Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Your Presence Is Required

In order to carry the weight of being a lead in a story, the individual character has to be alert at all times.  The alertness relates to being able to spot targets of opportunity that will bring the character in range of the character's ultimate goal.

The character must also be alert to the agendas of other characters, attempting--not always with great success--to see who is to be trusted, who is to be ignored, who is a potential threat.

Your own caveat in this litany of things the lead character must be on the watch for is the opportunity to make mistakes.  A story is an open invitation for mistakes of technique and logic on the part of the writer; the story must also afford lead characters the opportunity to screw up in epic and barely noticeable proportions.  

This necessity is because of your tendency to do such things, your observation that many humans have a screw-up genome, and many characters seem to revel in the potential, thus we all merge in the spirit of screwing up, characters large and small.  Edward Casaubon, from Marianne Evans' Middlemarch, comes to mind as a character who outdoes his own pomposity and ineffectuality, which for him are the norm, with movements and gestures outside his own ineffectual demeanor.

A lead character must, you believe, project an aura of desire for the things that drive the story.  It is not enough to wish to be loved, the character may wish to be loved by a number of individuals as a sort of trial balance, but wishes as well to attract, then hold the love one one other character in particular.  Witness Heathcliffe in Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights.  

Your reasoning behind all this began to come into focus when Sol Stein, whom you first knew as a publisher, then as a friend, then as a writer whom you were paid to edit for one thing only.  He warned you off the standards of line edit and narrative.  He wanted you to seek out soft spots, then suggest ways in which they could be reworked to aspects of shimmering presence or reverberation of tension or suspense.

You found such places for him, argued with him through his reasons why certain things had to remain as they were, and why certain other things could not be deleted.  Those activities and conversations helped you focus on things you were doing, but calling them other names.  Once focus began to sharpen for you, you found yourself able to say without hesitation that the moment a character set foot in the immediate present of a narrative, that character, however minor, should be "on," which is to say engaged with some time frame such as the present or the immediate past.  What, in effect, am I to do now? And What Have I done?

Katherine Mansfield (1888-1923), whose stories you seem to admire with increasing fondness, has this quality of presence although some of her stories border on being one hundred years old.  Her characters are so "in the moment" that it has come to you to use her stories to illustrate and exemplify the points you hope to make in your work in progress, A Character Prepares: Acting Techniques and Wisdom to Bring Your Characters to Vibrant Life.

You can hear some editors questioning your choice.  Why her, so far back in the past?  And your answer, because she has lasted, because most, if not all, her stories vibrate with an insistent sense of nowness, without the need for stage directions, footnotes, or reader feeder conversations between characters in order to bring dramatic information on stage.

Soft spots are places where the narrative sags, borne down by the weight of too much fact or detail, too much insistence from the writer that certain bits of information must be presented to the reader now, the literary effect of serving a delinquent in child payments with a court order to show cause why he should be allowed to get away with such mischief.

You edit your own work to remove soft spots, argue with vigor when an editor points them out in your own work, aware of course that the more intense your argument the greater the probability the editor was correct.  Now to fix the problem.  Often the fix can be effected with action verbs.  If the fix involves verbs of thought or conjecture, the root cause is due to one character misinterpreting the actions of another character.

Are you with me on this?

You think so.

Think?  You think?  After all we've been through here?

Intensity is not achieved with descriptions or suppositions; intensity comes from the observation to the gut or heart, to some glandular effect, which triggers response.

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