Monday, April 7, 2008

Dramatic Darwinism

Over the past several days, I've given considerable thought to the kind of locale I distinguish from mere setting or place or even physical description. I call it landscape, which may also be an historical era, an actual event such as a war or disaster or performance or celebration; it is a combination of presence, time, dimension, and context. Yes, context, as it an attitude about what the time, place, people, and attitudes meant to them and to me writing about it in the now.

Or is the now just as bound by suspicion as the deconstructionist notion of text?

We put forth a good deal of time thinking about such basics as characters, scenes, story arc, conflict, and yes, even those vital reversals of fortune that make it seem as though the characters will once again be denied what they want. We spend little time developing the landscape on which these elements will be played out or, to use a painterly metaphor, the texture of the medium on which the story will be painted.

Stop dithering, Mr. Dickens. Was it the best of times or was it the worst?

Landscape is the sum total of tools you bring to the job, the canvas or wall or paper or cardboard; it is the pencil or charcoal, the brush or pen or the palette knife; it is the width and intensity of your strokes and the smoothness or texture of your background.

Without this sense of you having taken over the landscape, there is no sense of you inhabiting the story. I knew there was a message waiting for me in my sense of nostalgia for the Coconino County of the George Herriman comic strip, Krazy Kat, just as I feel somehow more secure knowing Wile E. Coyote chases Roadrunner through the same kinds of terrain, just as I am comfortable with the moors in Jane Eyre and the parched, withering setting of William Faulkner's make-believe county in Mississippi.

Setting is the place where we let our guard down, thinking we'll throw in a weather report and a Rand McNally Atlas description somewhere to demonstrate how well we describe. Except that it isn't at all about description, it is about taking over the setting, where and whenever it is and making it as much ours as we have made the characters ours.

Somewhere out "there" in the imagination is a place where we are tempted to bring our characters, put on a show in the garage, charge admission, become dramatic entrepreneurs of the highest order. We have to feel our way through this landscape until we respond to it in some tangible, emotional way because it is as much a part of the story as what the characters in the story want. Brer Fox wants Brer Rabbit; Wile E. Coyote wants The Road Runner, in both cases for dinner. The characters in Mrs. Wharton's New York stories want something, too; they want status quo, which means we have to see what the status is in order to appreciate what the quo means and, in Mrs. Wharton's case, to whom it has meaning. Her stories would be notably different in Coconino County, Arizona.

An overweight person, taking a second chicken drumstick on is plate, is living in a different landscape than Oliver Twist wanting more oatmeal. The former produces a kind of wry humor, the latter produces pathos.

Landscape has as much personality and rules of behavior as characters who exist in different social strata. The way characters speak to one another and to those out of their social strata define one kind of landscape; the way characters behave in select venues is our clue to how comfortable or uncomfortable they are, how entitled or servile they are at heart. Thus the Marxism of speech and place--how characters talk and behave--in direct comparison and contrast to what they want and what they think of themselves.

A narrative Darwinism inheres in all stories; we enhance this survival of the fittest by recognizing how characters react to and behave in the most rigorous and stratified terrain of all, the landscape of the writer's mind.


R.L. Bourges said...

do you mean a sort of mental ecological system? one that shapes the characters reactions to time and place?

lowenkopf said...

Lee: Exactly. It is a kind of vibrating awareness, a noise or warning, if you will, that alerts them to the zeitgeist and all its clangorous issues.