Saturday, March 19, 2016

Hand it Over

The first time you appeared in a police line-up and were picked by a witness you could not see, you suspected the outcome was part of an elaborate prank, orchestrated by a friend who was a senior detective with the Homicide Robbery division of the LAPD. A voice over the loudspeaker directed Number 2 (you) to step forward and say, "Hand it over."

You did as directed, modifying your voice to imitate the actor Sheldon Leonard, who frequently portrayed mobster types and had a running presence on the Jack Benny Radio Show as the robber who accosts Benny with the line, "Your money or your life," giving way to an iconic retort from Benny, "I'm thinking, I'm thinking."

"It was your voice that convinced the witness," your friend, the detective, said later as you were tucking into the police special at Taylor's Steak House, bourbon rocks, water back, a wedge of iceberg lettuce topped with blue cheese, and a steak sandwich. You'd been asked to appear in the line-up because you were of an age and type described by the victim of a hold-up. 

The fact of you being noticed was satisfaction, the greater fact of your appearance approximating that of a robber was a flattering affirmation of your self-image being so diverse. At the time, you were editor in chief of a moderately successful publishing company, but being mistaken for an armed robber spoke of your potential for menace as well as editorial gravitas.

You were in two subsequent line-ups, related to you being a regional officer in the Mystery Writers of America. In the first of those, you were again identified, picked from a group of six. Two robins do not make a Spring, but being "identified" twice did set in motion an association with times when, as a fledgling Screen Extras' Guild associate, you'd been chosen to play bit parts on live television dramas.

The association linking audition and police suspect line-up started you on your way to considering the nature of choosing characters to populate concepts you were striving to expand into full-blown stories. This was an apt approach for you because of your then belief that you had little or no ability in the matter of organizing plot-driven stories. 

Your ultimate solution was to turn to character-driven stories, which is to say selecting individuals who were forced to make a decision, take some action toward achieving a deeply felt goal, or avoiding consequences of past mistakes or indiscretions.

This approach appears to have worked for you. When you have need of a character, you in effect conflate the police line-up and the casting call, then wait around to see who shows up and how they will present themselves. 

Sometimes, you'll vary the routine slightly, scrolling through your friends and acquaintances for types and for quirks, aware that the more prone they are to idiosyncratic notions and personalized traits, the greater the chances they will suggest more to you in the ways of vital surprises and behavior traits.

As a general rule, one individual per story can approximate your sensitivities, but the rest must be immediately distinguishable from you, otherwise the entire cast will end up sounding like you, using your vocabulary, complete with habit words, and tendencies to speak in complete sentences.  Your goal is reached when a reader sees your characters as dimensional individuals rather than mere types.

You may have painted yourself into a corner with your belief that you need to write enough drafts to reach the point where story emerges, then moves along with a purposeful pace. Nevertheless.  

You enjoy the way story emerges with an inexorable force, as though you'd plotted the material in advance in the manner of the prolific, plot-driven writers you admire. The other possibility is the simple yet profound one of you having at last leaned the importance of listening to the characters tell you what they wish to do rather than trying to impose your agenda on them.

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