Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Characters

Of all the characters who have set foot within narratives created by you, two bear the closest resemblance to an actual person.  One of these, Derek James, appeared, at first nameless, in the office of your principal character, in a fictional college campus somewhere in the boondocks of the California Central Valley.

The moment he held a tea cup in his hand, you began to have suspicions.  When, after a few moments, he garroted the tea bag in his spoon by wrapping its strong about the bag, then tightening it, your suspicions were confirmed.  He was a Brit and he was your epic good friend, Digby Wolfe, stepping on board in the story as he had so often in life.

Wolfe had a habit of garroting his tea bags in real life, often when the two of you, polar opposites in working habits, marshaled your forces to work on a project.

Wolfe had assigned to himself the name of Derek James in a novel the two of you were collaborating on, at once a satire on the Program at which you both taught at the University of Southern California, and a political venture showcasing the neo-Marxist philosophies so inclusive of both your political visions.

The other close-to-real character was Conrad Burnaby, whose first appearance came in an Australian glossy magazine, focusing on a writer's conference you were to be a part of Down, as they say, Under.  The name Conrad Burnaby was a not-too-subtle play on your only other friend of the experience, chemistry, and exchange you shared with Wolfe.  Anyone who knew Barnaby Conrad would recognize the play on the name.  

Your favorite depiction of this character was as the proprietor of a chop shop, that energetic enterprise that openly took in stolen automobiles in order to chop them into component parts for sale to foreign countries and off market repair venues, an automotive equivalent of cheap knock-offs of big-ticket wrist watches.

Conrad Burnaby also had a sideline of replica wrist watches, an open steal from Conrad's fondness for buying five-dollar Rolex watches on his travels to the Orient.  Since Conrad was stunning in his abilities as a trompe l'oeil artist, you also had him at work on counterfeit hundred-dollar bills.

As you reflect on these depictions of two of your dearest friends, you begin to realize how each one evoked for you a particular presence you were able to play on in ways that began to suggest to you what your more invented creations ought to do.  Characters for which more whole cloth was required tend to do better with a full biography of them in mind. written to suggest some dominant trait.  The dominant trait is to be set in motion as a counterpoint to some governing trait or agenda.

Wolfe, through his creation of the television series Laugh-In, had found a way to criticize human foibles, then, with greater specificity, the foibles of governments.  But television networks had him so hemmed-in with conventions and their own need to heed demographics that they began to rein him in and he began to vent more spleen at them.  His great moment of triumph came when he induced a sitting President of the United States to appear on Laugh-In, delivering one of the iconic lines from that show, "Sock it to me."  The POTUS's inflection had to be, and was, on the last word.  "Sock it to me?"

Characters based on Wolfe were nervous, circling. cynical, looking for a weak spot, including those on himself.  You got to know this aspect so well, you believed you could play him.  And so the plan began to grow.  Why stop with playing only him?  And why shouldn't a writer play all characters to come forth within story?

Conrad was a great raconteur.  You'd long since become his editor, thus your near muscle memory ability to anticipate his speech patterns.  The way an actor would play Barnaby Conrad was to take his love of telling a story, combine it with his curiosity about how things worked, and his fascination for machines with a large number of working parts.  "Look at the work that machine does,"  he'd tell you, "just to achieve that one small activity."  This was meant in admiration rather than any sense of judgment or criticism.

Virginia, one of your two mentors, was an actor.  You'd been conscious of and observant of actors for some time.  Thus when another friend, Leonard Tourney, approached you to join him in producing a series of mysteries to be performed at banquet dinners, you were overjoyed to participate.  

You were able to pay professional actors a comfortable sum for their one night of improv, but more important to you, you were able to act with professionals, getting a sense of who the essential actor you was, understanding what your voice for the performance had to be and how the term voice had nothing to do with diction, rather with attitude.

Among the most glorious gifts you've realized were the times with Wolfe and Conrad.  When you walk or think, they sometimes rattle within you.  Work and friendship with them meant the give-and-take of friendship of that remarkable sort where you came to be able to finish sentences for them and they able to finish sentences you'd begun.  With  lesser friends, such things could become an irritation.  With great friends, this behavior is the sense of houses with open doors.

You knew to give Conrad Serrano hams from Spain for Christmas and Wolfe, well, his eyes lit up over the bangers sausages from Butcher Arts.  And they pretty well had your number.  But those were the tangible gifts.  The best gifts of all were the gifts of timing.

The best things you can do for them now is to keep Derek James and Conrad Burnaby busy in stories, hopeful someone will experience them, then say to you, What remarkable characters.  How on earth did you dream them up?

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