Saturday, December 3, 2016

Poor Players Who Strut and Fret

There are a number of givens or speaks-for-it-self aspects to creating characters that alternately challenge, baffle, and amuse you. When all is said and done, your basic relation ship to characters, those you create for your own attempts at fiction and those you readily accept into the green room of your sensitivities as they emerge from the works of your favored writers, is one where characters begin as a large blob of motive or desire.

What is it exactly that these not-yet individuals want?

Your own first level of awareness is to see the character as an armature of desire about which you wrap layers of traits, blemishes, and special qualities that add humanity to the overall desire. You accomplish this in your own composition by thumbing through the mug book of persons you've known, individuals you admire on a role model basis or as individuals you see in varying degrees of belief that the world would be better without them.

If you did not have the need to create characters of your own, chances are your interest in how others create characters would be academic to the degree you are an academic, of mild interest since you've been a reviewer of books for over forty years.

But you do have the need and so you begin with a created character having some wish to be somewhere other than where she is, doing something other than what she is or is not doing right now, wishing to understand why she continues to prefer vanilla ice cream when there are so many other flavors (or, for that matter, pistachio sorbet) available, or having recently made a discovery (such as the protagonist of Katherine Mansfield's short story "Bliss,") that will precipitate a life-changing shift of perspective.

Back in the past role of an editor learning his craft, you came in daily contact with characters who seemed as unreal and otherwise convincing as the occasional menu item at the nearby Brownie's Deli appearing with a French or Italian designation and, indeed, a small French or Italian flag.  

How, you asked Brownie (whose true name was Sam) could one expect trustworthiness of gnocchi or salade nicoise on a menu whose staples were matzoh and eggs, corned beef on rye, skirt steak, gefilte fish, or the Selkirks (think whitefish)platter?

"Vera," Sam would say, referring to his wife. "She thinks a note of class will draw customers (Sam was clear about customers as opposed to Vera's more lofty clientele) from north of Wilshire." True enough, you were considerably south of Wilshire; even south of Pico south of Wilshire, and yet customers came for the Selkirks and the skirt steak and the corned beef.

One day, you did hear someone order a salade nicoise, and you did hear Vera's stage whispered "See!"  But moments later, you also heard an exchange you could not wait to return to your office to record for whatever posterity you might contact.  "You call this a salade nicoise? How is this--this thing--in any way a salade nicoise? Is there some joke here? Is this a prank? 'Smile, you're on Candid Camera.'"

"How is it such a fine fellow as yourself comes to Brownie's Deli for salade nicoise in the first place. People don't come here for salade nicoise, they come for pastrami and for blintzes and for chopped liver."

After a few more exchanges, Sam, who is passionate enough in his proprietorship of Brownie's Deli, has the last word. "I put salade nicoise on the menu because someone such as yourself might come in here one day and think to reach out for something he doesn't always get for lunch. If you can't see salade nicoise in this dish, I don't know if I can trust you with my lox and eggs."

Back in your office, a scant half block away, you do your best to capture the drama you've heard. You are in your late thirties, feeling the sense of being in transit. You've had several types of jobs by this time, not the least of which was being a shill for a Wheel O' Fortune booth at a county fair, where you were to win pounds of coffee, a large canned him, sides of bacon, and a ten-pound sack of flower known to have weevils, your "winning" performances becoming inducements to others to plunk their quarters down on the betting board before the next spin of the wheel.

You were "losing" stuffed dogs and teddybears purchased from a wholesaler in downtown Los Angeles to individuals who'd successfully knocked over milk bottles with weighted bottoms, after having spend at the very least fifteen dollars.

You were writing short stories and pulp American history episodes in the Doheney Library at USC before your evening teaching schedule began. But mostly, and mostly without realizing it at the time, you were taking in glimpses of individuals such as yourself and most unlike yourself, all experiencing extraordinary things which come out, seemingly from nowhere, every time you need a character for your own work or seek a face to put on a character you meet in the pages of a novel or short story.

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