Thursday, April 2, 2009

Your Novel: Wax Museum or Dramatic Hoop-la

reaction--an answer or response made by one character to other characters and/or a stimulus.

The reaction of one character to another, to groups of characters, and to stimuli ratifies the presence of reality and importance necessary to cause the reader to accept the fiction as being plausible. Characters who do not react or, indeed, respond, help to impart a dream-like state to the narrative, making it more like an oratorio in which the principals are seated together in a pew than opera in which the characters interact on a stage, complete with blocking and mise en scene. In successful story of any length, one or more characters are working actively to change the status quo. Even if it is the lone, nameless protagonist of Jack London's "To Build a Fire," the reader is made to see the goal. The reader already knows the consequences of this character's failure to succeed--this is literally a life in the balance. Whatever else the reader may think of this character--how, for instance could he have allowed himself to get into this predicament?--the consequences of failure to achieve the goal are apparent.

Longer, more complex stories, such as Jim Harrison's Returning to Earth, pretty much illustrate the way reaction among characters works. The first of a menu of narrators is Donald, mid forties, a superb athlete when younger and now a man whose profession still keeps his relatively physical. Early on, Donald is diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease, ALS. Donald's reactions alone are worth the investment of time to read the novel. "...it seems I am to leave the earth early but these things happen to people." He begins to dictate his family history to his wife, Cynthia, so that their children will have a record of who he was and whence he came. Subsequent chapters are narrated by Cynthia, by her brother, and by the children of Donald and Cynthia, all of whom are reacting to the feelings set loose by Donald's impending death and his own wishes for how and where his life shall end and where his remains shall be interred.

Characters are neither required to flail about the story arc in an operatic manner nor be tight-fisted about demonstrating how they are responding to the circumstances that pester and plague them. Whether the story at hand is a Raymond Carver short story as intended by him or as edited by Gordon Lish, there is no mistaking that his characters are being affected by inner griefs and conflicts, possibly even being assisted by such add-ons as severe drink-related problems. Similarly, characters in short stories and novels by the Irish writer, William Trevor, present the reader with situations that impinge upon them like tight suits.

A story where one or more of the characters appear to move through the complexities of a torturous plot without reacting is suspect, surely not as memorable as stories in which characters demonstrate their feelings by some form of behavior as they pursue their goals, avoid reversals or frustrations, and continue their efforts.

On occasion in stage, motion picture,or television performances, actors will be seen to produce a "chemistry" that adds to the entire story. One such combination was Paul Newman and Robert Redford, respectively portraying the outlaws Butch Cassidy and Harry Longabaugh, aka The Sundance Kid. Another dramatic coupling, Neil Simon's play, The Sunshine Boys, produced yet another type of chemistry, the long-time vaudeville association of two characters who refused to speak to one another when off stage, a chemistry found in real life with the paring of W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan.

Successful characters have been stoics, cowards, hypochondriacs, taciturn, and overly emotional; they have been afflicted with Tourette's Syndrome (Lionel Esrog in Motherless Brooklyn), and severe autism (Christopher John Francis Boone in The Curious Case of the Dog in the Night-Time); they have been as self-absorbed and difficult to like as Sherlock Holmes and his contemporary counterpart, Gregory House, M.D. They have in chemical common the fact that they react to the persons, places, and things about them. The reader may not, need not, like them, but the reader knows a character when he sees one.

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