Friday, April 3, 2009

Chemical Reactions

chemistry--the tangible result occurring when two or more characters interact; an effect that seems to emerge and transfer into action when characters notably get along or develop an enmity; a palpable aura of reality emerging from the manner in which characters respond to one another; non-verbal signals which draw characters into friendships, alliances, or mutual distrust.

Chemistry is the unspoken glue in fiction, producing its own inexorable logic and the resulting consequences of that logic. Often coming as a surprise to the writer, particularly when it threatens to shift the predetermined direction of the story, chemistry is a jump-start to motivation and action. Sometimes the chemistry between characters is accepted by the writer and the reader on a non-verbal level, "just because it is." This very quality helps project a greater sense of reality and believability because of the way it overrides logic. Readers will probably have some sense in their own life of disliking or liking someone on sight, without any good reason; they probably make judgements as a direct result of such non-verbal signals, picked up by the sensory receptors of the social animal humans have become.

One of the many great chemistries in American fiction emerges in the characters of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, each drawn to the other in ways that make sense only after they are considered in light of the activities shared by the two. To Tom, Huck represents the freedom and anti-convention that runs rampant in a young boy, the ability to come and go as he pleases and the "worldly" knowledge such freedom brings. Huck on the other hand has come to accept Tom's views of conventional behavior, a slap-dash view of chivalry as seen by Walter Scott, and the classroom view of the way the world worked at that time. Tom was social, Huck wasn't. In this primordial ooze came their boyish desires for adventure, and from this came the chemistry that bound them.

In real life, Harry Longabaugh and Robert Leroy Parker met while in prison, each jailed separately on horse theft charges. The chemistry between them brings the Tom Sawyer-Huck Finn chemistry to mind. Longabaugh morphed into the Sundance Kid, an appellation doubtless hung on him by Parker since the name of the prison in Wyoming Territory where they met was the Sundance Prison. Parker, of course, was known as Butch Cassidy.

Yet another version of chemistry between characters emerged in the lengthy series of mysteries featuring Robert Parker's investigator, Spenser, and the unorthodox operative, Hawk, often retained by Spenser as a consultant (for which trope, read "backup gun hand").

Not to forget Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.

The important fact for writers to consider takes in the reaches of partnering (say Dashiel Hammett's Nick and Nora Charles in the Thin Man series, and Dionysus and his slave, Xanthias, in Aristophanes' play, The Frogs) and leaving one character alone on stage for too long. When two characters appear to get on well or, as in Louise Erdrich's remarkable short story, "St.Marie," plucked from her novel, Love Medicine, a young Native American girl in a convent school forms a totally explosive relationship with a nun, run with the energy. Follow the trail. Exploit the chemistry.

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