Friday, September 12, 2008

The Character-driven Story Writ Large

Having gone through the emotion-and-thought-linked process recently of electing the character Omar, late of The Wire, to my pantheon of favorite characters, then ratifying his nomination, I turn now to another favorite, in many ways inherent in Omar, but so completely representative of what a character should be that he deserves canonization among those of us who seek to tell stories.

I speak of Wile E. Coyote, the very mention of whom conveys in a single image his landscape and his immediate goal, the androgynous Road Runner. Said Mr. Coyote is the Darwinian result of Brer Fox, Road Runner is the morph of Brer Rabbit. Wile E. Coyote's purpose, dinner, is the driving force of the relationship. Coyote's focus is and properly should be emblematic for the writer; Coyote's thoughts are always on ways to tick, trap, capture, and cook Road Runner. Nothing else matters as much, not even awareness of one of the basic laws of gravity, which speaks to the behavior of an object in motion. Coyote, when not stealthily skulking about the mesas and arroyos of his terrain, is in motion--in motion in pursuit of Road Runner. You might say he is so in motion while in pursuit that he fails to stop at boundaries you and I would heed.

Thus do the adventures of Wile E. Coyote serve as a cautionary tale for writers, particularly in regard to observing boundaries. One of our frequent visions of Wile E. Coyote is of him mid air, having overrun the boundary of a mesa, failing in the process to note the acute angle of escarpment on which he once trod. We have all, thanks to our nature of taking risks in life and in the life of our craft, taken such risk. Now we find ourself in mid flight, with nowhere to go but down. We watch the screen antics of Coyote, doomed to another fall, awaiting the thunk of reality as he strikes the ground, once again having overreached, overrun, indulged the Becketian model of failing again, now about to further indulge the Becket admonition to fail again, only this time to fail better.

Truly, Wile E. Coyote is of Becket in his inventiveness of some newer device whereby he may undertake to trap Road Runner. It is instructive to watch a few of Coyote's misadventures on YouTube; these serve to demonstrate his unflagging desire, his frequent descent (literal and figurative) into humiliation, because that is his reward for his efforts. Our reward as writers for watching him is the relief that this time the humiliation is his and not ours, the unspoken wish that we had a goal as clear-cut as his, and the unflagging determination necessary to go forth--and fail again.

Watching enough Wile E. Coyote stories will acquaint you with another lovely story element in the form of The Acme Company, that grand organization from which Wile E. Coyote is able to chose products to aid him in his quest. It would be too easy to substitute company names such as Blackwater or Boeing or their like or even various universities, thinking in the process ha ha, bureaucracy. The fact of The Acme Company as supplier of the Wile E Coyote tool kit speaks to another important aspect of setting characters loose in a landscape--rules. As conventions do in our real life, stories must have rules. The Wile E. Coyote--Road Runner Rules become clear after watching a few episodes. Wile E. Coyote must never catch nor harm Road Runner. Wile E. Coyote is invariably humiliated but always because of things he has done.

It becomes easier to watch and understand Becket after digesting Wile E. Coyote, but it also becomes easier to watch and understand Shakespeare and Johnson and Marlowe indeed even their illustrious forebear, G. Chaucer.

How many of our characters are able to compete with the cartoon landscape of Wile E. Coyote, where even the thought of them evokes their terrain and at least one other character with whom they relate emerge with such--dare I say it?--dramatic clarity?


Anonymous said...

Maybe my dramatic clarity gets lost in that puff of smoke Road Runner leaves behind.

Querulous Squirrel said...

Ah, yes, the puff of smoke! Just accentuating the speed and excitement of the chase. First he's here and then, poof!

I love that you can pair Wile E. Coyote with Marlowe and Shakespeare. It's so clear and that high brow/low brow juxtaposition is one of the aspects that sets your writing musings so far above the pretentious pedantics of all of your fellow writing book writers that really, over time, just sound like they were written in the same boring voice by the same person. Shame on writers for being so boring while teaching writing. No one can ever accuse you of that. Wile E. Coyote, indeed. Just the name!

dennis said...

Dennis love Wile E. Coyote.