Monday, August 31, 2009

Asimov's Robot Rules for Characters

Speaking as you were about characters in terms of helpful ways to see their relative importance within a narrative, it becomes incumbent on you as well to ponder their significance as individuals on the reader.

Your sad awareness here becomes the weighty knowledge of knowing more about your characters than you know about readers.  In time, you may discover things about readers, including their hostility to your story, their complete lack of interest in your story and its characters or, worse yet, their conviction that you have not put forth plausible beings.

Although you do write to be read, your intent to produce in the smithy of your process a story that transports, investigates, reflects, you do find the reader aspect a potential for the temptation to bully your way forth with a combination of bravado and gesturing, sometimes even resorting to theatrics such as irony, farce, slapstick, and stonewalling.  

There is, however, a way to regain some measure of control; it comes from making eye contact with the characters, respecting them all, particularly the ones who are carrying forth the behavior and philosophy you find antithetical to your own behavior and philosophy during the times you are not immersed in your writing. (These may also be times when you are reading, which includes the works of clients, students, and writers you read in order to be transported somewhere.)  

In other words, you must make eye contact, offer respect, and listen.  You are not merely inflicting opposing forces on your characters to see what they will do and how they will do it, you are sharing them with persons you may never see, never know.
Accordingly, you must pledge to offer only authentic characters, not cheap knock-off characters assembled in sweatshop venues with poor labor laws.  

Your characters must go forth in the world knowing as much as you know and perhaps even more than you know; they must be wrong not as you are wrong because you have too short a temper fuse and are more likely to say fuck it than they are.  While it is true that you admire some of your characters, even get crushes on yet others to the point of sexual jealousy when they seem interested in someone you have your doubts about, you do tend to say fuck it and I'll show you to some of your characters when you should be taking more care to find out why they did as they did or did not do as they didn't do.

Thus this laundry list of behavior toward your characters:

1. They don't get in without a background check in which you find at least one thing about them you can admire.

2. If their blindness or insensitivity mirrors yours, you need to own up to it and give them some sensitivity you do not yet have.

3. They may want to tell you something and you may not want to listen because you have modeled them after someone in real life whom you detest, overshadowing your need to listen.

4.  No patronizing them will be tolerated.

5.  If they want to take over, you have to let them, at least for one draft.

6.  Dustin Hoffman is said by a number of your film friends to be difficult to work with because he is so determined to find the center for his role.  Would you in your impatience refuse to work with a character of such compulsive energy?

7.  Everyone gets a chance to be heard.

8.  Suppose a character comes along, wanting to introduce a schtick of some sort, a gesture, a dance, an accent, even, heaven help you, a joke into the story.  Like, say, Jerry Lewis.  Or is preternaturally meanspirited such as Jonathan Winters.  Are you going to be an asshole or a writer where such individuals are concerned?

9.  It is their story.  Are you down with that?