Monday, March 16, 2009

You Owe It to Yourself

obligation--a duty felt by a character to perform; a debt to be repaid under specific circumstances; acknowledgment of a favor given and the subsequent expectation that an act of similar consequence will balance the account.

Obligations may be established between individuals and groups such as banks, clans, or families; they may apply to complete strangers as well as friends or relatives. In fiction, obligations may be real or imagined, tugging at the conscience and patience of the parties involved. Often felt as duties "owed" an older generation by a younger one, obligations literally have the power to disrupt lives, cause rebellious behavior, and produce the abrupt consequences of impatience and anarchy.

A character's hackles may be seen to rise when he is told, "It is your duty..." The building blocks of duty and, often, guilt become building blocks to story as yet another basic element of story is moved into place, the element of resentment.

The cloud of obligation has hovered over the human species throughout its development; in many cases survival of a prehistoric band or clan depended on it. A traveler accepting hospitality at the home of a friend or someone recommended by a friend was obligated to return the hospitality if the circumstances were reversed. Tradition placed heavy weights on the obligation of hospitality; if you accepted a person's hospitality, that individual became responsible for your welfare, a circumstantial crucible that could and undoubtedly did provide unexpected story elements.

It can be argued with some thought of success that a country in possession of the knowledge of nuclear fission has the obligation to use that knowledge to enhance the prospect of comfortable and peaceful living among the nations. An individual with knowledge of a crime has an obligation to take action to the point where justice will be served.

All the various narrative genera may be seen as reflecting obligations. Mystery readers, for example, expect challenging puzzles, thus the obligation of the mystery writer to make the mystery as intriguing as possible without removing it from the sphere of plausibility. It becomes the writer's obligation to provide elements a reader of that genre has come to expect, additional obligations include providing those elements with imagination and originality. It may even be argued that at some point a writer is obligated to interest as many readers as possible.

A 1972 play by Neil Simon, The Sunshine Boys, becomes an instructive example of the explosive relationship between obligation and resentment. Al Lewis and Willy Clark are a one-time vaudeville team who worked together on stage for forty years, during the course of which they attracted a large, loyal following. Trouble is, they grew to hate one another, spoke only when on stage during a performance. Clark, the stubborn one, resented Lewis' decision to break up the act and retire from show business. Now he has to make it on his own, doing commercials for a potato chip maker. The story begins with a television network inviting the team to reunite for a special tribute to the history of comedy. Neil Simon has caught with his superb rendition of the feuding team the combustive chemistry between the two characters, helping us see the potential for placing obligation and resentment in motion as the embodiment of two cantankerous old performers.

Obligations are like visiting relatives; they drop in unannounced, stay too long, often leave a mess. And they are always "away" should you ever need a place to stay. You could smolder with resentment or use the list of personally felt obligations as a laundry list for story opportunities.

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