Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Listen

If a thing happens more than once, it can be a coincidence or it can be part of a larger scheme, a step in an algorithm, on its way to a desired result.  If a thing happens only once, it can be almost anything but a coincidence; it can be a revelation.  It can also be an epiphany.

In many ways, this line of thinking leaves a question out begging.  To wit:  If a thing has happened continuously within your presence, but you only saw it once, can that be a coincidence or does it have to move on toward being a revelation or epiphany?

Can the thing be the middle part or bridge of a syllogism?  Some things happen more than once.  Many of these things are not registered, therefore--

After all these years, your uneasy relationship with the required logic of geometry in general and Euclid's Fifth Proposition, the Pons Asinorum or Bridge of Donkeys in particular.

How about as an answer, Therefore, you had to have been there in order for this to be a syllogism?

The thing you are so busy wondering about has to do with characters in stories, stage plays, TV dramas, and feature films.  Your own and those remarkable character folk from writers you read and admire as well as writers you read and have less than comfortable feelings about.

Somewhere along the way toward your concept for your new work in progress, A Character Prepares, which name you got from a book written by Constantin Stanislavsky, the noted "teacher" of actors, you put into keepable, storage-worthy use the notion of distancing yourself from the characters you create.  The more you consider the importance of this, the more you wonder what took you so long to understand why the concept has so much significance.

You have watched any number of actors as they were interviewed by knowledgeable interviewers.  You followed with some regularity the James Lipton At the Actors' Studio interviews with a wide variety of actors, many of whom said in so many words that they found it more difficult to portray characters they felt to be close in nature to themselves.  Their reasons made immediate sense:  because the actor had difficulty distinguishing which responses originated with the character or with themselves.  Many actors find it easier to "get" or understand a character at some distance from themselves.  

This brings you to the revelation or epiphany that the writer must keep self away from the characters he or she has created in order to allow them to be the persons they wish.  The persons they wish to be have to do with their goals, their agendas, their purpose.  Individuals do not by magic or happenstance appear on stage or page, clutching their goal as though it were a suitcase packed for running away from home.  Characters have a range of experiences and emotions related to those experiences.

Look, for instance, at Nora Helmer in the Ibsen Play, The Doll's House.  A significant part of the armature about which are wrapped other aspects of her personality is money.  Thus when her husband, remarking about her approaching birthday, asks her what she wants as a gift, she says "Money."  And we feel a jab to the viscera because we know something is afoot, something that is part of the dramatic force that propels the play.

Look at Blanche Dubois in Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire.  Before she says a word, we know her, thanks to her turning down the lights and taking a long pull of hooch from a hidden bottle.  We know she is not what we'd think of as strong on ego supplement.

That's shooting fish in a barrel, you say, using two female characters as brought on stage by male writers.  But let's not forget the sensitivity and observation both writers put into their respective characters and the filter of their vision they placed over the lens.

The important point to emphasize is that the more removed the characters are from you, the less likely they will be to sound like you and quite possibly quite like each other.  The best thing to learn is how these individuals must be seen with some kind of compassion and empathy.  Treat the serial killers as though they were saints but see the saints as though they had qualities that appear in serial killers.  

Characters are human; they have strong, over-achieving agendas which may lead them to cut corners, take risks, and reveal a history of past excesses, mistakes, regrettable incidents.

True enough, you concoct them, at times to fit fantasies you did not realize you had (which is to say you need to trust your ability to fantasize beyond your own level of control), but once you have a sense of them, you must listen to them.  If you've got this lesson well, you'll understand the importance of letting them tell you how they wish to behave.  You can accomplish this by allowing them to improvise, reaching into their own depths rather than yours.  Your goals are to enhance their humanity, their individuality, their difference from you.

Experiences and circumstances have caused you to become suspicious of complements for the "wonderful writing" in your work or the work of your students or, for that matter, the work of a published author.  "Wonderful writing" is a distraction, yanking the reader from story, which is, after all, the tension among characters.

Now, if someone were to tell you how remarkable your characters were, or wonder how you found them, you know what you'd say.  "Listen,"  you'd say.  "Listen."

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