Thursday, August 21, 2008

ISO a Believable Character, Must Like Beach Walks

What is the first thing you notice about a person you are seeing for the first time?

What one thing about a character's first appearance in a novel or short story stays with you the longest?

What is the thing you most remember about a person you have just met?

Which thing about a character do you remember most vividly after being away from the story or novel for some time?

The answers to these four questions are of course varied from person to person, from reader to reader; indeed, the answers to these questions will vary from gender to gender, from age group to age group, but I believe we should all of us who presume to tell stories take these questions into consideration on some kind of personalized classification scale for use in our storytelling work so that we don't have to stop the story for a long paragraph or two or perhaps even three of description and background. In his somewhat overblown novel, The Return of the Native, Thomas Hardy has introduced one of his more prominent characters (of this novel and nearly all of his others) with a seven-page (count 'em) of Eustacia Vye, excessive by any account, but particularly in comparison with the introductory material accompanying the work of his contemporaries or near contemporaries. (Just for the sake of placement, Hardy is an excellent bridge in both theme and narrative between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Theodore Dreiser,1871--1945, who was alive and working during much of Hardy's life, 1840-1928, is in some remarkable ways an American version of Dreiser's fictional output. Both men were lavish with descriptive character flourish, both had what has come to be regarded as a rather plodding sense of narrative. Or if you prefer, William Dean Howells--1837--1920--who of the three was more stylistically agreeable.)

Back in the day, you could better get away with descriptive introduction of a person, although there were those--Flaubert, his disciple De Maupassant, Chekhov, Henry James, Joseph Conrad, to name a few--who were on the cutting edge of setting a new person into a narrative as though that person were a spring-driven toy, wound tightly and set off with some form of definitive action, which is to say what F. Scott Fitzgerald said in The Last Tycoon, "Action is character," by he meant that what a person does defines the person better than a mere physical description.

Today it is more likely that a character will be introduced in answer to one or more of the questions above, performing some defining action beyond mere thinking, employing such verbs as running, waiting, hiding, feeling lust or some other form of desire, responding directly to the call of some agenda in manner that will reappear later in the narrative in even more forceful demonstration.

Unless some other trait or quality trumps, I first notice the gender of a new arrival on the scene, followed by his or her place in the complex hierarchy of sexual viability, even to the point of having the introduction include "an atmosphere of sexuality surprisingly dominant in a [man/woman] of that age." It is not that I would not want to present younger readers with this information, indeed, if I thought it would interest them, I'd let it stand, which is to say that I'd think about it, underline it for reconsideration in subsequent revision, and whether I used it in the text or not, would allow it consciously to influence my sense of how that character will behave while on stage.

Actors trained in the Stanislavsky or Stanislavsky-related disciplines make these sorts of evaluations all the time in their attempts to portray a character; accordingly, they play a particular scene from the genital area, from the visceral area, or from the thoughtful/intellectual area. I've seen actors in workshop exercises literally shift the persona they project from either of these three areas, often without a word, merely with a look, a gesture, an expression, or a combination.

Remember also, an individual who is running from law enforcement agencies is looking at every stranger who appears in the doorway as a potential cop, characters with gay sexual orientation are looking at every stranger with "gaydar" to determine their orientation. Some individuals are looking to discern clues of social class.

They are all looking for something.

So, of course, are we.

Clues. Give-away gestures. The panache of presence or stature or...

Back to you and America's best political reporting team, Wolf.

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