art. But it’s about interactive art and personal art – that is, how we present ourselves to others at the festival – as well as art that might be found at a museum, like paintings or sculptures.

The most interesting part of that art, to me, is “how we present ourselves to others.”

How my sister and I chose to present ourselves at the Lightning in a Bottle music festival – dirty, colorful, confident! (I’m on the right.)

Lightning in a Bottle has some pretty amazing costumes, and how you dress up is a huge part of your contribution to the magic of the festival. People wear incredible colors, feathers, bedouin-inspired gear, face paint, body paint, shimmering robes, shining sequins, diamonds, jewels, and myriad other extraordinary things you can put on your body to make yourself stand out from the crowd. But at Lightning in a Bottle, it’s hard to stand out from the crowd – because everybody looks goddamn amazing.

In the midst of all that glory is a lone writer, staring out at everyone and wondering why on earth we make the choices to dress up as we do. Wondering why we make the choice to go to festivals like this, to listen to this music, to get dirty and dusty for days on end just to bear witness to the bacchanal and to participate in the dance.

And this writer started thinking really hard about characterization and identity, and how these co-dependent words feed on and differ from each other.

It occurred to me that, as a writer, if you consider each of your characters as a living, breathing human being (even though they are obviously not), you have to understand that character’s core identity, their distilled essence, their “soul” so to speak. Then, you have to figure out how he or she would translate that to the outer, experiential world. That is, how does that character manifest his core identity to the people around him?

And each character’s distilled essence is manifested outwards by all the tiniest choices we make – from what kind of coffee we drink to how we tip our servers to whether we like to fly on airplanes and how we handle our fears – in a spiral of minute actions that both determine and express that core identity.

In order to write a character authentically, you have to understand how she takes her coffee. Cappuccino? Black? With cream and sugar? Does she like things bitter or sweet?

You have to understand how polite she is to her barista. Does she tip well? Is she rude and demanding? Breathless and harried? Eager and friendly?

You have to understand what kinds of food she likes to eat. Kraft macaroni and cheese? Champagne and caviar? Or maybe both – at different times and for different reasons? Is she vegan? Vegetarian? A through-and-through carnivore? Why? Is she willing to experiment and try new things? Or does she cycle through ten foods and never deviate from her standards?

You have to understand how would she dress at a music festival. Layered patterns on top of each other? Face paint and minimal clothing? Flowing, glittering robes? Would she even be there in the first place?

Another incredible outfit and shot from the festival (photo credit Lindi Nguyen, model unknown)

You have to understand what kind of music she likes. Rock and roll? Punk? Classical? Electronic? Why?

The answers to all these questions – and their shifting, changing nature over time – comprise the layered fabric of your character’s identity. When you boil all these questions down, you’ll find the essence of your character. If you don’t know the answers to these questions, you don’t fully understand your character.

There’s another aspect of all this, too. There’s the difference between who a character is in reality and who he might want to be.

Maybe he’s in decent shape, but he wants to be the type of person who wakes up every morning and hits the gym at 5:45. Every summer, he starts a course of action to try to become that person – but falls short, because goddamnit, he hates getting up early in the morning. Does he abandon his goal and reconcile to the fact that he’s not as into fitness as he’d like to believe? Or does he re-evaluate and decide to go every day after work instead of in the morning?

Or maybe he wants to be a leader at his organization, but is shy and awkward, and can’t quite find the words when he’s in the spotlight. Does he spend hours practicing in front of the mirror until he feels confident in public? Or does he find a way to lead from behind the curtain, spending hours at his computer creating products that demand to be out in front?

Or maybe he sees himself as a fundamentally good person, but is sometimes rude to people he doesn’t know, can’t find the time to do community service, and is caustic with his friends and family. How does he reconcile his public behavior with his private vision? If he starts to recognize the disconnect, what steps does he take to bring the reality closer to the ideal?

Stilts 6
Photo credit and performance art credit to Animal Cracker Conspiracy
What Lightning in a Bottle taught me about characterization is that we are all in the process of bringing to life our mythologized, idealized personas as authentically as possible given the reality of our human situation – dirty, dusty, flawed, and doomed to make mistakes along the way.

What Lightning in a Bottle taught me about characterization is that every action we take, from the minute to the massive, from how you tip your barista to the career you choose for your entire life, from the way you do your makeup to the house you buy and decorate for your family, spiral outwards from your essence to weave the fabric of your identity.

What Lightning in a Bottle taught me about characterization is that identity is demonstrated by action, and action circles back to create identity.

So go. Breathe life into your characters. Give them their mythologies, their god-like personas, the idealized vision of themselves we all want to see. Then give them the dirt, the mud, the sweat, the blood and the tears. Find the space between the myth and the reality. Find the details, the little choices that you wouldn’t otherwise think would matter. The buttons, the zippers, the mascara, the face paint, the music playing in their headphones. That’s where you’ll find authenticity. That’s where you’ll find reality.

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