Monday, January 12, 2009

It's eleven o'clock: Do you know where your characters are?

It's eleven o'clock--the first part of an iconic advert, targeting parents of teens by asking if they know where their children are at this hour; a call for parents to have greater awareness of where their children are and what they're doing; a relevant analogy targeting writers to be more attentive to their characters.

Stories traditionally focus on the activities and attitudes of front-rank characters, nevertheless it can be instructive for the writer to know where, at any given moment, all other characters are and what they're doing while the front-rankers are on, being done to, and responding. One extreme example of the useful of this practice of keeping track is found in Tom Stoppard's Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, a story in which the primary character is shunted to the background. Knowing where all characters are at all times in a narrative may not produce a result so witty and engaging as the Stoppard play or as revelatory as Valerie Martin's dramatic point of view shift from the eponymous Dr. Jekyll in her role reversal, Mary Reilly, but there may be surprises for the writer, the reader, and of course the characters. These surprises might not change the intended course of the story, but they can enhance the texture, which is to say the story becomes more dimensional and vibrant.

It is nearly time for denouement. Do you know where all your characters are?

What is the story about?--a major concern of every reader; an inventory for the writer to keep in mind during revision; a template defining the behavior and goals of characters.

True enough, many writers embark on a story to see what it is really about, only to discover that the story is about ways to achieve the stated goal of the protagonist or to understand better how to cope with some existential situation--love, death, birth, career, ethical conflict. Equally true that basic answers to the question sound banal, insubstantial: The Wizard of Oz is about Dorothy getting home; Hamlet is about the son avenging his father's murder, Great Expectations is about Pip being unspoiled by his rise in social class. Even the dark implications of Entertaining Mr. Sloan speak to the honest acknowledgment of personal desires.

Not sure what the story is about? Try asking what the main character wants. If that produces an unsatisfactory answer, try factoring in what the antagonist wants? Suddenly we are at the dramatic premise of Les Miserable, having now articulated what John Valjean wants, which is more or less to have his debt to society deemed paid, and Inspector Jaivert's insatiable demand for justice still raging. The story is about the convergence of these two forces, which indeed collide, forcing Jaivert's inescapable fate and, metaphorically, what the story is.

anti-hero--a male or female front-rank character somewhat or totally lacking such classic heroic virtues as honesty, morality, and/or social conscience; a protagonist-force character for whom the reader roots even though the character is lacking recognizably admirable qualities; a male lead as exemplified by the character Joe Buck in James Leo Herlihy's The Midnight Cowboy, or a female lead as exemplified by the character Becky Sharp in William Makepeace Thackeray's Vanity Fair; a protagonist whose traits are chosen to counter propagandist overkill that hard work, virtue, and empathy with fellow mankind will be rewarded.

Both the hero and anti-hero have resumes that will get them cast in plot-driven and character-driven stories; each is bigger than life, which is a significant requirement to get beyond audition stage, the next requirement being they need to have some quality or be in some existential situation where the reader will begin to root for them. Yet another example of anti-hero from The Midnight Cowboy, Joe Buck's eventual friend, Ratso Rizzo, a seedy, amoral con man. Many front-rank characters, male and female, in Elmore Leonard novels tend to be anti-heroic, their behavior often the result of self-protection from some vulnerability rather than because of essential meanspiritedness.

In many cases, the anti-hero is the idealistic paradigm evolved to reflect the symptoms of actual reality as opposed to fictional reality; the anti-hero is a conflation of those two exemplars from Arthur's Round Table, Gawain and Galahad, morphed into twentieth- and twenty-first century vets returning from disastrous wars, looking for jobs, coping with marital stress, parenting, and the betrayal of seemingly inherent promises of their social class. For women anti-heroes, their outlook and behavior reflects the conflicts of sacrifice of roles in a notably sexist society, the need to live their creative life during the nap time of their children, and the growing suspicion that they may have been chosen as a mate for all the wrong reasons.

The appropriate degree of anti-hero-ness required in a character is discovered through the trial and error of many drafts and/or a story construct where dramatic requirements help to define the need, a splendid series of examples to be found in the suspense fiction of Walter Mosley, in general, and in the character of Lionel Essrog in Jonathan Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn.


Anonymous said...

Hmm- with the advent of text messaging and cell phones you can talk to your teens no matter where they are, but of course, you have to take their word for it that they are where they say they are...

Rowena said...

On my third draft of my novel, I am gratified to find pivotal secondary, even tertiary characters showing up right at the beginning, starting off what I am sure is a richer relationship (with me) than they did when they only showed up as plot devices. And I am conscious of where they are.

That's cool. I'm beginning to like revising.

As for the anti hero-- "the need to live their creative life during the nap time of their children."

I'm an anti-hero! Woo hoo! Take that you house-keeping!

Anonymous said...

Female antiheroes are also tired.