The Need for a Sparring Partner- Part 1

In ancient times when  warriors wanted to increase their skill in combat, they would spar with other skilled warriors. These duels were intense and pushed both combatants to their limits. Warriors spent hours every day engaged in these duels, and their skill and strength increased because of it.

A warrior who did not spar was a man whose days were numbered. It didn’t matter if he was incredibly skilled, failure to practice regularly with others of skill meant it was only a matter of time before he met his match or superior in a real fight and was killed.

This concept of a good “sparring partner” is hugely important when creating a main character. It can be the difference between a relate-able character that is continually growing, or, a character that is always superior and stagnant because they are never pushed. Lasting characters often last because they never stop getting better.

Wise people in real life know that they need to grow. So, they surround themselves with people who engage their minds, push their limits in knowledge, and test their virtues and social skills. Iron sharpening iron, so to speak.

Characters are based off of real life experiences. I think this is why characters that are sixteen levels above anyone else in the movie feel so boring. They are never stimulated, they are always the smartest person in the room, and they are never thrown off their game or forced to become better.

A great example of this is Aurora Teagarden (Candace Cameron Bure) in the original movie series Aurora Teagarden  on Hallmark Movies and Mysteries.


Aurora is a smart librarian with a knack for solving murders. She is always mentally one step ahead of everyone around her. In her first two movies Aurora may face a bit of resistance in solving the murders, but it’s often due to police red tape or other people’s failures.

Aurora also can’t seem to find a significant other to stick around. Sure, the pastor from the Aurora Teagarden: A Bone to Pick and the author from Real Murders were nice guys. Both men adored her and yet they did nothing to add to her character or grow her. They were “yes” men who told her how smart and gorgeous she was, but they never challenged her.

I love these mystery series, I really do, but I always felt that this particular series was missing something. It didn’t hold water as well and there was clearly a strong flavor that the story lacked.

Lucky for everybody, the writers figured out what flavor they needed to add in, and it came in the form of Martin (Yannick Bisson) in the third installment: Three Bedrooms, One Corpse.


Martin as a character totally threw Aurora for a loop. He could say one thing and catch her off guard. While he deeply admired her brilliance and her beauty, he was not intimidated by her. He remained mysterious and didn’t hand over information to her just because she batted her eyelashes.

Aurora T

Aurora was forced to operate at a whole new level in order to learn about Martin and prove whether or not he was the murder suspect. In the sparring of both wits and words, Martin proved to be her equal and occasionally her better; a fact that only caused her to step up her game.

Providing Aurora with an excellent sparring partner evened her character out, made her more realistic (she’s not a goddess, she’s human), and added great interest to her story. The third installment of the Aurora Teagarden movies was by far the best and moved this series up in my favorites list, previously it had been my least favorite original mystery movie series on Hallmark Movies and Mysteries.

We were even treated to a preview of the next Aurora Teagarden installment, and lo and behold, guess who the writers decided to hang onto? That’s right, Martin.

Finally! Aurora has met her match and everyone knows it. The missing flavor has been added, and our heroine has found a sparring partner.

Sparring partners can come in many different shapes and forms. Sometimes they are allies, and sometimes they are enemies. There are even cases when setting or circumstances can fill provide the role of the sparring partner.

Still, I always enjoy a human touch to the role of a sparring partner. Particularly when it is an ally who challenges the hero to become better.

It is always encouraging to me see examples of two characters pushing each other to greater heights. I love these character pairings because I strive for this kind of great interaction in my own life.

Join me Friday for Part 2, when I will point out and discuss some iconic film/TV pairings that are examples of excellent sparring partners.



Keeping the Voice Authentic: Spirit

Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron is a movie about a wild stallion who finds himself taken into captivity by humans. Spirit’s primary objective in the film is to regain his freedom and return home to his wild herd.

It’s a magnificent movie on so many levels. The story is beautiful and unique. The characters are deeply engaging. The music grabs your soul and will not let go. Spirit is a character that stirs the deepest parts of you and makes you want to stand up and fight. This was one of my favorite childhood films for all of these reasons.

But looking at this film as an adult, I can now appreciate it at a whole new level. Watching it again, I noticed something that I had instinctively felt as a child, but could never put into words.

Spirit is a movie about a horse, told with the voice of a horse.

In every story there is a primary voice that is telling the tale. This voice can take on many forms, and it can come from any character; but it is this voice that filters every single detail in any story. It is this voice that will lead you-the viewer- in knowing how to think and how to feel. This voice determines the message of the story. Without a clear voice, a story will feel limp and useless because it lacks direction and a strong foundation.

Spirit did so many things right on every level of cinematic storytelling. Why? Because the voice in Spirit was authentic and spoken through every single detail of the movie. Here are some specific examples of how the voice in Spirit was made authentic.

Body Language

Horses communicate via body language. Ears forward=alert. Ears laid back flat= aggressive, etc. Snorts, whinnies, stamping; all of these communicate different thoughts, emotions, and instincts being expressed.

Spirit was a movie where a horse was the primary character. We saw the world through Spirit’s eyes; in order to put ourselves into his hooves we had to understand communication the way he did.

Spirit made use of every body movement and sound that horses make. We clearly understand what all of the horse characters were thinking and feeling even though very few of us naturally speak “horse”. Not a single horse character ever spoke words, thank goodness, or this whole movie would have felt cheesy and stupid. No, in order to live and breath this story we didn’t need the horses to speak our language, we needed to be able to understand theirs.

Narration Via Spirit’s Inner Dialogue

Even though so much was communicated through the horses’ body language, we still needed some sort of narration to happen in order to bring us through the story. Given that Spirit himself is the one telling his story, it would make sense for him to do the narrating.

They could have done this where Spirit chimed in with a comment every few seconds, or told us the story from start to finish while we merely watched the motions. Both ways would have made this movie less than it was.

The way the filmmakers chose was incredibly brilliant. Our narration was Spirit’s inner dialogue, his thoughts so to speak. His impression of a situation, his instinctive reactions to things, etc. This put us inside of Spirit’s head and heart in a way that no other narration could have done.

These thoughts had to be clear enough for us to follow them, but it was vital that they stay as true as possible to the authentic “horse” voice. The writers did this in multiple ways.

  • Spirit never uses proper nouns. The one time he uses a specific name for someone is when he is referencing the term the soldiers use for his Indian friend, Little Creek. Instead of using specific terms, Spirit uses vague generalities. They, he, him, her, she, I. We always know of whom he is speaking, but he never calls them by name, that is reserved for the human characters of this story. While horses do understand commands and recognize differences in people and other animals, I don’t imagine that they think of those people by name. It’s more about how those people smell, sound, and feel. It’s more about visceral things than intellectual categorizing. Spirit takes in his world in a vaguer way, trying to understand it, but he doesn’t intellectualize it.
  • Spirit doesn’t narrate all of the time. There are very long sequences when all of his communication happens with his actions; again, he is speaking as a real horse would. This puts us into the mind of an animal instead of a human mind. Human minds have a constant running dialogue. Spirit’s mind is more instinctive, and physical. He doesn’t have five million little details running amok in his brain. His one driving force and thought for most of this movie is to regain his freedom.
  • Spirit’s thoughts are never connected to his mouth. If this were a movie with a “talking horse” it would have been utterly cheesy and failed in delivering authenticity. Yes, we do know what Spirit is thinking, but it is almost as if his mind is a separate entity from his body. We are in the first-person perspective of this horse. We feel what he feels, we want what he wants, we struggle when he struggles. And we do it the way he does it, as a horse. Yes, a horse with heightened emotions and soul, but still a horse.


The sounds of this movie are very gritty and earthy. I mentioned above how much of the story is told through the horses’ body language. That body language makes a lot of noise. Stamping, chomping, snorting, running with hooves on the ground, whinnies, nickers, shrieks, we hear it all as if we were there experiencing it firsthand.

The sounds of this movie are very natural, after all, it’s a horse’s world we are entering. The sounds of the military fort feel unnatural. The marching of iron-shod hoof beats in formation feel strange compared to the more random fall of hooves for a wild herd of horses. There are whips cracking, the shouting out of military drills, and bugles. And then when Spirit is tied to the post for three days there is an eerie and still the silence in the night.

The wind whooshes, the water roars, the eagle shrieks high up in the mountain air. The bison snort, a mountain lion roars. The thunder of pounding hooves raises your heartbeat. You are a part of this story, body and soul. You hear it as if it were happening around you, your heart becomes connected to this land, this place on a sensory level, exactly how Spirit feels.

I hear the wind, call my name

The sound that leads me home again

It sparks up the fire- a flame that still burns

To you, I will always return….

….You run like the river-you shine like the sun

You fly like an eagle

You are the one

I’ve seen every sunset

And with all that I’ve learned

Oh, it’s to you, I will always return


Bryan Adams and Hans Zimmer delivered on this movie. The music reaches that wild part of your soul and pulls you into Spirit’s soul. The music is also an excellent part of the narration, almost as if Spirit’s soul had created a soundtrack that put words and melodies to the deepest instincts of his heart.


The Setting Is A Part of Spirit’s Character

Spirit is a wild horse that lives in the vast West. The landscape is as much a part of who he is as his organs. He is the wind, the sky, the grasses, the rolling hills. He is the eagle that flies free. He does fly at the end of the movie when he makes his fantastic leap for freedom.

Spirit is the fierce and rushing water, and the gentle warmth of the afternoon sunshine. He’s the cold snow, the fire, he’s all of it. This is his world that he interacts with on a very personal level. It reflects him and this journey that he is on.

Humans rarely interact with an outdoor setting like this, but this is a wild horse’s world. We needed to understand and interact with that world as Spirit did in order to understand him. We needed to love and depend upon this wild place the same way he does. This world is in his blood, and by the end of the movie, it’s in ours as well.


I have not come across another movie quite like this one. It is unique and authentic. This movie made in impression on my soul like few others have. I used to ache for wide open spaces and dream in my sleep about running across hills and mountains. I understand Spirit’s desires so well because they were like some of my own. When I watched this film, I fully entered into Spirit’s character. I became him for a time.

That is the power of an authentic voice. You can communicate so well with your audience that they feel they have become a part of your story/character/world. This is powerful way to connect and communicate.

If you are a storyteller, find the voice that will communicate your message the clearest. Use that voice to filter every aspect of your story, doing so will bind your story together tightly and deliver a powerful impact.

If you are a viewer, look for the voice in the stories you love to watch. Seek out the voices that have spoken the most deeply to you and dig deeper. You will be amazed at what you learn about yourself.

I am so thrilled that I was able to share this post with you. This is a subject and movie dear to my heart. I hope this post can touch you as well.

You too have a voice, how are you using it to tell your story?