Tuesday, July 22, 2008


Who are they?

What do they want?

What are they willing to do to get what they want?

How will they behave if they get what they want?

How will they behave if they don't get what they want?

Depending on the venue, whether an up-scale restaurant in mid-town Manhattan, a raucous rock club on Sunset Strip, there are gate keepers everywhere, head waiters as it were who keep the list; they determine who gets it. These questions are also gate keepers. They determine who gets into your story. You might think good looks or having been around the block a few times will get you past them, beyond the thick red rope that symbolically cuts those from the outside off from those who are already in, being served.

I speak of your characters, those individuals who are agenda-driven even though you and your story may well not be plot driven. Thing is, some of them will lie, even to you, wanting to get in. They'll lie about such things as age, employment, experience, marital status--they'll even lie about having criminal records or mercilessly pad their resume or curriculum vitae.

Further thing is, they can't always tell when they are being, shall we say ,inventive? They so desperately want something that they are willing to invent something in their background to make them seem more, shall we say, deserving?

Oh, the perfidious nature of some individuals. She told me she was over the age of consent. He told me he knew exactly what he was doing. She said she was using birth control. He said he'd never been indicted for anything. They seemed such a lovely couple. He said--

No, it isnt a lecture about the cynical nature of human affairs it is an acceptance of the forces and pressures brought to bear on even individuals you make up from whole cloth, although even that can be brought into question: Do we ever invent someone from the literary equivalent of the primordial ooze? Don't we instead riffle through the pages until we arrive at an individual who fits perfectly the whole created by the story, those free radicals floating about, waiting for a landing site in our narrative.
What does that kid delivering the pizza want? He wants a tip, he wants not to be scammed, he wants to get back to the shop for another delivery and another tip, he is thinking two maybe three more deliveries and he can get back to some time with the girl friend for perhaps another kind of delivery. Or he is running his lines for a rehearsal or a cattle call tomorrow because pizza delivery persons notoriously do not find this labor a lifetime occupation.

Ah, but I saw this guy, this really interesting guy who had such a cool way about him and I thought I'd write him in this story, see maybe if he didn't add a little spice to it. Good enough, provided we see him being accused of trying to add some spice into a situation that does not require any more spice, thank you, because it is already spicy enough, thank you, what with the IRS breathing down my neck, threatening audit. Or maybe his girlfriend is saying Okay, that tears it; you're too bland for my tastes, and maybe he says Okay, you're so crazy about spice, try this! and he starts tossing the furniture around and she says, Well, yeah, that gives me some wonderful ideas to try out on those overturned La-z-boys.

So they have to earn their keep, every one of them, and in some cases only in a word or two because you don't want to be seen as trying to turn everything into a War and Peace or a From Here to Eternity, you simply want to be seen as a compassionate conservative so far as they, your characters, are concerned, which is to say you don't give any of them welfare checks, they've got to, you know, work.

Don't get me wrong; story is a necessity, at least, some semblance of story needs to be there, but the real doing, the Al Gore call to get a handle on the ecology, it comes forth when the characters start doing things that give readers a sense that although they know what kind of person this character is, nevertheless this character can concoct some surprise, whip up some energy.

So for starters, you have to start with these individuals wanting something, wanting it the way you want something enough to render it onto the page or the computer screen. If what they want is too easy, you have to cope with that somewhere along the way, beyond Horatio Alger and rolling up the sleeves and going to damned work and making a big mess of a success to clean up, and you stay away from the more obvious cliches.

It is not comfortable in there with a room full of them, wanting things, maybe even things from each other, maybe trying to offer you a bribe, maybe wanting to see what it would be like to have sex with one of the other characters, which to your complete discomfort gets you feeling like an overly protective mother or father, lecturing your characters instead of your kids about how at its best sex is an exploration conducted by two individuals who want to know one another better and demonstrate the affection they feel, causing you to realize your own relationship to these characters and how they do after all embody aspects of your attitude.

And you, did you think it was easy, having to be all of them, all at once? No wonder you're so gloriously tired at the end of a good day, a day of a few thousand words of people wanting things, being willing to go to great lengths for them. It's all you can do to wait for the next day, to see what they want now.


Wild Iris said...

There are those that are the same characters as before that have dyed their hair, changed their names, and try to masquerade as someone different, but inevitably they can not help but act in ways that befit their nature. In some cases recycled characters are great, but much better are the ones that evolve from one story to the next.

x said...

Hmm. An unreliable narrator who is also a character telling the reader about his buddies the compulsive liar and the charlatan. All three wearing wigs. But lying about it.

Kelli Anne said...

oh my god. now i know why i come home so exhausted everyday. thank you for this blog entry.