Saturday, February 16, 2013

What do you bring to story? Really.

You have sometimes had conversations with actors or seen interviews with them in which they expressed the preference for portraying a character as unlike them as possible.  In your experience, there's been a uniformity of reasons for this preference, the most appealing reason from your perspective is recognizing the differences between you and the character makes less likelihood that the actor will draw on personal preferences or traits.

This gradual, growing awareness was important for you because it meant you needed to look beyond and around and beneath yourself when bringing qualities to a character.  You had, in other words, to get out of the way, build the character around the story rather than yourself.

This mantra is so important to you that you will herewith repeat it:  The story is about you only in the sense of reflecting and refracting your vision.  If you are feeling in a kind of bittersweet mood when composing a story, you look for overall bittersweet elements which then comprise the inner struggles of every character in the story.  If all the characters reflect your own quirks, they will begin to sound and act as you do, which is not what you wish for them.

Your standard approach to setting a character in motion is to have the character fill out an application.  What job are they applying for?  What do they want?  How far are they willing to go to get what they want?  How immediate is their need?  If Fred wants to be a success in business, he'd better start now.  If Mary wishes to become a writer, she needs to start writing now and continue to do so every day.

 Pursuing this line may seem basic, even simplistic, but look where it leads.  Mary wishes to secure a research position at another institution, well beyond the junior level of her status.  It would help her greatly were she able to show some research in written form, thus she borrows from her peers and superiors a project she's been working on, perhaps even to the point of telling herself she will make amends and attribute proper credit to her coworkers, later.  Now we have a sense of how desperate Mary is and in the bargain, we have a story under way because, of course, she gets the job.

You don't believe you'd go to the extremes Mary has.  This is because of your own sense of ethics and your having wanted things such as Mary has, but taken differing approaches to achievement.

You still have a lingering resentment to the departmental politics that separated you from the University of Southern California, thus you've begun a novel set at that very university, in which a number of graduate students have begun to disappear and a character who is and is not you is supposed to solve the mystery and restore some form of justice.

Thus the question, What do you bring to story?  In this recent example, you bring revenge, but you also bring a greater reality and potential for stepping into originality because much of your short fiction has some actual or tangential relationship to the university and its bureaucracy.  You bring understanding, frustration, disappointment, and intense satisfaction to stories set at this landscape, including another irrational grudge against your own Alma mater for not taking you on, allowing you to spend thirty-four years with its crosstown rival.  From such squirts of irritation, pride, awareness, and satisfaction, you see characters who are going to bring more to your story than your mere grudge-based agendas, which you already understand to be petty.

Your first quarter at UCSB in effect took care of grudges on that level.  Here you are, at a branch of the University of California, here you are working with a dean you admire, teaching courses you've designed to push the students and you.  And here you are in a complete reversal of your situation at USC with regard to your faculty mates.

You bring to story the willingness to expand on your own limitations and motives, confident your choices of characters and their goals bring a sense of thereness to your stories.


You have to ask each individual you encounter who wishes in any way to discuss with you the possibilities of publication, What do you bring to story?  You ask, wanting specifics.  Generalities won't do it.  Sure, you bring mischief, but that wonderful word is only a cover for blowing a whistle of some sort on some sort of activity you see as an abuse of power or status or intent.

As your interest in the techniques of acting increase, you see yourself being able to go well beyond your few, scattered quirks.  You see yourself able to create characters who plagiarize, murder, loaf, impart information in which they have no belief.  You see yourself able to build characters of remarkable strength about the armatures of your current dean, your previous one, and a former student who is not only an assistant dean, he is the author of a series of detective novels involving a character with your name.

What do you bring to story?

You bring disruption, amusement, challenge, all at the expense of characters who are unwilling to experience their own darker places, then proceed beyond them, or, of course, their brighter, plateaus of discovery.  So far as you are concerned, these stand the greatest chance of all for happiness.  To find out something you bring to story that you did not know may stop you in your tracks for a day or a week or perhaps even a month, but it is a discovery that will keep you writing.

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