Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Help, help, I'm being held prisoner in a writer's first draft

Front-rank characters come equipped with a built-in booby trap, a trait that guarantees narrative explosions and surprise. The trait, of course, is that each character is utterly convinced he is right. In the extreme example of that loving couple down the street, the Helmers, you have the husband, Torvald, thinking himself a good provider, an excellent family man, a devoted and appreciative husband, a doting father; and you have Nora, the wife, thinking she's doing everything possible to keep the household running smoothly, the children tended to, and appetizing meals set forth for Torvald. That's the surface. Once, when Torvald was quite ill, Nora borrowed a good deal of money that helped pay for treatment that saved his life. In addition to her wifely duties, she has taken jobs to earn back the money to repay the loan, but to protect his pride, she has not allowed him to know this, instead letting him think of her as a child-like creature, forever innocent and naive. This play, which demonstrated the primacy of Nora and the fact that Torvald's love was both conditional and selfish, was a time bomb, arguably an early skirmish in the women's movement, with Nora leaving Torvald and her children with a slam of the door that was heard around the world.


Characters are built on people, carry the inner compass of people, use the same pole stars used by people. When a character believes she is right, she behaves in a particular way; if that way is inauthentic, a travesty on her real beliefs, she'll have to come to terms with her behavior by changing, paying the price for her stubbornness, or in some way reaping the consequences. Her behavior, her sense of rightness, informs the story she tells or, indeed, the stories. Look at Blanche DuBois and her story, and see where it got her.

Look at Budd Schulberg's Terry Molloy, telling his story to his brother, Charlie. I coulda been somebody. I coulda been a contender.

How many persons do you know who tell their stories with a conditional verb tense or a past tense as opposed to a simple present tense? How many individuals do you know who are living in the retrospect of what they once were and may not be any longer. How much of your own stories are set in future and future conditional tenses?

How many individuals do you know who have rather remarkable stories but who lack the means to tell them in ways that would make people want to listen? How many authors have you been personally put off by when you approached their work?

The way out of much of this, of characters and individuals and authors and your own part in the equation is by listening when you have the opportunity. Individuals you admire and think of as raconteurs have traits that invite listening; by attending to their stories you can perhaps learn to identify these traits and make use of them in your own narratives, but of course you must absorb these traits, then make them yours.

A favored pass time of yours is watching actors as they deliver lines, Meryl Streep, for instance, in The French Lieutenant's Woman, and Jeremy Irons in that very film as well as in Brideshead Revisited. The older, shaggier ones as well; Albert Finney in The Dresser and Tom Courtenay in the same play, Ben Kingsley as Feste, the jester in Twelfth Night, Kate Hepburn and Peter O'Toole in The Lion in Winter, Maria Ouspenskaya in Doddsworth: "So, you vant to marry my son?" At first you imitate these worthies, a way of making sure you listened closely enough, but then the game truly begins because even in this you must go beyond mere listening and mere imitation. You must hear clear into the secret places of the characters and the secret places within you where your own characters lurk, sending you writs of habeas corpus: Help, help, I'm being held prisoner and I want to get out.

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