Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Bucking Bronco of Character

It takes one or more characters, interacting within a scene, to provide the energy and movement of the story.

Easily enough to say; to bring it off, you need to have an attitude toward a character before you can set the individual participants into the landscape of scene with any hope that they will take the bait and accordingly move from mere conversation or observation into the swampy terrain of story. Even more difficult to contemplate is the need for these individual characters to be associated with some subtext. Under those circumstances, what appears to be mere conversation or observation is spoken or observed in relation to some other circumstantial reality.

Attitude toward characters is essential if this subtext is to take effect. Harold Pinter is a writer who often uses this approach to his scenes. Two characters appear to be going through their usual routines, talking about nothing of particular note, yet there is a hovering tension that alerts us to a dynamic between the characters, a resident relationship that combines the need most individuals have to categorize social station and group relations.

The attitude the writer brings to characters may be as seemingly neutral as curiosity or as biased as antipathy. In either case, the writer becomes a participant rather than a mere commentator who, like attendees at political rallies, carry placards announcing their feelings. The writer must ride the horse of attitude but be willing to be bucked off in the process. We must not allow our attitudes to become the equivalent of an expert rider, using riding skills to hold on. To put it more bluntly, we must not allow our original regard for the character, whether it is admiration or distaste, to become the rider struggling to remain on the horse. If we are not careful, we will remain on the horse and the character will not have an opportunity to change: The good guy will continue to do admirable things and attract attention because of his goodness, the bad guy will ride the bronco of despicable behavior right back into the corral, as bad at the end as he was in the beginning.

It is difficult bordering on impossible to be convincing in the short span of a short story when it comes to demonstrating change within a character, but we can approximate the human condition we hope to unleash within characters by allowing the good guys to screw up and the bad guys to do something remarkably empathetic. Novels afford us a bit more latitude: We can allow a few characters the luxury of change in a longer work. These observations are not engraved on any stone plates as laws or commandments, rather they reflect technical considerations. The thing we need to encourage is the capacity inherent in a character to be pulled off course in a deed, observation, or tug of curiosity. If they can break free from the preconceived notion of them, however briefly--just to the point of alarming the writer--they will be observing the potential to do the very thing that makes everyone a winner, and that very thing is to cause surprise.

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