Friday, October 3, 2008

Lines in the Sand

If they are to have any chance of being seen as plausible and realistic, characters must project two sets of boundaries, the internal ones which represent to them moral choices and stances they have made or taken, and the external ones in which they define their landscape, the intimacy they will share with others, the closeness they invite from others.

As readers, we have an acquired sense of the inner and outer boundaries of our favorite characters: where they draw the line, and indeed, places in their landscape where there are no lines drawn. We even have a sense of boundaries in characters such as Hamlet, who seem ambiguous, or Don Quixote, whose behavior informs the word quixotic. Much of our sense of human behavior is drawn from our observation of characters, but there is, of course, an on-going supplement from our experience with the individuals we encounter in our non-reading, non-writing lives. You could even visualize, in a map-reading term more recently made famous by Bill Clinton, a triangulation of sources by which boundaries are formed and set into effect.

The difficult part for writers comes with the realization that characters of their own creation not only need to have these inner and outer boundaries established, they as well must experience the inertia for forcing these characters to the limits of their boundaries, then pushing them over the line. Put in another, more formulaic way, writers must experience intellectually and emotionally the truth that dramatic writing is the unthinkable come to pass.

Actors tend to discover the relative ease with which they may carry a role of character unlike their own self well over the boundary marker, while finding difficulty in separating their own boundaries from those of characters they see as being similar in nature or agenda.

Writers who have yet to integrate this construct of dramatic unthinkableness within their creative toolkit tend to portray certain characters as extremes of good or extremes of evil. In worst-case situations, writers will portray extremes of evil, for instance, with a handy trait of loving small animals or helping old ladies across the traffic-laden intersection, and perhaps portraying extremes of virtue with an overly indulgent taste for Reese peanut butter cups.

With the construct of the unthinkable in the toolkit, the writer begins to see another way of looking at the character, not of good or evil, right or wrong, or any of the other pairs of opposites we use as a shorthand to define human behavior, but rather as a line drawn in the surface of a landscape. The landscape may be hardscrabble soil, a broadloom carpet, or a tongue-and-groove wooden flooring, depending on the persona of the character. But there is a line beyond which he or she will not move. Now, get us there, and show us the effect it has on the character.

The goal of dramatic writing is not to demonstrate the frailty of the human race because that has been demonstrated in ample measure by the events of history and by our individual recollections of self and family and friends and others we are able to observe. Nor is the goal of dramatic writing necessarily a cynical one--not unless you chose to make it so. The goal is to replicate the diverse nature of the individual, struggling against component warring factions to effect a dignified presence. Some of us writers may see the enemy as the Culture, which can be taken to mean any conventional system, Church, State, Family, Clan, School, Political Party. Others in our midst may see the enemy as the Balkanized Self, the warring factions resident within the body, struggling for a sensible order in which there may be some consistent plan rather than stealthy inward Pearl Harbors. palace coups, or uncontrolled buying binges.


Think about it.


Kate Lord Brown said...

I really do adhere to 'method' writing - maybe crossing over between acting and writing, sinking deep into the character and fluid psyche of each creation. Each of us are a bundle of personalities in one skin - perhaps with writers and artists the changes run a little like quicksilver, faster and deeper. Some actor (Michael Caine?) once said everyone thinks they are in the right because they know their own good bits - and that if you portray the bad aspects of someone they never recognise themselves - maybe to them it is unthinkable.

lowenkopf said...

KLB--I'm with you on the method. Every character believes he is right. Thus the origins of conflict,confusion, and their gross national product, humor.

Wild Iris said...

Stripping the comfort zone, and seeking the response... isn't that what our boundaries are established for, our security and comfort. People/characters can do phenomenally outrageous things when those two factors are pulled out from under their feet, and readers are fascinated to know how it affects the inner character.

Anonymous said...

I'm thinking. Now if only I could put those thoughts to use...

Anonymous said...

I like the place in a story where someone's internal boundary comes up against an external violation- what will the character do? Back away? Pretend not to notice? Or challenge the violation? How long will it take to decide? Years? an instant? Never, or at least, not yet?