Saturday, April 2, 2016

The Engines of Character

 Many of your fondest memories are dramatic in nature, yet they have nothing to do with story. They are made memorable because of a trait you associate with story, the momentary and lingering sensations of emotion you associate with Real Time events and the dramatic time spent within a story.

Within your memory of the event, you see individuals, places, the sense of some form of life working its way along, but no necessity the kinds of outcome required by the driving force of plot in a story. Perhaps the memory is of a meal or an incident that took place during the arc of a meal. 

Perhaps there was some component of story in place, say you being concerned about a task you were about to undertake and the attendant questions you might have had about your ability to engage much less perform the task well. Then the memory concludes with you, confident in the midst of performing the task.

At one time in your earlier years, your focus was on such moments, which you'd come to think of as vignettes, because you were not quite ready yet to get your creative head around scenes. You could read scenes in plays and novels, you could watch them in motion pictures, but you were still some time away from being able to conceive of a scene of your own. 

Without any need for explanation, this made perfect sense to you to the point where you recall telling a friend that so far as you were concerned, life was a series of vignettes. There was no grout or mortar to hold them together. A portion of your life, at that time, was waiting around for a new vignette to begin.

While you were in this vignette-to-scene transition, you were vocal in your opinion that novels and plays were remembered more because of the characters than the plots. Even after you'd begun teaching, you were clinging to this belief, at the same time telling students almost enough about characters to convince them you must know what you were talking about. But one day, a student challenged your view with her belief that the only reason for remembering a character was because of what the character wanted.

You remember that incident as your Gregor Samsa moment because your sleep that night was uneasy and because you were in a sense edged irrevocably beyond the vignette and into the scene as a container or crucible in which the character was heated beyond the point of being able to behave the way your characters in your vignettes behaved. 

"Who are they?" you asked your students the very next week. "What do these characters want?" With an emphatic slap of your palm on the lectern for emphasis, you asked, "What are they willing to do to get what they want?"

"We are taught in acting school," the student who'd challenged you into your Gregor Samsa moment, "to ask one other question, 'Why do they want it now?'"  Her comment excited you once again because you'd got three questions out of four. Nodding, you said, "In time, we'll consider the fifth question in this series, which is, 'How do they behave after they've got what they wanted?'"

In those moments, you could feel yourself go up in the estimation of your students, but more important than estimation, you understood that you saw beyond vignette, into the more nuanced dimensions of the scene.

You felt energized in a way you'd seldom felt being energized before. For certain, you were a new arrival at the plateau of no longer having to wait between vignettes, certainly not in story and not with any approximation of the previous frequency in Real Time.

Did this mean you were now fully realized and could spin forth the endless streams of story you dreamed of spinning?  Hardly. But from that point onward to the present, you began thinking of your favorite characters from your favorite authors with a greater awareness and sense of intimacy than you thought of your friends. 

These individuals, first and foremost, were quirks and imperfections, wrapped about the armature of a specific goal. They were in fact definitions you'd memorized from a workbook in elementary physics, encountered first while a high school summer school student."Force is a vector quantity, expressing magnitude and direction," the workbook told you. "A vector is an arrow, drawn to scale, representing the direction in which the force is pointed." A character is a vector, you said.  A character wants something, which desire then wraps itself about the armature of that goal.

That business of wrapping about an armature is close to the definition of the basic element of the electric motor. All you have to do is power the motor and it begins to spin. All you have to do is cause a character to want something.

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