Thursday, June 18, 2015

An Operatic Pizza Delivery Boy and a Receptionist with a Sexy Voice

When you stop to consider the number of characters you've brought out of the shadows and onto pages of the various novels and stories you've written, you're confronted with a connection you hadn't realized:  Characters in this sense are like the persons you encounter in Real Time; the more you know them, the more likely you are to remember them.

The lesson to be learned here has to do with the need, both in Real Time and in story, to get to know these individuals in ways that resonate within you, to make efforts to secure awareness of persons from Real Time and from story.  On occasion, one individual from either world will step out to greet you, causing you the need to ask for a clue.

"I was the disgruntled cop in that story you wrote about an actor who was forced to live for a while in an AMC Pacer."

"I was the person who tried to get you to publish a novel I wrote while I was an inmate at the hospital that has now become Cal State, Channel Islands."

With those relevant details in mind, you can recall both the character from the story, and the writer, whom, at the time, you feared might not be able to engage with the editorial process to the degree you'd have liked.  Such thoughts also serve to remind you of two of your favorite characters, both as individuals and as generalities for use in introducing students to the concept of characters within story.

Like many of the characters you've offered roles in your stories, both of these were the result of incidents you experienced.  The first came when you were in a class at the University of Southern California Master's Program, The Professional Writing Program, leading a discussion on, of all things, character.  Your classes ran in the evening, usually the 4 to 6:40 time frame, meaning that it was not unusual for one or more students to bring dinner to class.

While you spoke, there was a brisk knock at the door, followed by the appearance of a rangy young man with an abundance of curly dark hair.  He held a pizza box in his hand, raised it, then asked, "Anyone here order a pepperoni pizza, extra cheese?"

In many ways, the pizza is a form of currency in universities and colleges.  You've grown used to seeing pizza boxes and their contents in the main library, class rooms, hallways, the coffee shops, and in- and outdoor study areas.  The young man, his pizza, and his question seemed in perfect harmony with the ambience of the university, except that his voice had what impressed you as a trained resonance.

"Are you by any chance--" you began to ask.

The pizza delivery man brightened.  "--his Majesty, the King of France?"

To which you replied: "'I am that,'
Bowed stiffly, and removed his hat;
Then said, "'Excuse me,' with an air,
"'But is it Mr Edward Bear?' "

To the stunned amazement of your students and the delight of the pizza delivery person, you learned that he was only "sort of" the actor you'd assumed, rather a singer with operatic career in mind.  The incident stayed with you to the point where, when you speak of characters now, you are at pains to remind students how they must know what everyone wants before he or she can enter the story, even the young man delivering pizza.

"Does he intend delivering pizza all his working life," you ask, "or is this a temporary job to support some incredible dream?  And if he intends to deliver pizza all his life. what special skills or attitudes does he bring to the task.  You had no idea this pizza delivery person from long ago was familiar with the Winnie, the Poo materials, no more than he had any reason to believe you would be.  

The other favorite character type you think of from time to time is a young woman, of about the same age as pizza delivery youth, with an attractive full moon of a face, perhaps a bit overly made up.  She was a receptionist at the Beverly Hills Tennis Club when your great friend, Digby Wolfe, was a member.  You frequently met there for lunches or for afternoon iced teas to go over writing projects while Wolfe relaxed between sets of tennis.

A number of Wolf's show business friends, such as Walter Matthau, Jack Lemon, and Shirley McLaine haunted the club, including the actor Gilbert Roland, who had been a great favorite of your mother.  From time to time, as you indulged the club's excellent Ceasar Salad or iced tea, the PA system would come alive with a tonal flourish, followed by the voice of the receptionist, announcing--announcing--drawing out the announcement so that to a significant extent, the chatter and bustle of the tennis club came to a halt as all and sundry waited to hear for whom the incoming telephone call was for.  

After a while, you got to know the receptionist, who knew--or said she accepted the facts--that her looks were not meant for the screen, but her voice was.  "Some people I know,"  she said, stopping for a long, dramatic pause,"make a respectable living doing voice over narration and recording Books on Tape."

Even these minor characters are not to be treated as throw-away.  In their appearances, they want things as much as the protagonists and antagonists,  For their brief moment on stage or page, they should have the opportunity to upstage the protagonist or antagonist, drawing attention away from them, directing it to their own urgent, questing humanity to the point where the reader/audience is nourishing some unspoken hope that they will return.

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