Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Character Studies

You are at a dinner with a group of individuals, most of whom you'd consider friends, all of whom you consider yourself to be on a first-name basis.  The host becomes aware that the levels in a number of the wine bottles has dropped, rises to open new bottles.  In doing so, he catches your eye, then appears to hesitate for a moment.

"What?"  you say, alerted.

"Thinking I saw something the other day that might make a good story for you, then realizing how many times you must hear that introduction."  He addresses himself to removing a cork, allowing you to decode the message.  

Was he truly embarrassed and trying to save face?  Was he, perhaps, playing you, inducing you to ask what the story was so that he might have the pleasure of reciting it to the guests.  For your part, you decide on a neutral response.  "Writers,"  you say, "are supposed to be curious, aren't they?"

This is choice; it calls for another response from him, allows him to shift the subject to something away from his story, allows you not to have to invite him to tell his story and, after he has finished telling it, render the judgment that it is truly a remarkable story, one he might very well write.  

You might even feel the pressure of being even more supportive.  Writers are supposed to support the merest hint of someone wishing to tell a story, aren't they? "I'll give you three months to attempt a draft," you'll say, cheerful yet serious, " before I came along and take it myself."

Add a bit of mischief here, with someone, directed at you, saying to the host, "Not to worry, he'll take it whether you do or not."

This scenario, by no means exciting, is the approach of a time well before the advent of the serious, well-structured television drama such as David Simon's memorable The Wire.  The set-up reeks of an earlier time.  

To bring this version well up to date, the host would have to be interrupted by someone, best bet his wife.  "Say you're not going to tell that dreadful story, because if you are, I'm going out in the patio for a smoke.  Anyone want to join me?  I have some of those wonderful little cigars, those Between the Acts."

At this point, someone else would chime in, "Between the Acts?Isn't that what you smoke between sex?"

And now, the host can offer a coded apology, meant to regain the spotlight and perhaps take a dig at his wife for her apparent rudeness.  "You thought it was charming when I told it to you last night."

"I was only trying to distract you from wanting to have sex."

By now there is enough atmosphere, subtext, and agenda floating about to give a reader some sense of setting, some awareness of the social echelon of the dinner guests, and whatever your status as a writer might be.  

The host can be rendered farther along in his wine intake, if you wish.  One or two of the guests can insist on hearing the host's story, and you can hop in as the narrator, needing only to add a paragraph or so at the beginning to secure your narrative rights.

As yet another approach to telling the story from this point, you or some other form of narrative can explain how, much like those pilgrims to Canterbury, some seven hundred years ago, everyone at the table has agreed to tell a story.

Much depends on who the narrator of this scenario is, and who the you is in relation to the other guests.  With so many present, shall we say six, seven, eight, the agenda of each characters becomes of growing significance.

Are you a single guest, or have you a significant other?  Who is the host?  What is his relationship to his wife?  Are they always like that to one another?

If you were not otherwise involved, you might carry this speculation to a full draft, if only to see the outcome and then to judge whether the outcome has revealed to you anything you didn't know about yourself, the you, or the other guests.

Stories can no longer be left to an outline or spreadsheet.  They must reveal some anomalous discover.  They must contain some reminder that we gather under the guise of civility and companionship but at some point become escaped prisoners of our own visions.  Those escapees are looking to see how much hurt or humiliation they can inflict under the guise of wit and civility, done so because we have ourselves experienced hurt and humiliation of some sort and perhaps not too long ago.

Will the characters in this scenario gather next week at some other home, drink approximately the same amount of wine, say a few snide things, then find other opportunities to express friendship, loyalty, and that sense of bonding and chemistry shared by individuals who have known one another for a good stretch of time?

The story has unlimited permutations, reliant on the agendas and intentions of the characters.  Put them together.  Pour a sixty-dollar bottle of wine or what used to be called Two-Buck-Chuck at Trader Joe's.  Or pour no booze, only coffee or herb tea.  If there are secrets or attitudes, they will surface.  If there is a new person or persons in the group, watch the old timers at work, trying to dig out background material.

And if you're there, or someone like you, won't that person say , "Writers are supposed to be curious, aren't they?" 

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