Tuesday, October 16, 2007

In Character

Actors, even those of lesser talent, get a bad rap, almost as bad as lawyers, politicians, and used car salespersons.

Let me explain.

Almost without fail, at least once a semester, during a class break, a student or a deputation of students, will approach, wondering if I would talk a bit more about the differences between genre fiction and literary . After warning them about the inherent dangers of asking me to talk more, even a bit more, about anything, we wander back inside, Sally curls up in a corner, and off we go.

Unless an actor has arrived at the Meryl Streep, Al Pacino, Anthony Hopkins, Bob Hoskins, Susan Sarandon, Judy Dench, Roberts Deniro and Duval state in which they can pretty much chose who they will become next, an actor does not have the luxury of saying No, I don't do that. I don't do tragedy. I don't do violence. I don't do gratuitous inanity. Etc. Indeed, all those worthies I just mentioned have done that, which is to say something they were not at first blush crazy about but wanted the work.

One of the two persons I consider a mentor was an actor. When she spoke of exercises put upon her in workshops, she was quite clear about the teacher having seen through her reserves and accordingly crafting assignments to eliminate them. One such exercise was to board a Fifth Avenue bus, wearing a fur coat, at five in the afternoon, having nothing smaller than a twenty in her purse. Yet another was to pick a fight with a saleslady at Bergdorf Goodman, demand to see her superior, then pick a fight with that individual. Pretty well got me to where I could go on stage with Brando, she reported.

I don't do that. Four words that are not in an actor's tool kit.

Unfortunately, my explanation goes, those four words often inhere in the character's fanny pack, and thus the difference between genre fiction, which is essentially plot driven, and literary, which, however rigorous the plot, is essentially character driven .

This observation duly noted, the assembled students send forth another deputation wanting to know if genre fiction can ever be literary. To which I am able to quote one of the two or three speeches from which I have any claim to memory. (The other notable one being JFK's on his Catholic faith and his absolute belief in separation of church and state) "To me," William Faulkner said during his Nobel Prize acceptance, "the best fiction contains the agony of moral choice."

And there you have it. If your characters are not confronted with moral choice, chances are strong that they will remain shadowy, genre types. At the very least, they should be confronted with it in such a way as to make the reader aware of them having no slight clue of its presence, like the porter knocking at the gate in Macbeth.

A character is an actor waiting to happen. There is nothing an actor doesn't do. There should be nothing a character does not do. Accordingly I propose NCLB.

No character left behind.


R.L. Bourges said...

I've just spent more time trying to word my comment than I did reading your post - a sure sign that there's plenty for me to chew on here. In a nutshell? The Faulkner quote. And how to "do" the characters so that the moral choices are truly confounding.

ZS said...

I love Shelly. Unrelated to this post, but needed to be said.

x said...

This is a very fascinating post. I hope something like it is included in your writing book.