Saturday, April 12, 2008

The Endless Gyre of Character.

After last evening's work-through on character and how individuals with agendas produce story, some thoughts arrive about how characters internalize and externalize their individual agendas. One such manner is in what they say to one another and, appropriately enough, what they don't say.


Dialog is not conversation, it is the dramatic equivalent of lasik surgery; it has a sharp, intense edge. In many ways, dialog is the core sampling of a scene, subjecting characters to intense scrutiny by--you guessed it--each other and the reader. Dialog is the DNA of a particular person, a simultaneous indication of who that person is, what that person wants, what that person thinks of other persons, what that person thinks of himself. After a few pages in which to grow acquainted with the ensemble of dramatis personae, the reader should be able to tell who's talking. The reader should be able to tell with little or no attribution.

Social, racial, biological strata are defined in fiction not by igneous or sedimentary deposits, neither by alluvial fans nor schist nor feldspar but rather by degrees of awareness of social custom, standing, ranking. In an early episode of The Wire, an up-and-coming young figure in the drug world, D'Angelo Barksdale, has brought a date to an upscale Baltimore restaurant where the clientele is pretty well integrated, which leads the date to the observation that if you have the money, you can pretty much go where you please. Barksdale wants to believe this but is clearly uncomfortable even though he is trying to appear cool. Toward the end of the meal, the waiter wheels a desert trolley to their table. The date wants chocolate cake which Barksdale, wanting to be accomplished and suave, picks up from the serving tray only to be told by the waiter, "Oh, sir, That's the display piece. Let me get that for you." Mortified, Barksdale allows the waiter to serve his date and declines anything for himself, a lovely core sampling of how the concept of manners, serving, and conventions differ from an upscale restaurant and, say, a corner eatery where the main dish is the chili dog.

How comfortable are "they" within a setting? How comfortable are "they" with others? What defects or secrets or insecurities are they trying to cover up or, conversely, exploit?

What makes us remember a character? It is not, I venture, physical description so much as it is how the individual uses or fails to use the physical hand we writers have dealt them, which brings me back to that memorable dramatic skit featuring Bette Davis and William Bendix as a more-than-middle-agd husband and wife. Bendix, in pants and undershirt, is reading the newspaper, content to let his wife do the cleaning and dusting, her hair done up in a towel to protect it from dirt. We begin to get the throughline of the skit when Bendix begins to order her away from the window and her implicit understanding of why. Bendix is convinced that some neighbor his looking at her and lusting after her, his sexual jealousy gradually mounting. The absurdity of anyone thinking this slattern sexually attractive is gradually replaced by the growing realization that this man is serious. To him, this woman is beautiful, sexually desirable ,and someone whose honor he cares about with as much passion as, say, Gawain and Arthur variously had feelings about Guinevere.

Imagine if you will the potential for expanding that segment to another scene in which the imaginary neighbor Bendix was jealous of appears on stage, trying to strike up a conversation with the Bette Davis character. Imagine him leaving anonymous gifts for her, flowers, boxes of candy, love poems. Suddenly a scene with a dynamic becomes expanded to a Georges Simenon novel where the behavior of characters is constantly pushed to that remarkable level where the unthinkable comes to pass.

We often hear the hype of chemistry between actors in plays and motion pictures, a chemistry that can certainly be exemplified by the one between Paul Newman and Robert Redford in Butch Cassidy and the Sun Dance Kid. This chemistry is something that trumps actual story, becomes a story of its own, with its own energy, making the landscape come to life in ways the set decorator never dreamed of, which is an apt analogy here because on this very day, in the Saturday workshop, one writer, a film set decorator, saw her novel come to a life she had not imagined because of the chemistry between characters she had not thought of as front rank.

No matter what the rank of the character, the understanding of this individual can be the key to the story shifting from that six-word-drivel of the Hemingway short story about the pair of baby shoes for sale, never used, to something of substance, as in the two waiters in the same author's short story, A Clean, Well-Lighted Place, and the one customer they're trying to get to go home, or the emotional wrench we feel at the tail end of Steinbeck's story, Chrysanthemums.

We need relevant, telling details of their life before we can give them one. Even the kid--if it is indeed a kid--or perhaps the elderly guy who delivers our pizza has something that makes him something more than the deliverer of pizza. There used to be a manager at Starbucks who had me returning to Starbucks even after I'd discovered Peet's coffee, just for a chance to get a few words with Tom, who had something that made him more than Starbucks' coffee.

Drill down past the core of all of them, get at the sedimentary rock, the poetry, the dreams, the urges, the taboos. Hold them to the spectrometer of your imagination and let the midnight special shine its ever lovin' light on them, to see how far you have come in your time on this relatively small ball that hurtles so relentlessly through space, returning in ways that Giambatista Vico and Gallaleo and Annie Proulx understand and you have yet to learn.


R.L. Bourges said...

Vico had it right: the truth is in the telling. Another old Jesuit once said to me: "Keep it simple". I've yet to manage to combine both of these injunctions into tales as simple - and as heart-wrenching - as those you mention here.
Votre texte est magnifique, monsieur Lowenkopf. Douloureux et magnifique.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for that encouragement Shelly. One can only hope that when all is said and done, the characters work so well together that they do some 'all day singing and dinner on the ground'.