Thursday, March 26, 2009

Writing: 360 Degree Character Reviews

Occasionally, LEVERAGE writer Albert Kim will regale us with stories of the horrible traditions and kabuki of his previous corporate life. He recently explained the idea of the 360 degree job review. You are reviewed by:

1.) Your bosses
2.) Your peers
3.) Your underlings.

I started doing this as a way to develop characters, and I have to admit I kind of dig it. How does Indiana Jones's boss at the university feel about him? Other archeologists? His students? How about the bad guys? "Major Arnold Toht is the best commandant I've ever had. He never sends us into dangerous situations without also taking the same risk. He is very organized and makes sure we have the tools and resources necessary to serve the Fuhrer. We always go to interesting places, and he really encourages individual initiative. His determination is an inspiration to us all ..."

More fun is a recent bit of development I've been doing for villains and heroes -- flip them. Take a page and write about the villain as if he's the protagonist. I don't mean the anti-hero protagonist, I mean the "I admire this character and want to see him succeed"protagonist. Doing this with even minor characters can open up new interactions. What this does is force you to come up with virtues for your bad guy, even invent some -- otherwise, he's not a hero, is he? (I recently psyched myself out of using a character as a villain, because I wound up becoming too invested in his non-villainous personal life.).

Years ago another writer taught me a simple exercise -- describe a character, hero or villain, as his best friend would describe him while setting up a blind date. Then do it from the point of view of the co-worker who hates his guts and is unloading to his wife after work, or finally has a chance to sink him with a job recommendation.

All these things take advantage of the fact that we understand the world around us through narrative. We already create heroes and villains, shade them, set them against ourselves and each other in our own lives. We already have a storytelling vocabulary. We just need to understand it's as valid as a formally defined system.


marag said...

My husband and one of his brothers used to be consultants working on 360 degree reviews, and I did a lot of their data entry. I can't believe I never thought of doing this with characters!

I think I've still got the questionnaires from a few major financial firms floating around somewhere in a box. Hmm, where did they go...?

Mme Racine said...

In my temping days, I worked for a place that produced those 360 reviews. I put together the binders that went out to the clients with the reviews for each person.

Fascinating stuff. One thing to note - there was almost no unanimity on what was said about any individual person, or what 1-5 ranking they got. What had a strong correlation was how someone ranked everyone else. So a person would get ratings all over the map, but would give everyone else all 2s or all 4s with maybe one or two people getting better or worse.

The comments people made came in handwritten, went through a character recognition program, and we looked them over to proof them. Same effect. Two people typed them - a seriously crazy dude in Korea and one famous person at a media conglomerate. It was fascinating to see how people inevitably sucked up to people who would never know they did, or really did some nasty trashing of EVERYONE. Only a tiny handful of participants seemed to have insight into others that reached beyond their own little worldview.

I pointed this out how interesting this was to one of the professionals. I wasn't asked to come back the next week, although I knew they were still using temps.

If you are interested in personnel reviews there was a great article on how evil and counterproductive they are in the Wall Street Journal a ways back. Basically, it is very difficult to stand outside your own bias and read people. Also there is a real push to identify stars and underperformers, despite the fact that everyone may be doing their jobs just fine, thank you.

The best writing teacher once told us that no one could write an autobiographical story about their divorce unless they could tell it from their ex-spouse's perspective. Not a bad rule.

Heronymus said...

I have an English Teacher friend who's doing her PhD on the concept that the sense of narrative that people cling to is biochemical -- that the stories that we tell (most specifically the novels that we read) are literally built into our brains as a way to deal with the universe around us.

And having recently completed my annual review, I have to say that those 360 things are utter shite. Those self-eval tools are there so that the boss doesn't have to actually pay attention to the people who are doing the job. If you do a regular 1-on-1 meeting, keep communicating on a regular basis, and pay attention, then you have everything you need to do a decent review.

Er, sorry. Reviews are a sore issue with me...

Shana Jean Hausman said...

Wow, I just did that exercise with my protagonist's best friend. I had no idea she was so jealous! She did a really good job hiding it!

Thanks for recommending it. I'm definitely going to use it more often.

kinesys said...

As a characterization tool, I think it's a kicky idea. I shall try it next time an opportunity presents itself.

But i'm with Heronymous on the review for employment front. I once told an employer that if i was doing my job right, he should start thinking of me as the tooth fairy. The work gets done, the deliveries get made, but no one ever sees me and if i do it well enough he should even start to doubt my existence.
That kind of work ethic generally doesn't exist in corporate America anymore.

Jim Kakalios said...

It's been done - Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman. Alternating chapters told in first person from the point of view of a new member of an "Avengers" superteam, Fatale and their arch nemesis Dr. Impossible. I was soooo rooting fro Dr. Impossible to win at the end.

The supervillain as protagonist has rarely been done as well, though occasional efforts to tell an FF story through Dr. Doom's eyes have worked. I may start using, as a salutation to my students, Dr. Impossible's opening of his radio broadcast, when his plan to capture the moon comes to fruition: Greetings, Insects!

Andrew said...

In case you were wondering how Indiana Jones' bosses see him:

Indiana Jones checks his mail and discovers his bid for tenure has been denied

Michael Bourgon said...

('People' Magazine Reporter Held Hostage By Timothy Hutton Extremists)

GinaFan said...

I find it hard to remember someone unless I have a memory to connect them to.

It's like people and events are nodes and there are relationships connecting between them.

Shelley said...

('People' Magazine Reporter Held Hostage By Timothy Hutton Extremists)

Such extremists give the rest of us Hutton fans such a bad name. I don't understand how they think such violent acts will help our cause in the end.

I was happy to see this part at the end of the article however:

Actor Timothy Hutton is currently filming a new season of the TNT drama Leverage and could not be reached for comment.

amancham said...

*lol* Thank you for this hint. I'll try that next time. I have a massive character sheet I'm working through when doing some writing but I never thought of asking others about this character... stupid me.

I really enjoyed reading this!

Antonia said...

Great idea.

I used to do 360 degree reviews at work, and have them done to me. The best thing was, we could talk to peers about why they had marked us in a certain way.

There wasn't usually any sucking up, because people you thoughtof as friends, would mark you down if they didn't see you as being efficient in certain areas of work.

Good idea for character work though.

GinaFan said...

Something tells me that Beth can dance. I mean Travolta topping.

GinaFan said...

Along those lines, I previously imagined a jealosy scenario where our troop are all at a party, and there's a dance floor.

Elliot asks Tim's ex-wife to dance. Tim is a little jealous and gets Gina to dance just to keep tabs on his ex + Elliot. Gina, of course is more than happy. The Gina decides to get Tim's attention away from the ex by upping the romance. The ex and Elliot give them a run for their money. This is when Parker decides to show them how it's done, grabs Hardison, and throws down a scortcher of a session.

Maybe a little too dancing-with-the-stars.

NY Expat said...

In the "villan as hero" respect, I can't recommend enough the documentary "Thriller In Manilla" on HBO, which walks us through the Ali/Frazier feud through Frazier's eyes.

If you can, skip the first 10 minutes or so, which gives away what I feel is an incredibly forceful conclusion, where you're shown what a tragedy the whole feud really is.

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