Monday, March 5, 2007

Wile E. Coyote: a Modest-But-Sincere Proposal

Having just lurched in rapid succession through the angst of The Super Bowl, the awards rituals of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and the sure-thing (Philip Roth) uncertainty of the PEN/Faulkner Award, we are left for some few weeks at the doorstep of anxiety over the results of March Madness, the NCAA basketball championships.

It is not a bad thing to have champions, laureates, splendid performers--dare I say icons? In fact, I propose one of my own, if not for beatification then at least for tenure track. Seeing the title of this proposal, you will not be surprised to learn of my nomination of Wile E. Coyote. But, you ask, what are you nominating him for?
I nominate Wile E. Coyote for the post of patron saint, Jungian archetype, and role model of The Character in fiction. He is a splendid embodiment of everything a lead character is supposed to do--and not do. The rules of operation set forth by his creators, Looney Tunes, are worth taking to heart when creating characters.

For instance, there is Rule 2:
No outside force can harm the Coyote -- only his own ineptitude or the failure of Acme products. Acme products may work for other customers, but seem never to work for Wile E., who repeatedly risks life and limb counting on their effectiveness.

Another splendid rule:
Rule 3:  The Coyote could stop anytime--if he were not a fanatic.  ( "A fanatic is one who redoubles his effort when he has forgotten his aim." -- George Santayana.  Are you listening, Mr. President?) But Wile E. can't quit; he's certain that the next attempt is sure to succeed.
Rule 5 focuses on his counterpart, The Road Runner, who, we are told, must stay on the road. He is, after all, a road runner and roads are where road runners run, right?
Rule 6 sets the scene: All action must be confined to the natural environment of the two characters--the desert of the American southwest. Everything you need for a Wile E. Coyote--Road Runner story is right there: mesas (which have precipitous edges) winding roads, peaks, canyons, cacti, and boulders, all of which defy conventional physics.

Rule 7 is a lovely kind of neocon/Bush/Cheyney privatization scheme in that all tools, weapons, and mechanical contrivances must come from Halliburton, er, sorry, the Acme Corporation, a subliminal-but-effective plant that the system in which the characters exist is undermined with gopher holes of corruption.

Whenever possible, we are told in Rule 8, make gravity the Coyote's greatest enemy. Go forth and imagine your own characters running, as Wile E. does, past the rim of a mesa and out into space, whence he has no place to go but down. Make sure your own character has such a single-minded, nay, obsessive focus on his goal.

The Coyote, Rule 9 tells us, is always to be more humiliated than harmed by his failures, thus retaining the vital calculus of Rule 10 and, indeed, some of the basic tenets of Aristotelian Poetics which hold that our sympathies are with the protagonist.

It is his story, and although you could scarcely call the redoubtable Road Runner an antagonist, there would be no story were it not for Wile E. Coyote and his ongoing struggle for survival, starting with a decent meal.

Not only because of the setting does the saga of Wile E. Coyote remind me of my boyhood favorite comic, Krazy Kat, but because, set in this surreal-yet-plausible landscape, characters are driven by dreams, goals, urgent needs. The footing is slippery, steep, and sudden--and yes, I know alliteration is out of mode, even a distraction, but these three qualities define the mean streets spoken of by Raymond Chandler, and the entire package reminds up that when we write we need characters with goals in a setting that is less hospitable than it appears to be.

Rule 1 enjoins Road Runner from inflicting any harm on the Coyote, and allows him only the trash-talking equivalent of saying "Beep beep," which brings up Rule 4, no dialogue other than "Beep beep."

What works for a cartoon of this nature works for story if we take these observations, internalize them in the landscape of our own creativity, and watch the results.

No question about it, Wile E. Coyote is emblematic of many of those men and women who set forth on the quest or hero journey of their own devising. We ignore him and his message at our dramatic peril.

Good night, Chet.

Good night, David.

Beep beep.


Anonymous said...

Wow! Site looks great, Shelly. I'm thinking Leonard is still looking for Rule #10, however. Doc

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