Friday, June 3, 2011

Round vs Flat

Opposition has figured to a considerable extent in your vision of story, taking on roles of increasing importance in direct proportion to your awareness that it resides well beyond mere argumentative conversation among characters, moving into divergent personality traits and psychological profiles.  But even this sense of awareness is not enough to earn you permission to borrow the family car,which is to say it is merely a learner's permit.  You need inner conflict as well.  Before you can see far enough of the road ahead, you must also be able to spot the internal opposition that brings the elements around to being story.

Back in the day, when you were first hired on at USC by the then department chair, Irwin Blacker, you were not so much asked by him what text book you would use as told of a book you'd not heard of before, E. M. Forester's lectures on fiction packaged in on slim, remarkable book, Aspects of the Novel.  You assured Blacker you'd give    it serious consideration.  Then you hied yourself to the book store, bought a copy,and hibernated with it, close reading, taking notes, nodding as though E.M. Forester were there in the room with you.  You were thrilled by the completeness of his vision, but your focus was fixed on the distinction he made between flat characters, nice enough sorts who were merely reactive to matters of plot, and round characters, men and women who were torn by an inner conflict that needed resolution.  Often this inner conflict was buried, triggered only by an element in the story that brought the inner conflict to the surface, made its resolution critical.  Now.

It is one thing for you to look for and suggest this matter in your editing or teaching mode, quite another when its presence is lacking or misplaced in your own writing.  More often than not, you become aware of its need well into a story you're composing, feeling an uneasy sense of something missing which you cannot quite identify.  Just as often, in such circumstances, you reach into your toolkit, looking for some wrench or hammer with which to tweak before recognizing the extent of the symptom.

The inner conflict comes to you with your recognition that the character's previous confrontation with the conflict at hand has not gone deep enough.  This assessment comes well into revision.  You have in effect found a narrative soft spot, a place where you, your characters, and certainly your reader, could experience boredom. With some thought, some trial and error, you find the surfacing inner conflict within your character, then begin looking for ways to plant it in his and your sensor.

Not every character can be a round character, although you like to think you can have a shot at it.  The reason?  Round characters can surprise you, flat characters rarely do.  You like to play the risk game of surprise trumping plot because surprise--plausible surprise, of course--is more fun for you than plot because surprise provides better complications than plot.

Your protagonist in Secrets of Casa Jocosa has been hired to find out a relatively simple thing from a rather affluent woman with a strong sense of entitlement.  Your protagonist has seen her in a compromising position, which means he has the power to pressure her into telling him what he wants to know in order to keep her compromising activity from her husband.  But when the time comes, your protagonist cannot bring himself to pursue his advantage.  You did not know this was going to happen. When it did, you were delighted.  But you still do not know where this surprise will take your protagonist, much less yourself.  Your way out is to find something either already at work, gnawing away at your character, or occult, buried in layers of defensive bubble wrap, but now exposed, to mix the metaphor here, the genie in the bottle, impatient to get out.

No comments: