Friday, December 21, 2012

Uninvited Humor as Gatecrasher

Among the many bonds connecting characters with actual persons, desperation tries like the overeager school kid to edge in at the head of the line.  You have done things when motivated by desperation to do something--anything--rather than do nothing. This has given you an index of empathy with fictional brothers and sisters.  In all but a few cases, doing nothing has left you and some of your fictional brothers and sisters with a residual regret and pain that is difficult to forget.  The exceptional times for not doing anything are those when you--or the character--turns away from taking a cheap shot or attempting to argue with one or more individuals who are locked into a stand to the point where they have become intractable.

Most memorable characters got to the point of being memorable because they were driven by some form of desperation.  Their opponents are also driven by a kind of desperation by which law or rules in the abstract must be obeyed.  Ahab, anyone?

The key to memorability often resides in some form of desperation, which should present you with more than a clue, rather a flash of insight.  Characters known for adding self-interest,  the dramatic of ethanol to gasoline, to their desperation are heard to defend their activity with the all-inclusive, "I did it for you," but such protestations don't get far with other characters and, it is to be hoped, don't get far at all with readers.

Good as it is for you to be desperate in a particular Real-life situation, or for a character to be desperate in a dramatic one (dare you suggest Jean Valjean from Les Miserables?) the more  that desperation hinges on self-preservation or the protection of the innocent, the greater the chances a character will emerge from performing some tangible act with a mote of respect and dignity.

Respect and dignity are excellent in their abstract versions as well as their real appearances.  Your own role models in Real life are men and women who have placed a high value on these qualities, seeming to radiate them in most of their behavior.

But when applied to characters, respect and dignity take a back seat to the pressures desperation exerts.  Being without respect and dignity after once having had them makes for the kinds of characters we need, persons who are vulnerable, who have become desperate--perhaps even desperate to restore lost dignity and respect.

Had to do it, the vulnerable character says.  Didn't have any choice.

Yes, you did, the respectable, dignified character says.  You absolutely had a choice.

The trick is to keep that approach real enough, honest enough, aware enough of its own vulnerability so that it does not emerge as moral high ground or in any way a license to patronize.  When the moral high ground seems to become a gated community, someone has fallen asleep at the entry gate.  Unauthorized humor can and often does sneak in.


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