Saturday, February 20, 2010

How much does it take?

Today you are in the process of talking about a character who appears desperately to want something, starting with Dorothy Gale, who desperately wants to get out of Oz and back to Kansas, then moving along to, of all individuals, Brer Fox, who in his search for supper has focused on Brer Rabbit. This is story-telling stuff right out of the Aristotle Poetics, a character desperate for achievement of a goal driving the story forth. In a blinding flash of recognition, you are so convinced that the Brer Fox and Brer Rabbit story comes right out of Aristotle that you forget the connection between Brer Fox and Wile E. Coyote, forgetting even to mention him as your selection for the patron saint of characters. There is such a splendid balance between the character who wants a particular prize, no matter what it is, the antagonist or individual standing in the way of the character achieving goal, and the humiliation available to fall on the goal seeker lest he fail in his task. Look at the stature Brer Rabbit gains merely by surviving. Look at the seeming invincibility Road Runner has. Look at the effect failure has on Wile E. Coyote and Brer Fox; each becomes more determined, more focused and thus more likely to appear undignified. How do your non-animal characters react in such triangles? Do they become more determined and, in the process, do they lose by degree any semblance of dignity?

There is a thin line between humiliation and mere undignified performance. Too much of the latter produces a measure of the former. How then to remove in slow plausible degree from an author his or her dignity? Start by having that character reassess the nature of focus and purpose. I will get up a half hour earlier and write before I do anything else. I will get up forty-five minutes earlier, I will get up an hour earlier. Seemingly, these are small enough increments, but in aggregate, they begin to undercut any trace of dignity the character may posses. When the character begins gambling with appearances, the risk is dignity, the result inevitably humiliation.

It is useful to keep these shifting boundaries in mind as you pursue the routine of a character bent on pursuing an agenda to the point where the pursuit begins to trump the results.


Anonymous said...

Shelly - I've never heard anyone address this before. My, doesn't it apply to life... Oh dear, doesn't it apply to the goals of a writer! Indeed, I fear my pursuit has trumped and continues to trump my results. Leaving me a romantic fool in the eyes of others.
- KarenD

lowenkopf said...

Karen, The "others" are going to think something of you under any circumstances. Considering the possibilities, I'd settle for romantic fool any day. Of course, that's because I am a romantic fool.