Thursday, March 14, 2013

Alone and palely loitering? Oh, please.

Need is often an integral part of story.  Characters come forth wanting certain things, sometimes a great deal in physical, moral, and ethical terms, other times their goal is as small a matter as needing assurance or reassurance.

Characters who claim no overt needs--"I have everything a person could wish."--often harbor hidden agendas, which may go so far in their occult nature as to be hidden to them.  These types are excellent candidates for doing things on seeming whim.  Such characters are also vulnerable to the types of human predators who are able to in some way or other read the nature and extent of the hidden agenda.

Whenever your life moves from linear navigation to the direct pursuit of a need, the outcome moves into the realm of story.  Indeed, there are times when something as ordinary as the need for milk with which to prepare the next morning's coffee or toothpaste to maintain dental hygiene will produce the requisite elements for story.  These involve some form of reversal, frustration, or surprise.

The more you use such aspects of need in works under way or in  discussions such as this one about the nature of story, the more you realize how you've moved closer by degree to becoming one in your personal life with what you think of as either your writing life or the writing life.  Doing so, you find yourself drawn into the delicious sense of eavesdropping on yourself, simultaneously engaging in life situations or writing-related situations and stepping back to observe yourself in action.  This is in effect the same kind of advice you give students or clients.  You had not, until moments ago, regarded yourself as performing surveillance on yourself.  This carries with it the possibility that you'd become too busy eavesdropping on your characters and narrative ideas and as well eavesdropping on yourself as you navigate the streets and boulevards of Reality.

Earlier in your ongoing chore of honing your craft or, at least, craft-like approaches to telling story and writing about story, you tended to favor thoughtful-to-the-point-of-brooding characters, individuals for whom at one time you used the description lugubrious.
Even then, you would not consider using that term in an actual story, more as a guideline to prompt you forward.

To your pleasure, you appear to have written yourself through and out of that vision, honing in on individuals who've learned to internalize their lugubriousness to the point of acting that moody quality out.  A beacon light for you was John Keats's lugubrious poem, La Belle Dame sans Merci, "O What can ail thee, knight at arms/Alone and palely loitering?/The sedge has withered from the lake/ And no birds sing..."

What could be more lugubrious?  For one thing, they could be doing things that suggest to the reader (and, of course to you as the writer) their state of mind, instead of leaving you to say of them that they are afflicted and moody.

Thus equipped, you began looking for ways to allow the characters to demonstrate their feelings rather than relying on your extended vocabulary as a base from which to draw descriptions.  In early drafts, you might go so far as to say John was feeling particularly lugubrious today, but your awareness increased:  You could not get away with such tropes (in the sense of expecting to find a home in a journal for the story).

Needs must be manifest from outside behavior.  There are too many examples of mere appearance not being enough.

John, having met Mary at a gallery opening, is stimulated by her behavior to the point where he can begin to visualize a splendid, long term friendship with her and the possibility of a committed relationship.  He invites her to dinner, hopeful the conversation and interpersonal chemistry will validate his imagined scenario.  A reasonable approach to what may be regarded as a need in his life John has come to realize.  Perhaps, if you will, he has not articulated the extent of his needs, but nevertheless, Mary's behavior has triggered--John has interpreted--a set of potentials for a positive outcome.

At dinner, Mary, unaware of John's emotional empire building, confesses that one or more of the hors d'oerves she ate at the gallery opening, has caused severe gastric reactions.  John may have misread her behavior.  On the other hand, he may have found even greater charm in her behavior, having guessed at their cause.  The question you're intrigued by is whether Mary ever demonstrates such behavior again, or was her response a one-off?  Has John built a sandcastle, a house of cards, only to pave the way for an unpleasant discovery down the line.

In summary, you're looking at a single example of how two individuals with out-of-sync needs can evolve into individuals with crossed purposes.

We are most comfortable when our needs are as simple and direct as the need for milk for tomorrow's coffee or toothpaste to maintain one's oral hygiene.  The biggest problems seem to be a matter of degree so far as the fat content of the milk is concerned or Crest versus Colgate so far as the toothpaste is concerned.  We are most comfortable when our needs do not approach the potential for story, which is to say the potential for crossed purposes, misread symbols or symptoms.

The tail end of the syllogism here is out absolute delight to be found in approaching story, where the mayhem of needs is encountered in ways having nothing to do with comfort.  Story, itself, is a wild concoction, a cocktail, if you will, of discomfort.  Story, whatever its arc, brings us the satisfaction of schadenfreude, the pleasure we take when the misfortunes are those of the characters, not our own.

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