Thursday, June 9, 2011

Past History

  As the complexity and nuance of a character increases, so does her relationship with the past. Age brings with it experience and the simultaneous index of reactions to be sorted through whenever a new situation arises. Most stories of younger characters happen now, in the immediate present.  These individuals have some nature of experience tool kit, but not enough to produce long periods of deliberation.

The older the character, the more the likelihood of the story in which she appears having upwards of forty percent of its content tied to and requiring of brief trips to the past, wherein the experience acquired
its subtext, indeed, wherein expectations for present consequences flourish.

Like the prudent driver or cyclist, the character is focused on the landscape before her, which is to say the immediate present.  Action is necessary, particularly at intersections, which translate into story as the arrival of challenges, the needs for informed response to them.  Drivers shoot a glance at the side-view mirrors, then the rear-view mirror, leaving nothing to chance.

Story is not without sympathy to the dramatic equivalent of the prudent driver, but story is not able to begin with prudent characters unless it is to distract them to the point where they are no longer prudent; they are instead besotted, driven, forgetful, somehow self-absorbed.

You could say that many plot-driven stories take place as much as ninety-five percent in the present, the scant time away being that one time when the character suffered some memorable reversal that has rendered her jumpy.  This leads us as readers to anticipate the recreation of that scant five-percent time, which we know will be a roadblock for the character.  Our curiosity is engaged.  We read on to discover how the character will respond when confrontation is forced upon her.

That being the one side of the equation, the other is the heavier presence of past events having influence on the behavior of one or more characters, probably in direct proportion to the length of the narrative.  We are led to conclude that character-driven stories reflect this relationship between past and present, the shifts in chronology appearing at strategic intervals.  Even in this theoretical, generalized sense, you are arguing that the past plays a role; look at the way it comes forth, sometimes when it is not at all anticipated.

The nuance of difference between anticipation and expectation does not appear significant in reality, but in dramatic narrative, it can have tremendous effect.  When we anticipate something and it does not appear or arrive, we experience disappointment but not surprise.  When we expect something and it does not come, we are proper targets for disappointment, anger, denial, surprise.  When something we neither anticipate nor expect appears, we may be surprised, frightened, angry, or in denial.  Wonderful ranges of behavior for a character to experience.

A single character can and should be fraught with one or more emotions relating to past consequences and present anticipations well before she is allowed to step onto the page.  Two such characters, slated to appear in the same scene are flashing signs warning of approaching train wreck in the form of some extreme misinterpretations.  They are also sending us signals assuring us they are indeed in a story.

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