Thursday, November 19, 2009

Follow the Character

Even though you are well informed about the life, career, and work of F.Scott Fitzgerald to the point where there is little possibility of you being surprised, you were nevertheless fascinated by the recent piece in New Yorker in which his career as a screenwriter is discussed.

Having met with actual pals of FSF, whence you learned of his disillusionment at the reception his Hollywood work got, you were surprised to learn from the New Yorker account that he wanted to be a great screenwriter as well as a great novelist.

Thinking about FSF's apparent difficulties to transfer written information to the visual, you began to review your own approach to story in general, concluding (with some wisdom, you thought) that there is indeed a difference in text for the page, for the stage, and for motion picture and TV versions of story, and no great need to revisit those differences nor to remind yourself of the logic gap inherent in mixing proverbial apples with proverbial oranges.  

The one thing the media have in common, however, is character.  The key to success in any of the media is to begin with the premise that all are dramatic, all involve characters who are goal oriented.  A striking example is Macbeth, who on the surface is a good soldier, much admired by his leader.  What follows this glowing resume from King Malcolm is the actual appearance of Macbeth and the slow revelation of his burning upward mobility.  Hector is no less a good soldier than was Macbeth, but it is not ambition that drives Hector, it is the all-too-vivid awareness of reputation, for which you may read "what other people think."  

Shakespeare has given Macbeth a wife who is supportive to an eerie degree of his ambition, the Homers provided Hector with Andromache, who pleads with Hector to forget the stupid battle and run away with her and their son.  In a moment of prescience, she understands that Hector will be killed in battle--true dat--and that she will be taken off as a slave or concubine and their son, Astynax, will be summarily killed.
These stories are of such wrenching moral choice that they can, could, and will be presented as staged drama, filmed drama, and written narrative, illustrating the point that the appearance, agenda, and behavior of the characters drive the story, suggesting to the composer in the various media moments of thought, introspection, behavior, dialogue, deviousness, subtext, and more.
The original text of DuBose Heyward's novel, Porgy, did not contain the recitative or arias of the eventual opera Porgy and Bess; indeed, although the setting was Charleston, S.C., the novel called it Cabbage Row, later changed in the operatic version to Cat Fish Row.  In all other ways, the motivational behavior of the characters was consistent, but it was displayed differently in accordance with the medium.

In the novel, as Friday evening descends on Cabbage Row, it would be an enhancement if we were told that the sounds of Jasbo playing barrelhouse piano could be heard coming from the juke joint, but it would entirely break the integrity of the novel if young Clara were described as "going into her baby's bedroom and singing 'Summertime' to her."  

We wouldn't be surprised if she sang a crying baby to sleep in a novel, but we would be surprised to move in on her and hear her lovely soprano run over the lyrics, and by the time we got to the set up of the crap game and heard Clara's husband, Jake, baritone out the Ira Gershwin lyrics to "A Woman Is a Sometime Thing," we'd probably want to know who had edited this book.
One of the great tropes in mystery fiction is "follow the money," which will offer the protagonist/detective and the readers sufficient clues to effect some form of solution.  Your own trope is "follow the character," which translates into learning how an actor becomes a character.  

A character has gestures, dialogue, motive, backstory; a character has come from doing something before being involved in a story, a character does not merely appear in a scene, he or she has come from another scene (which may or may not be included in the actual text).  We need to see characters as having particular relationships with all the other characters in a story, otherwise they will sound posturing and wooden, artificial platforms on which the author attempts to stand.

I want, some characters appear to be saying.

I won't, others appear to be demonstrating through their words and deeds.

You can't, yet others appear to be telling the characters who want.

Can, too, your characters insist, and with no further help from you, they're on their way.

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