Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Nuremberg Trial for Characters

Just as thought is the enemy of the beginning of a work, so, too, is the Nuremberg Trial metaphor, where the miscreants, all those whose agendas are antithetical to the protagonist's, are marched forth and brought to trial.  The metaphor persists, particularly when the antagonists can mount the defense, We were only following orders, which is as it should be, a direct reflection on you.

Earlier this week, when an about-to-be new client set forth the arc of her novel, you wondered aloud whose story it is, and she went directly to a major player in the drama.  Then you have to become her when you're writing, you ventured.  Pointedly, you bore on, you butt out.  It's none of your business.  The about-to-be took this well, to the point where you understood and appreciated the pleasure it would be to work with her.  

Seance.  Even Seance on a West Afternoon, if you'd like.  The apparently occult un-occulted, brought into the light of inquiry, the bells, whistles, table rapping and ectoplasm explained through the simple trope of the writer as the medium through which the story travels.  Waxing romantic and, indeed, occult again:  The story exists out there on the astral plane and it is your job to bring it into the interview room, offer the characters some coffee or diet soda, then extract the details from them, looking for their motives, their potential gains or losses, their stake in the entire venture.  Then you send them off, go through your interviews, then try to reconstruct what might have taken place--not necessarily what you wanted to have happened, but what might have.

Part of the fun of this kind of work resides in the way you can take sides or at least identify, feeling the satisfaction of, say, a six-year-old girl as she kicks the shins of an authority figure the six-year-old girl in real life would already have been acculturated against kicking in the shins.  Or you can feel the satisfaction of a young person, having been endoctrinated by the Baltimore Catechism, resolutely not buying the information and doctrine being set forth.  This kind of fun is always a temptation because you already have come to the understanding that there is a deeper level of satisfaction, the one in which you reach well beyond the pocket lint of your awareness and into those places where you have not yet set out your own take on things for the world to see, much less for you to see.  Your psychology friends would call this the id-based response; you merely call it taking the risks and the consequences that go with them.  The consequences often speak directly to the things and conditions you want--no mere generalizations, rather accute visions of yourself reaching across and through the conventions you largely live by.  You listen to the characters as they tell you what they want.  Through your use of your technical abilities, you are complicit in allowing these shadowy feelings rush forth.  You rejoice in having removed the restraints of convention on a character and seeing the character, that figment of your own imagination--take chances, make choices, respond in ways that are satisfying to you because they so often tend to altruism.  Your characters are "being good" even when being self-serving.  Or their self-service nevertheless demonstrates empathy and consideration.

There is no way characters are divorced from you, even if you do not judge them, particularly if you do not agree with them.  Any competent actor has engaged this same process, taking the outer shell of a person and imparting his or her own take, allowing us to see any number of interpretations and comparisons.  Lee J. Cobb's Willy Loman and Dustin Hoffman's rendition help us provide our own, thanks to observing the actor's gestures and readings of lines in comparison with our own.  The mere luck of your having been out for a walk in the theater district of New York at the very moment it was possible to buy a ticket for a matinee performance of Al Pacino doing Richard III was transformative, luck turned into revelation.  The performance had not yet begun when you began to hear Pacino saying "Oh, yeah/My kingdom for a fucking horse."  Only now, years, ah, years later do you realize that's what YOU would have said as Richard.  Accordingly, there might be some hope for you.

If, indeed, your characters can take the Nuremberg defense of saying they were only following orders, let those orders come not from the conventional limits of behavior you have set up for yourself and as standards by which you form friendships and associations; let those orders come from the deeper recesses of your urgent desire to experience and understand the secrets and mysteries of homo sapiens behavior.

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