Sunday, October 18, 2015

The Best Characters Know a Thing or Two about Salami

There has to be a story, of course; something simple enough, a journey or a quest or even a decision to rob a bank.  The story has to have at least an atmosphere of plausibility to it, and characters, who add one of the more vital ingredients to the mixture.  

The better characters are those who bring some sort of explosive quality, like guests bringing improvised gifts to a social gathering or a dinner that irrevocably effects the event. These characters could be, probably have been, your cohorts in your fantasies; they are the men and women with whom you'd like to have more than one drink, perhaps even several.  

These are men and women who are up to no good, nor are they up to badness in particular.  To paraphrase the language of lawmakers, these characters are a clear and present danger to convention.  By charm and by the strength of their inner conviction, they subvert, co-opt, and upstage any pretense of the ordinary.

Ventures such as these, whether you are in the process of reading them or writing them, hold great joy and promise for you because they set the stage for a result you value of all others, the result of chemistry, often unanticipated, between characters or that special chemistry not even the author had planned.  

This unplanned chemistry is the author, liking the circumstances, and the author, in consequence, alert to the one or two moments in early draft where unexpected responses come forth.

The author is not, you believe, supposed to get in the way once the characters have been set loose on their wind-up orbits, but if your own experiences are any gauge, the author will sometimes see details the characters may have missed.  The author will in metaphor see a character a banana peel, which yanks him right out of refereeing the story, intent on the banana peel on which one or more characters will slip.

You did say metaphor.  The banana peel is the cue sent to the author's mischief center:  one or more of your characters are going to lose dignity soon.  They will do so by some unanticipated response to some unanticipated detail within the story, a word or two from another character, a zipper allowed to remain unzipped, a letter not sent, a microphone not turned off, a photo that should not be carried in a wallet being carried in the wallet it should not be carried in.

Some directors you know of like the idea of letting characters go off on an improvisational riff to see what kinds of possible chemistry there are between them.  Uta Hagen, an actor you much admire, writes of having been in a stage play with a famed actor who managed to leave a dead fish under a pillow on which she was supposed to be sleeping.  

You, an ardent fan of Marx Brothers vaudevillian antics, were inspired to have a long salami hidden in your prop overcoat, worn during a supposed tense scene in a play where your character was accused of being stingy and self-centered.  You can still recall the look on your accuser's face when you withdrew the salami, then handed it to him.

Much as you admire pranks and the discovered chemistry between two or more characters, this is not the end you had in mind when considering the overall outcome when a story is drawn away from the conventions of presentation and plunked instead into dramatic anarchy.  

The outcome of which you are fondest is the arrival of authorial voice, certainly in your own work but also in the stories and novels of writers long dead, still among the living, and in some cases considerably younger than you.

Much as you admire being swept along in the slipstream of a deceptively simple language, although one you recognize as having been crafted with a careful eye, you admire even more a conversational sense of being in the presence of a driven, purposeful character, close to the edge of being a lit fuse, sizzling toward some form of detonator.

Straightforward or orotund, as fraught with metaphor as a Christmas pudding or Italian Panetone, the narrative voice comes whistling through the canyons of your mind as hot and impatient as a summer Santa Ana wind, stirring up associations, impressions, and the urge to join in.

The men and women of whose works you are the fondest tend to use this quality of narrative voice as heat-seeking missiles.  On impact, they shatter the ordinary, link you to the world of their creator where you become aware of the mischievous associations spinning through your being since you were old enough to stop being so damned literal, then walk through the ghetto streets of your mind where you would not ordinarily go for fear of being solicited to ride shotgun in your own story.

Someone interesting has to want something, but someone more interesting has to come along with enough force to impact the direction of the story and the polite comfort of its vector.  The language of the narrative, dialogue, and interior monologue will become aware of this interesting force, then outdistance themselves as they weave the silken webs of intrigue.

There are already enough stories with polite comfort.  What you're waiting for is one of your characters to hand you a salami. 


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