Character as our Way into Story: A Gilmore Girls Case Study

From book coach Lana Storey:

Gilmore Girls got a lot of attention at the end of 2016 with its Netflix revival in November. But I want to take a minute to talk about the original series and how watching it at two different times in my life helped me understand how character really does function as our way into a story.

In her book, Story Genius, Lisa Cron writes that the protagonist is the reader’s “avatar,” or “the portal through which we enter the novel. Remember, when we’re lost in a story, we’re not passively reading about something that’s happening to someone else. We’re actively experiencing it on a neural level as if it were happening to us. We are – literally – making the protagonist’s experience our own” (p. 55).

Gilmore Girls first aired in 2000. I was 15, lived in a small town, and went to high school. Rory Gilmore was 16, lived in a small town, and went to high school. As far as I was concerned, the show was about Rory: her friend problems and boy problems and school problems and big ambitions. Her mother, Lorelai, was there only as a peripheral character. She talked faster and was quirkier and knew more about pop culture than any mom I knew in real life, but she was still just Rory’s mom. She had no real storyline or emotions or interests of her own, at least none that I could see.

Fast-forward 16 years to 2016. I’m 31, a busy mom of a daughter, and I start rewatching episodes from the first season. It dawns on me very quickly: Lorelai is 32. Lorelai is a busy mom of a daughter. Lorelai still talks really fast and is quirky and knows about pop culture but now I see she has work problems and guy problems and a complicated relationship with her parents. Lorelai has an entire storyline, personality, and life I never noticed before. I see that I’m not Rory anymore; I’m Lorelai.

After getting over the minor identity crisis that came when I realized sixteen years had passed in the blink of an eye and I was no longer the teenage character but the mom, finally I understood that the show really is about the Gilmore Girlsgirls, plural. It seems so obvious now, but back then I had become Rory so completely that I couldn’t step back enough to think about the concerns of the other characters. Now, with the benefit of perspective and a little help from Story Genius, I see exactly how important character is as our way into a story. Not only do we identify with the protagonist; we become that protagonist. I’ll never write my characters the same way again.

Have you ever had the experience of returning to a story years later and finding that you identify with a completely different character? Finding that your old way into the story is closed to you, but a new portal has opened, one you didn’t even notice the first time?