Monday, January 26, 2009

Attitudes along the Margins

attitude--an emotional presence often coupled with a state of mind, resident in a writer and, subsequently, in characters, serving as a pole star for the writer and actor; the resident timbre of a story or portion of a story; the prevalent trait or personality in a story or character.

Attitude is like style; it happens as a result of choices made by the writer and, subsequently, by characters, reflecting an overall view of the circumstances in which characters find themselves, their approaches to coping with these circumstances, their regard for one another, and ultimately for themselves. Writers such as Jane Austen (1775-1817) and William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-63) showed their attitudes toward individual characters and the classes they represented through a narrative voice that was openly admiring, critical, or patronizing, yet each was able to engage readers without making the readers feel they were a target. In more recent years, W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) seemed to follow this path, using his narrative skills to take the reader into his confidence, the better to reveal the spectrum of human foibles to them through the prisms of his short stories and novels.

Attitude emerges from the writer's feelings and beliefs about a subject, whether the topic is political, sexual, or philosophy. One of the first things the reader notices in discovering attitude is the overall tone of presentation, followed by the behavior and relative flexibility or lack thereof among the characters. In some of his work, D. H. Lawrence emerges as if a schoolboy seated in the front row, waving his hand to get the teacher's eye because he, Lawrence, is so enthused by the information he wishes to present. Particularly in his short stories, Lawrence was so assured of his technique that his voice was more restrained, allowing the characters to step closer to the front of the stage.

A writer's preparation for executing a story could well begin with the writer checking in on the resident emotions that push the events of the story to the surface of the imagination. Begin with the notion that the story, however long or short, is like the toothpaste in a tube. The strength of the squeeze is directly related to the amount of toothpaste that comes forth. Attitude resides in the writer's grip: I'll show them, or This will amuse you, or I can't believe people still think this way, or I didn't realize what a good thing I had until I lost it, or...

marginal--a fictional or critical condition resident in a character or concept; a necessary condition of a person or idea to convey the distance from mainstream; the distance from the statistical mean occupied by a character or concept.

Marginal characters are highly provocative of story; they may take on agendas that will further remove them from the mainstream or nurse some desire to move closer to it; they may provoke envy or discomfort among those in the mainstream. Marginal ideas are equally fecund; ideas seen as conventional wisdom become threats or shibboleths to be accordingly shunned or promulgated. Many of the characters of literary and genre fiction began as marginal; some gravitated to the ironic conclusion of mainstream, others continued to enhance their marginality. A diverse array of historical and contemporary fiction address the existential condition of marginality, The Swiss Family Robinson, for instance or Robinson Crusoe serving to represent enforced separations from the mainstream, The Lord of the Flies represents quite another result as mainstream characters shift away from their societal armature. The political satire Catch-22 could be seen as an ironic triumph of the marginal man, and The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit could be seen as another commentary altogether on marginality.

Start with a character who is out of the mainstream, say a high school student whose parents have moved her to a new city where she has to start making new friends. There is a group of students who attract her, but they are tight-knit, jealous of their status. Add to the calculus a member of the in-group who is drawn to the outsider. Result: story under way.

One of the more productive dramatic clashes is the formula of the marginal wanting to become mainstream and the mainstream envying the constraint-free status of the marginal.

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