Saturday, May 23, 2015


There is another truth, universally acknowledged, that a character with a goal of remaining within a precise set of boundaries cannot be allowed to remain within those boundaries with any hope of taking a front-rank role in a story.

By its definition, the story cannot allow this condition to take place, lest it lose its dramatic shape and in the process become a narrative or tale, but not a story.  Adding to the conventions and zoning laws of story, a front-rank character must at some stage feel driven to the outermost reaches of her or his boundaries, then given a shove of sufficient intensity to allow the reader to see that character in a stagger, stumble, or other defensive maneuver to prevent straying over the boundary.

Story wants its A teams, the Protagonists and the Antagonists, to feel the persistent presence of forces that will not stop until the shove has been delivered to the character, and crisis time has arrived.  This is a basic standard for the contemporary story.  In its way, it has been a basic standard  throughout the history of the story, which extends at least to the many tales presented to us at the end of the fourteenth century in The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer.

Such is the nature of story that it may be taken out of context, which is to say out of its time of composition, where many of the characters, events, or conventions were of political and cultural moment as well as being a part of a confection assembled to entertain or as well to educate.  Many of the actual politics of, say, the Shakespearean histories, are long past, yet their conflicts, crises of moral choice, and commentary on human nature, seen as pure story, still draw our sympathy and empathy.

We can see enormous changes in social, political, artistic, and scientific boundaries, but we see in many of Chaucer's characters the behavior, attitudes, and agendas of the parade of suspects appearing before us in nighttime television and the popular press.  In a real sense, idiocy and self-interest have been democratized.

Critical theory, applied to story, provides different lenses through which we can see the messages buried within the characters, their strengths and foibles, and their institutions.  Suffer two more examples from Shakespeare:  Hamlet was given the task of avenging his father's murder, a mission that brought what may well have been hidden or sublimated psychological urges out into the open.  

By acting on these dark messages, Hamlet's life was irrevocably shoved over boundaries and into free fall. Macbeth was encouraged to follow the clarion calls of his own ambition, well beyond the boundaries of the man who is presented to us first as a skilled military leader, loyal to his king.  Now, we see him struggle with the conscience at first preventing him from killing his king to being able to step into the persona of an entirely different person.

We leap the six-hundred-year span from Chaucer's time and the four-hundred-year span from Shakespeare to the present, our tastes in the presentation and modes of story enhanced, often to the point where we can no longer with confidence distinguish between the fanciful nature of satire and the human nature of Reality.

Story and human nature have advanced upon our time lines in parallel lines, demanding now that the Protagonist and Antagonist be pushed to the verges of their landscape then forced over.  The unthinkable has come to pass. Now that these worthies have tasted the unthinkable, we assemble to feast on the new possibilities available.

From time to time, either in conversation or written commentary, you hear a yearning for stories that do not appear to celebrate the darker sides of the Human condition.  Well and good; a story need not be dark for the mere sake of darkness any more than it should be light for some misbegotten parental sense that lightness is encouragement and darkness the product of despair.

We had several years of lightness and lightheartedness, thanks to Hollywood as metaphor for the bulk of the motion picture industry.  That vision was manipulated and controlled in ways best described as Orwellian, where even the players were manipulated and kept in a state of thralldom to which generations of young aspired.  Imagine a pre-Civil War teenager yearning to become a slave.  

Story has often taken the role of trespassing on the boundaries of convention, a comet, to use a metaphor, of aspiration, talent, and determination, unwilling to remain locked in the prison of the dual nature of humanity.  The comet hurtles through the space of time, lighting up the sky for those who read and think.

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