Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Character as Bleu or Roquefort Cheese. Possibly Stilton.

In the course of learning the intricacies of story, you heard any number of basic terms, tried to memorize their meanings and significance, then set out to identify them in actual, published stories.  

Some of these terms, you later discovered, came right out of the quintessential cataloger of Western thought, Aristotle.  Significant among these terms was rising action, which meant in essence that opposing forces had to accelerate; they could not stay where they were.  Your father, who had a way with such things, put it in context for you.  "Things start out bad, then gradually get worse."

You had a good deal more trouble figuring out denouement, in the process marking up a few paperback short story collections purchased at a used book store.  When you'd thought you had denouement down cold, you felt you'd earned your way into the club.  You not only knew a salient factor of story telling, you knew it in French.  

But when, in what you hoped would be taken as a brotherly exchange between writers, you asked one hard-drinking pulp writer you much admired, "When do you start laying the groundwork for your denouement?" he asked you in no uncertain terms what the fuck you were talking about.

Never mind that in about ten years, you'd have this writer sitting across the desk from you in a publishing venue, talking about a novel he was going to write for you.  Nor should you mind the fact that when he said, "And this is where it's all going to come together as a build up for the payoff," you were able to say, "the denouement," and he was able to say, "Yeah." you for a certainty understood what denouement was and more or less how it worked.

You are not equivocating with that attribution of "more or less" to your understanding.  Some aspects of story did not sink in on first hearing, nor, if they did, were you able to make anything practical of them.  When an editor once told you he'd buy a story of yours if you upped the pace in the last fifteen hundred or so words, you said "sure thing," but you had no idea how to accomplish that until you asked another writer, who asked you one of those questions with the word fuck in it, then said, "Use shorter sentences.  Have one- and two-word dialogue exchanges. Make your paragraphs shorter."

By this time, you may well have heard the expression "worthy opponent," but any attention you gave to that notion was to pick a character who was causing your protagonist the most trouble, then have him or her wrinkle brows in thought.  You recall one case where "she squeezed her hands into tight fists," by which you meant this person to be both frustrated and thoughtful.

At the time, the L.A. Times had as book review editor one of the better critics going in the popular press, Robert Kirsch, whom you knew from your own time at the Associated Press night office in the L.A. Times building, and from his teaching at the graduate journalism school at UCLA.  He began coming to the Friday poker games in your office in the student union, from which you edited the campus humor magazine.

Was it a question you'd asked him?  Or was it his raising the matter in a discussion.  Could have been either, or none of those, rather the kinds of discussions the Friday poker games brought to sometimes vociferous exchanges of opinion.  This sounds more a likely prospect, because you will, for what's left of your forever, associate the term with Bob Kirsch and reckon your protagonist must go up against someone shrewder if not outright smarter, an individual with layers of warmth and humor among those of cunning, self-interest, obstinacy, and all-around intransigence.  

Those words and admonitions stuck to the point where there are times when your loyalty toward the protagonist begins to shift.  You want the antagonist to win.  You are close to the point where you are rooting for him or her.  At such times, you think of Kirsch and recognize him for what he was--an influence.

In recent years, the lines between protagonist and antagonist in the stories you like most have blurred. Neither is a paradigm, either of good or of self-interest, evil, or wrong-headedness.  Each is more like Roquefort or Bleu cheeses, with those veins of blue-green mold that provide such a sharp-but-pleasant tang.

Protagonists come with flaws of one sort or another, ranging from being in a twelve-step recovery program to anger management or even some bi-polar conversations that interfere with their day-to-day routine.  Ishmael is a perfect example, a man who knows the warning signs of gloom that depress him.  When the signs appear, he signs on a ship to lead the life of a sailor.  His luck is to sign on The Pequod, a ship captained by a madman.

The antagonist ought to be as good as or a tad better than the protagonist, weighted down with goals and quirks to produce a troubled individual of whom we might wonder, which burden pulled this individual into this behavior, and for what purpose.

Certain among your speculations about the characters you create, and the characters of others whom you admire for their layers of tenacity, are your own speculations about yourself and your own tenacity or lack thereof.

All of this goes back to those questions you ask of a story when evaluating it, in particular the one, Why you?  Why are you the one to tell this story, in this way?


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