Thursday, August 7, 2008

It's Eleven O'clock--Do You Know Where Your Characters Are?

A significant and often disappointing problem arising from using real people as characters is the discovery that they don't go far enough, are not as perfervid in their goals and attitudes as you want to generate dramatic traction with some tension to it.

This realization does not speak well for many about us; in constructing a character, we need to borrow from a number of sources in order to get the critical mass of an individual we can use in a story. Some time back, when I was still taking assignments to write in the old Nick Carter series, I though for the sake of fun to introduce a character modeled after my then department chairman. After a few scenes with this individual, it came to me that his fictional dealings with the fictional Nick Carter were pretty much of a piece with his real dealings with me. There was no way around it. If he were to become a worthy adversary for Nick Carter, I'd have to toughen him up a bit, invest him with stronger, clearer goals and the determination to accomplish them. In real life this individual was heard to say, No one gets his master's degree without publishing at least one poem. To a graduate student, particularly one with a specialty in film or drama or nonfiction, that might sound a bit daunting, but it is difficult to imagine most Nick Carter readers feeling anything like an unearthly trickle coursing up (if it were fear related) or down (if it were sexually inspired) his spine and so accordingly, in anticipation of future royalty payments, my character sneered openly at the lack of poetic discourse and language, used the sprung rhythm of Gerard Manley Hopkins as a vehicle for delivering his espionage information at poetry readings, not caring a fig should innocent lives be lost as a result of poetry.

Even a recurring character I strongly relate to as me has needed certain twitching and the occasional short circuit in moral wiring, this done in recognition that even as writers, we all of us want characters who are the literary equivalents of weight-bearing walls.

This opens two doors for investigation and absorption into the writerly psyche:

1) Characters should at all times have the capacity to surprise the reader, the writer, and some if not all the characters in a particular venture. When we are able to predict outcomes, we tend to skip ahead--I believe--to the parts where outcome is not so certain. One of the reasons we stay on is to see if we'd been correct, yet another reason is due to the suspicion that we were not. The name for this condition has been called suspense.

2) Writers need the strengthening exercise of being as much like characters as they can, which is not to say one-dimensional and certainly not derivative, both of which are neither genuine nor growth oriented. There, indeed, is the answer: a writer needs to keep pushing at as many of the available boundaries as possible, at all times. To put it another way, a character needs to be larger than life; so does a writer, taking sustenance from the surprise factor resident within but just as certainly taking nourishment from without.

In thanks, I've gratefully taken sustenance from Marta, who signs her blog Writing in the Water, and from Matt Cahill, each of whom you'll find listed in the Friendly Neighborhoods column. From Marta the reminder of the need to surprise myself and all I write about. From Matt, after a chat about the nature of satire, the decision to drop a satiric bomb framed on Rev. Smith's A Modest Proposal in which I suggest with professorial solemnity that the world is in such delicate states now in so many ways that we need more time to cope with them. Accordingly, I'm suggesting a world-wide cutback in holidays. If each major religion gave up one holiday, we'd have the time to devote to solutions rather than indulging ritual celebrations. I will propose that Christianity give up Easter, which makes it seem natural for Judaism to toss Passover into the pot; the Muslims could scratch Ramadan, the Hindus could easily spare Durga Puja, and on one day a year, secular humanists could give up either soccer or baseball. I could not hope to duplicate the uproar over The New Yorker cover of recent infamy, and the Rev. Swift has not been with us for a long time, giving him as it were opportunities to pick up readers. But what the hell, shoot high; aim for the stars. Aim for the characters you dare to create.


Anonymous said...

Love the idea of giving up a holiday. I can be captivated by ritual as much as the next soul, but captivated is not always good--as any captive ought to know.

Maybe for starters we could trade holidays...

lowenkopf said...

I'll trade you a Presidents' Day and a Hanukkah for a MLK Day and an Easter.

Matt said...

Happy to provide sustenance, any day. Consider us the "all-day-breakfast diners" of lit blogs.