Saturday, June 26, 2010

Where They're Coming from

No character however minor his or her ultimate role in a story, appears on stage without an attitude informed by some earlier event. We may actually see the event taking place without having the slightest notion of its effect on the particular character who happens to be present. If the character is truly minor, it is possible we will not see the event; we may not even know about the event, but the character in question does and performs accordingly--because of it.


Stage-trained actors and, to a lesser extent, film actors know it is not enough merely to appear for their moments in a scene. The immediate now is charged with colliding forces. We may have to deal with individuals in reality who are able to do their job in a workmanlike fashion, but that longtime favorite of yours, that Joe-the Plumber of your blog posts is the mythical pizza delivery person. He or she may have just come from an unfortunate customer during the last delivery, perhaps one who counted out payment for the pizza in pennies. The delivery person may also be an aspiring actor, either practicing various character types or, thinking the person to whom the pizza is being delivered is in some casting position, is showing off with voice, attitude, posture, whatever.

A matters stand now, you are procrastinating in the preparation of a book proposal with a particular revision suggested by your agent, doing so by doing a step beyond taking notes for a short story idea that came fluttering in. Your protagonist, still quite vague to you, has just been ordered away from his brother and sister-in-law's home, indirectly accused of at best being insensitive, at worst a sexual predator, thus you knew the territory in which the thematic arc was taking. You had no idea why you had him walking away, thinking to catch a latte and reconnoiter bus schedules, which baffled you even more because you had to stop and figure out why he does not have a car--everyone in southern California has a car.

This led you to the conclusion that he'd probably had his license revoked, which also brought you closer to the notion that he was in recovery from booze. Then the real gift arrived, the information that even though he was half in the bag when he gave his lectures, no one seemed aware of that fact. Bingo, you discovered he was a PhD. In a flash, you understood that his subject was the Classics because of another arrival of metaphor. By the time the character is out of the first scene, you also know you are going to mess with the time scheme, shifting into the indefinite past, where more of the problems on his plate are delivered. The more you know about where he is and where he was, the more you know about him and are thus able to throw impromptu exploding devices, dramatic style, in his path. You even know the name of the graduate student who was part of The Problem.

True enough, he is the principal narrator; it is his story to the point that it is tentatively named after him, as in "Uncle Charlie," a title that will not bear irony until after the story has been read through. Nevertheless, past, present, and future scenes begin to appear, each triggered by you're having scarcely written two scenes.

The real point is that until you know where a character is coming from--literally and figuratively--you are at a loss to be as specific with his behavior as you might be, losing opportunity for tension, that glucosamine of story. What kind of tension? Remember, Uncle Charlie was banished from his brother and sister-in-law's home because of their belief that he was paying too much and too close attention to their sixteen-year-old daughter, whom you will meet early on and find some assurance that she did not feel threatened by him or made the slightest bit uneasy in his presence. Of course this gives you the third scene in which Uncle Charlie will have picked the coffee shop to patronize in search of his latte, thereupon to be confronted by a barista who, although older, has similar enough features to his niece, that he becomes impressed with the similarity. But the matter can't stop there because you are just reminded of an incident a year or so back when you stopped in the very coffee shop Uncle Charlie is patronizing. A barista whom you found rather attractive but had no memory of ever having seen her before greeted you by asking you if by any chance you had the year before delivered a lecture on William Goldman in Salisbury Cathedral. As it happens, she was correct, prompting you to have the fictional barista at the North Star Coffee Shop ask Charlie if he is in fact Professor Hecht because either her friend or roommate had a class with him a few years back and has retained her class notes to that day. You're still not certain where this is all leading, but this is all material you did not have until Uncle Charlie was out on the street, looking for coffee.

Finding out where your characters are coming from, where they're going, and what their plans are give you the very things you were after when you started thinking about Charlie in the first place, which is story. And the real truth is that you'd had no thought of Charlie as a character in the first place; you were merely doing some background on Ella, his niece, for whom you have plans in yet another venture.

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