Monday, February 25, 2013

Characrters: Your Inner Circle

Of course the disagreeable Phil, who'd approached you as you basked in the sunny warmth of the outside dining area at the Xanadu Bakery, per your report yesterday, was an invention.

His origins were real enough.  He is based on an individual you knew in real time, carrying along with him many of that individual's traits.  Of equal weight, he is also taken in metaphor from one of your ribs, as Eve was taken from Adam, as most writers take their created characters, indeed, as the better actors construct their versions of the characters they portray.

The calculus is there for any who wish to see.  Take Willy Loman, the focal point of Arthur Miller's play, Death of a Salesman.  By reading the text of the play, we learn that Willy is in his sixties, close to sixty-five.  The play begins with him having been given a pay cut, a blow administered by the son of the man who hired him.  Already in debt from his attempts to live at a middle-class level, Willy has also lost some of his youthful enthusiasm and energy, leaving him to recall past triumphs and glories that cause us to wonder about their accuracy and Willy's reliability as a narrator.  In short order, we learn that Willy's wife has more or less bought into the extravaganza of his vision.

Any number of actors have taken Willy on, notable among them Lee J. Cobb, Dustin Hoffman, Brian Dennehy, Rod Steiger, Frederic March, and most recently, Philip Seymour Hoffman.  All of them have brought different dimensions to Miller's Willy Loman, each winning some major award for the effort.

In similar fashion, the character Blanche Dubois, from Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire.  Blanche has been brought to life by an incredible spectrum of actors, including Ann-Margaret, Arletty, Vivien Leigh, Faye Dunnaway, and your own favorite, Glenn Close.

Point made?  You believe so; the actor blends a specific real life individual with a part of himself/herself.  Phil was in many ways drawn from the portions of yourself you recognized with such impatience and a wish to be rid of him.  You were playing on the spectacle Phil presented to you as he haunted the outer tables of the Xanadu Bakery, desperate for companionship and compassion, an almost over-the-top version of himself, a candidate for self-parody.

To have any chance at all of bringing Phil to the page with a modicum of success, you have to see the irony of him being so desperate for attention that he pushes persons away from him.  You have also to see yourself as Phil, then draw from him a simple truth, the simple answer to the simple question of what he wants.

What works in reality does not always work in story, nor does the reverse invariably obtain.  Phil wanted recognition.  The moment you recognized him with a measure of respect, he had his dignity back.  He feigned another appointment.  You knew this about him.  He did not have another appointment.  If you'd encouraged him at all, he'd have not only shared more of your raisin-cinnamon roll, he'd have begun reminiscing.  He'd have had some stories about the ambiance before the fire, perhaps even gossip about how the fire got started.

You could have encouraged him for a while longer, but you wanted him to leave while you still had the understanding about him of what he wanted.  You wanted him to leave while you still respected him to any degree.  You wanted the subtext of the encounter to be how you learned from listening to him.  Although the episode was, in the final analysis, about you, it was about you learning from him, thus his importance in appearance.

When the narrative is all about you and your understanding, what is the purpose of the narrative except to show you in a positive light?  Alas, there are times when you wish to appear in a positive light, causing you to manufacture circumstances with that payoff in mind.  That's the equivalent of giving yourself a banquet.  Try composing a scene about such a person, imparting dignity to him or her, not making fun of him or her.

Death of a Salesman and A Streetcar Named Desire have painful, down endings, demonstrating the pitfalls of following illusion without questioning it at some point.  Both plays were necessary to illuminate the often sinuous and precipitous path of reality.  Alternate plays with happier endings could have been written, but how many of us would have been as moved by them as we have been with these.

In creating a character you wish to appear with some resonance and credibility, you need to observe and be able to step back from your observation to the point where you will be able to see your judgement, then write beyond it.  By your reckoning, you'll need to follow the sinuous and precipitous path of reality as it courses through your own uninvestigated selves, for there are many of them, and their numbers increase each time you create another character, using this process.

Where do they go when you've finished with them?

You need to find out from them first of all who they are and what their ratio of truth is to their ratio of fantasy-wish fulfillment.  You need to listen to them long enough to learn what they want, recognizing they may lie to you.  You need a sense of what they are willing to do to accomplish their immediate goal.

Attorneys complain with some frequency that their clients lie to them.  Some shrinks you know, without mentioning specific names, will close their eyes for a moment when talking about patients who either lie or with some deliberation camouflage reality.

Where did Phil go in such a hurry after you gave him that brief note of recognition he sought?

They come from you and they return to you, the ones you like, the ones you tolerate, the ones you try not to pity, the ones you go out of your way to avoid.  They return because you are their home.  They are you.

Some day, you may be giving a gathering for a close friend, a loved one, and one or more of them will appear, just as Phil appeared to you.  If you can accept that, your planned gathering has a reasonable shot at success.

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