Saturday, July 18, 2009

Change your shoes, change your life

Stories are all about change. The books and movies we enjoy the most are those that show people becoming stronger or happier or more connected with others.

The British movie Kinky Boots, for example, has all of those elements woven together like a beautiful huarache. There are the parallel stories of two people who felt they disappointed their fathers, there’s romance, redemption and healing. Above all, there’s change: disasters that trigger personal growth that leads to business moves….

According to David Noer’s book Breaking Free, there are four basic character types when it comes to changeability in the workplace.

At the beginning of Kinky Boots, Charlie seems to be a classic Overwhelmed: when his world falls apart he is incapable of seeing any solutions, let alone implementing them.

“What can I do?” he hopelessly asks each factory worker as he lays them off, one after another.

Lauren is the only one who has an answer. 

Change your product, she snaps at him. Find a new market.

Lauren is a Learner. She’s innovative, thinks outside the shoebox, and has enough optimism to draw others along with her.

Lola is Entrenched in her life as a very successful drag queen; we can see she’s no longer happy in her rut but she isn’t even trying to climb out of it. When Charlie and Lauren present her with a chance to try something new, though, she is more than capable of shoehorning herself into the job.

These three characters show the basics of Noer’s model.

The Overwhelmed need to be given projects in which their old skills are useful, and to work with optimists whose energy can carry them along. The Entrenched are more able to adapt, so they benefit from practicing new behaviors in safe situations, especially if they’re surrounded by creative optimists. Learners are already creative, optimistic and energetic; they need to protect themselves from burnout, from being drained by others. Lauren, for example, didn’t change much in the course of Kinky Boots – she didn’t need to. The journey was Charlie’s and Lola’s – Lauren’s role was to be a catalyst and guide.

Although Charlie’s fiancĂ©e Nicola also remains the same throughout the movie, she isn’t a Learner. She is what Noer calls a BSer: comfortable with change, but not truly capable of it. She was happy to move to a new city and a different job, but she didn’t grow as a person.

“I can’t change what I want,” she told Charlie bluntly.

By the end of the film Charlie has stepped from the old sneakers of the apparently Overwhelmed into the brogues of a Learner, and Lola has climbed from her singin’and dancin’ rut to creative heights – wearing four-inch heels.

But, you say, it’s just a story.

Not entirely. Kinky Boots is based on real events and you know what they say: the difference between fiction and reality is that fiction has to make sense. 

That doesn’t make it any less true.


  1. I, too, have worn all four shoes at one time or another. Depends on the circumstances, I suppose.

    I'm better at analysing cats than people.

    For instance, my older cat, 24 years old now, is surprisingly adaptable to change. This is reflected in what she eats, (hates eating the same thing day in day out) and what she does on a daily basis and how she reacts to new situations always surprises me. Even now, when she can barely see, can't hear much and sleeps most of the time.

    On the other hand, the younger one, four years old now, LOVES routine. She becomes very upset if that routine is altered in any way. She's super sensitive to any change and likes to eat the same thing every day. Heaven forbid I ever change the recipe. And her daily routines can be timed with a stopwatch.

    Makes one wonder if personality is dependent on nature or nurture.

    The interesting thing is, the older cat, I've had since she was six weeks old.

    The younger one was a stray that'd lived outdoors on her own until she was rescued. She was pregnant and put up for adoption as a 1 year old after her kittens had been weaned and she had been spayed.

    So you'd think the one that likely had no routine for the first year of her life, would hate routine or at least be adaptable to change.

    And that the one that has lived with routine all of her life, would hate change.

    Not so.

    I think people can be like that, too - hard to truly pigeonhole and analyse, and react surprisingly when least expect it.

    Which makes writing fiction way more predictable than figuring out real life.

    A thought-provoking subject, Rachel.


  2. Fascinating research. And of course, when you have two people who are 'Entrenched' they incapacitate each other.

    And when two folks become 'Overwhelmed' their lives slump to a halt.

    What is equally interesting is to follow the journey when one character in one's novel tries to have an impact on another.

    And then there is the complex subject of what behaviour is learned, and what behaviour is because the person simply is who they are. I'm thinking of children who are adopted and absorb many of the characteristics of their families but still have that unknown equation that they bring to the table.

    Jodie Esch

  3. Shereen, your cats sound fascinating. A whole sociology study all by themselves.
    I would actually have predicted they'd turn out the way they did: the one with a solid, stable background (the one you got as a kitten) would feel safe even if the catfood recipe changed or the litterbox got moved, while the one with the rocky start would need all the routine she could get, in order to feel secure in her world.

    Jodie, I'm intrigued by your take on having two Entrencheds or Overwhelmeds together! For the purposes of fiction, it would be a very interesting exercise to play with the fallout, depending on which character mix the writer chooses. Could be quite funny. Or quite tragic.

    Hm. I'm going to have to mull that over…

  4. It’s been a while since I watched Kinky Boots and I can’t remember the characters’ archetypes, but blending Noel’s personality types with master archetypes could help create some really dynamic characters.

    The Spunky Kid is one of my favorite heroine archetypes. From what I can see of Noer's personality types, Stephanie Plum in Janet Evanovich’s One for the Money series is a Learner, ready to throw herself into any situation, and often with hilarious results, and she seems to be pretty good about not making the same mistake twice.

    Lucy Moderatz (Sandra Bullock) in While You Were Sleeping is well Entrenched in her dead-end job and lonely life. Although she becomes caught up in a deception and plays along with it, she stays comfortably in her rut for most of the film while advising the hero of the story to dig himself out of his.

    Same archetype, two very different characters and, apparently, personality types.