Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Character Assasination

In addition to specific emails from students about directed studies or thesis advisement, or notes from the dean or department chair, I receive at least five emails a day from various divisions of the university general post office, discussing such things as possibilities for grants, informative lectures, notices of faculty appointments or promotions or publications. I am also, should the hundred miles separating my home from campus, open a program called Tommy Cam, which allows me to see an iconic statue of a Trojan warrior, seemingly fresh out of The Iliad, spoiling for a fight. These emails all carry the powerful combination of gravitas, pomposity, concern, and offerings of opportunities that will in some way or another add wisdom, useful information and/or clutter to any unused portions of my mind.

I also receive at least one and as many as ten Incident Reports, details of crimes committed on or about campus. These are all written in the distancing language of the objective police report in which victim was proceeding west on McClintok Avenue at 745 p.m. when accosted by two males approximately 20 years old, wearing gym sweats and stocking caps. These males--for they are rarely if ever females--either bear specific weapons such as knives, guns, or rebar strips, and demand property from victim. These reports are as objective as possible because of potential use as documents in trials when the marauding males "demand property" from the victim. The "property" is often revealed to be money, wallets, purses, cell phones, computers, watches.

Even though I know these crimes are real and have more than a casual effect on the psyche of the victim, the incidents seem remote, foreign, bordering on the unreal or imaginary.

Victims in fiction fare much better in that they are not rendered with such detachment or objectivity. These invented victims emerge off the page thanks to the details of their assault. It is far easier to commiserate with them than with the reallife victims wandering on and about the real university.

Conversely, there are many victims and "perps" who don't do as well because they are imprecisely and imperfectly rendered by authors who simply don't take the time to see them as individuals, rendering them in stead complete victims or evil incarnate. As a continuation of the admiration I've been expressing for Dennis Lehane, Richard Price, and George Pelecanos, I note that while each of them has some pretty unsavory sorts, they all appear as having some considerable dimension and layer or two of complexity as opposed to being a large blob of evil personified or such a hunk of unassailable virtue and integrity as to make Arthur wince even as he pulls Excalibur from out the rock.

The more the lines between good and evil are blurred the more the likelihood we will see the character as an individual, meaning less of an overt look at innocence or guilt, reliability or chaotic behavior. The overdrawn individuals, whether splendid examples of civic eclat or meanspiritedness squared or cubed, bear an unpleasing resemblance to the victims and perps on the police reports.

We want as characters individuals who bleed a bit, who have issues, problems, ambiguities, who can't remember the last line of a Steely Dan lyric or the payoff to a Wordsworth sonnet; who have onion breath or some quirk that will cause them to make a last minute rescue of defeat from the jaws of victory.

Too much bad makes a character seem like a Republican candidate or a visitation from an Aesop fable, while too much good makes them seem like Hugh Grant, sloughing his way through a movie shot on the cheap at Notting Hill. The so-called shorts or casual pieces in the beginning pages of The New Yorker go out of their way to represent individuals for the interesting individuality resident in them. At times, even they seem to belabor the handles as a convenient shorthand--but when they are right on, their subjects break into line ahead of the more ordinary sorts in our consciousness and our memory, almost as though it were being said that everyone in New York is colorful and interesting instead of rushed, cranky, and overwhelmed by noise.

Everyone who sets foot on stage has a goal, an expectation, an agenda, qualities that surround the character with an aura of attitude. The kid who delivers the pizza in your story wants a tip, sure, but knowing he's delivering the pizza to, say, Mike Nichols, he wants to impress Mike Nichols so much with his one line, Here's your pizza, Mr Nichols, that Nichols will cast him on the spot for a walk-on in his next film which will lead to the next plateau up on AFTRA scale in the next film, by which point the pizza delivery boy will have nailed down a role doing O'Neil's Hughie in summer stock, and it's a clean ride to the majors from there.

Why would Dustin Hoffman even think about doing Wily Loman when Lee J. Cobb so clearly owned it? The answer is the answer characters give in stories. Hoffman took the role because he is Hoffman, meaning he had something to give Loman that Cobb couldn't give. The reverse of this is seen in a splendid movie the first time out, Monte Walsh, rendered so well by Lee Marvin. Stunning story, slightly rewritten for the film, but still, memorable. Now comes the remake with, are you ready? Tom Sellick. How about Hugh Grant for threesies?

For the moment, we need to blur in our characters such things as good or bad or heroic or brave, layering instead the ironies of opposition, the details of squeeze and response.

Michael Chabon's detailed exegesis of Sherlock Holmes allows me to see how, at this late date, my sense of Holmes and Watson were nailed firmly into place by Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, a good enough combo for the earlier stages of my life. Today I'd want Albert Finney as Holmes and Peter O'Toole as Watson, just as, when a boy, I was thrilled beyond adventure with Errol Flynn as Robin Hood and Olivia De Haviland as Mariam, but look at the splendor available when Sean Connery reprises Robin as an aging, farting man and Audrey Hepburn shows wrinkles and vulnerability Olivia never dreamed of.

We need to look for the details that will give the proper sentiments and subtext to the words the characters say and think; if the characters do not say or think complex, conflicted things, human, realist things, we must set them going in situations where they cannot get out using a single dimension. This is what we are here for as writers and what we expect as readers.

No wonder Wolfe and I are so perfervid about our students reading and, of course, our own reading. The reading keeps us from seeing real people as flat people, from seeing flat people as real.


Anonymous said...

If used real people for characters, and then discovered that the characters aren't those people. They do something else. On a good day it makes everybody more real.

lowenkopf said...

You've just given me a trope for tomorrow or soon, the fact that characters don't earn their keep until they surprise their creator. For which I thank you.

Anonymous said...

Ah, well, I suppose you've realized that I meant to type "I've used..." not "If Used..." in my above comment. I really do proof things. Eventually.

But you're welcome. You've given me so much to think about, I'm pass on a trope.