Friday, February 12, 2010

The Consequences Always Ring Twice

If I had only known, I didn't realize, and How could I not have seen? These three cases of self recrimination have become an integral part of the human psyche. We as writers cheerfully pass them along to that great demographic of ambitions, our characters.

There are times when we and our characters want things well beyond our comprehension of the consequences. We and they are so caught up in the focus on the achievement that the entire play of consequence ceases to matter--until it is time for them to matter. Our personal eye and our authorial eye are transported into a state of goal orientation where the resulting story is unplanned, an often devastating surprise. Bad enough when such ventures occur in our real life; when they happen within the landscape of a story, we drag down the innocents who are our characters.

In that very humbling sense, we and our characters are in this condition of vulnerability together, we focused on making some sense of the dramatic material that comes to us, then progressively wanting it to become finite, which is to say finished. Then we want a home for it, a journal and/or a publisher. Then we want an audience for it. Then we want an even larger audience for it, which is to say we want recognition for having created such a remarkable story that a segment of humanity will pay to read it, another segment will be outraged by it, and another segment still will completely misinterpret our own intentions of what the story meant in the first place. Added consequences are tacked on like offers of interest from on-line banks. The consequences of this one being published may lead directly to the consequences of the next one not being published, or misinterpreted even more than the last.

We may have some occasion to regret things we have done to our characters, things such as killing them off, marrying them off, un-marrying them, changing their professions, making a mistake, etc. We may have yet other occasions where we regret things we have not done to our characters, such as letting them have a taste of the consequences that lay in waiting for them at the end of every paragraph.

How many of the transformative narratives we have read contain a series of consequences that, like the sorcerer's apprentice, thought the sorcery looked easy enough to invite a confidence that was quickly undercut? How many equally transformative narratives have we read that came from a character being in one way or another pushed into an unseen tide of consequences? Jane Eyre graduating from the oprhanage is simplicity in itself. She is considered old enough to take care of herself now. Bye-bye, Jane. And Huck Finn, reaching the point of needing to get away from Pap. Simple, right? Just take off, right? Right.

Longterm solution to the problem: unseen consequence is the guardian angel of the writer, the catalytic agent, the driving force. Even such modernism as Waiting for Godot evokes within the viewer/reader an anticipated consequence which meanwhile is messed up all over the stage by the actual consequences that emerge from the characters and their goals.

Now along comes irony to have a shot at upstaging consequences. A character sets forth to provide an agenda that will enhance her situation, say Miss Rebecca Sharp, of Vanity Fair fame, who has an older man, a bit of a rough-and-tumble, but still well above her financially and socially, wrapped in her charms to the point where he proposes to her, in the process spelling out how much of an income he will settle on her. Trouble is, Becky is, alas, already married. And so what are her husband's chances of getting a decent dinner that night? And what are his prospects of a bit of canoodle? Consequences, you see.

Being the opposite of the stated or intended, irony becomes an ideal co-conspirator with consequence, shoving a bit farther down the path toward some lovely dramatic goal such as pathos, bathos, poignancy, satire.

As a species--human and character--we have enough foresight but not too much. Those of us who are able to read the future with unerring accuracy are often not terribly prepared to take on the role of a true front-rank character, rather instead a target of opportunity or merely a target. Although you could never figure the meaning or significance of the title, The Postman Always Rings Twice, you knew that Frank Chambers had it within himself to become a shark; all it took was Cora to show him the way. In fairness to Cora, would she, you could reasonably ask, have entertained such thoughts about her husband if she had not met Frank and experienced the enormity of the chemistry that neither of them anticipated?

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