Tuesday, January 8, 2013

If your attitude is not showing, it ought to

Sometimes your attitude surprises you, because you hadn't seen it enter.  Didn't realize it had joined the gathering.  Of a sudden, you're aware of it by its voice, the edgy way it reverberates over the general hum of conversation, causing you to realize you've been co-opted, now voting with one of the strident minorities who clamor, each for their particular sense of justice.

Now, you have to listen to the minority list of grievances, which is, in the long run, pretty much what they wanted, isn't it?  Recognition.

This particular surprise came in the form of a solicitation from a potential client, and now that you see the matter in a broader context, you are reminded of the way so many private eye novels begin, with a detective being visited by one of two types of client, a woman steamy in her sensuality, who fears she has been betrayed, or a complete naif, a girl-next-door type, looking for a troubled parent or brother.

This solicitation wanted help finding the way out of self-inflicted complications of plot and of confusions afflicting the characters.  Thus the surprise about your attitude.  Isn't this one of the things you do for a range of students, writers, and wannabe writers?  Isn't this in fact one of the things you do for yourself with your own self-inflicted complications and confusions?  And while you're at it, isn't this the sort of thing you do when the world--you know, that world--is too much with you, late and soon, causing you to retire to a place where there is decent coffee or a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, or perhaps a rascally pinot noir, in order to think things over and through and around?

The attitude you became aware of was the sound it made, reminding you that it had to figure out ways to solve these problems on your own, and what did this potential client expect when launching into a lifestyle involving characters and stories?  Didn't this potential client see the dynamic of creating characters so that they would get into these scrapes and incidents in the first place?

The life cycles of insects have nothing on the formation and development of characters, who often begin their life cycle as a person holding some kind of ID tag, Hi, I'm Fred.  I'm a character in your story.  After a few paragraphs, Fred begins to accrue a swaddling of Post-It notes, indicating such traits as temper, ability, body type, clarity of thought.  Then Fred begins to remind you of someone you know in real life, quite possibly someone named Fred, which is often a warning that you're relying too much on the reality of what happened in some actual situation at some time of your awareness.

Your fictional Fred might find himself stuck, mired in the traits of the real-life Fred, or of equal wheel-spinning frustration, being too much a person and not enough of a character.

Characters need to shed their  real-life niceness by taking on the fictional niceness of becoming so extreme in their niceness that no one wants anything to do with them, or perhaps their real-life bigotry by taking on a fictional bigotry of greater nuance.

Characters are, in some ways like pool or billiard balls, spheres that touch with small areas of contact, but with enough force to send those they meet flying off at some acute angle, heading for a rail against which they meet, then transfer resident inertia into a carom.  We lose touch with this fact when we give them too many Post-It Notes to wear without dramatizing--converting traits to action and movement--these add-on traits.

Characters are also you, the unexplored portions of you as well as the ones you know with some intimacy.  They are the attitudes that creep in, like kids sneaking into a ball game or, better yet, working as ushers in theaters as you did in order to see ballets and musicals and symphony performances.  They are armatures about which you wrap intensity and defensiveness and vulnerability, braiding these qualities so that the reader has enough to go on in order to make of them something even more personalized and resonant.

Even if you decide to make one of them tentative, the tentativeness has to be brought out in a way that will irritate you to the point where you become impatient, not with yourself for continuing to read but with the character for being so stubborn, so timid.

Characters cause your own attitudes to show--in spite of your professed resolve to be nice, to be civil, to observe the social contract, to practice empathy.  There is neither goodness nor evil, niceness nor mean spiritedness in characters, rather a strength of presence that comes from how they cope with their agenda.  Do not let yourself forget this; they all have agendas, which are in effect the large rock dropped into the pond.

Characters are wriggly and nervous, feeling exposed in the first place because you have put them into a story, yet convinced that they are doing ever so much better than any other character you might have substituted for them.  Characters do not want body doubles or stand-ins or back-ups; they want attention.  Although paradoxical, they want attention most when they appear not to wish it at all.

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