Character is the Key

Yes, it’s a reduction, and the great things about reductions is that they are easily true: when Shakespeare has the Melancholy Jacques tell us “All the world’s a stage,” we say, “sure. Life is a performance. Why not?”

We don’t extend the metaphor: we don’t ask, if the world is a stage, who is in the audience? Must we please the audience (Shakespeare’s simile suggests that actors don’t care about the consequence of their performance–they just do their “many parts” and then–pun intended- depart). Who is on the stage crew that raises and lowers the curtain and moves the props around? Who wrote the script? And (most important of all), can we players who strut and fret our hours–improvise? Can we deviate from the script? Can we ignore it and still put on a great show?

My reductionist metaphor regarding storytelling, specifically the kind of writing that goes into a novel, is “character is the key.” For me, this means many things.

  1. The most attractive and compelling element of a story is the way the audience perceives itself in the characters, plot and setting. That means people must make a quick, sympathetic connection to elements in the story, which happens mostly by seeing themselves (or elements of their personal experience) in the characters, plot and setting.  Alfred Hitchcock once wrote “Without wanting to seem immodest, I can’t help but compare what I try to put in my films with what [Edgar Allen] Poe put in his stories: a perfectly unbelievable story recounted to readers with such a hallucinatory logic that one has the impression that this same story can happen to you tomorrow. And that’s the rule of the game if one wants the reader or the spectator to subconsciously substitute himself for the hero, because, in truth, people are only interested in themselves or in stories that could affect them.”
  2. If we look at a story as a three-legged stool, the setting and the plot can be deficient and still compel a reader. This is typical of mysteries, whose plot outcome is known to the reader in advance, and fantasy or science fiction settings based on marvelous but unrealistic aspects of our own world. If the character of the detective hero, the wizard’s apprentice or the spaceship captain fails to interest–or his action conflicts with what we know about ourselves to be true–we put the book down, change the channel or do something else with our lives.
  3. The way to “fix” difficulties, contradictions and logic flaws in a plot, or determine how much detail is necessary in the setting, is also through the examination of the story’s characters.

It is this last understanding that, for me, has been most useful. I’ve frequently “hit a wall” when writing. This wall usually takes the form of a question: How would your character be able to do that? How would your character know that? Why would your character want to do that? Where will your character get that? What will your character see-hear-smell-feel when she goes into this room, and how much of that will be important later on?

This wall has stopped me so many times. But, in retrospect, this stopping has been, at most, a pause that requires me to look deeper into my characters and get to know them better. Sometimes I must build into the story a scene that shows how a character may develop a specific skill, taste, body of knowledge or predilection. Other times I must bring forward the very natural fear and anxiety that uncertainty can inspire, and then have the character improvise her way through.

In doing this, I duplicate with my characters a very human hope: that we all have the inherent means to cope with what life can throw at us, and that, in coping, our lives become more rewarding and meaningful.

This is why I think art is a necessity.

  1. We make it for reasons that are rarely sufficient or clear–even those who do it for the money eventually come to the point when they realize that there are better ways to make a living.
  2. We may like or even love an aspect of creation, or performance. but, every good feeling authorship may bring us, it pays us back in worry, woe and insult when our work is rejected, denigrated or ignored.
  3. If we crave recognition and don’t get it, we plunge into a tightening downward spiral of bitterness and despair as we blame others, or, worse, discover deficiencies in our work and ourselves.
  4. If we get a little bit of fame, we find that we can’t manage our reputation. People we don’t know hate us because we’re famous and make us a target for their unrealized ambition. People we don’t know ascribe to us faults and calculations: we’re accused of “selling out.”
  5. Those who persist soon realize the cost: the rest of the world is having fun on a Saturday night, or consuming themselves to a blissful delirium, while we’re struggling with the placement of a comma.
  6. Those who become “successful” realize a different cost: people we don’t know, who work in industries we will never fully comprehend, depend on what we do for their identity, status and livelihood. We are revered only as long as survival (the ability of our products to make money in the marketplace, or generate attention on the Internet) seems secure. If we should appear undependable, hesitant, inconsistent, “flawed” or merely human, or our products–for no fault in ourselves–fail to meet expectations, we are cast down, like false gods, to make way for the next savior.
  7. When we must turn our backs to these things, when the world with which art helps us cope seems thoroughly unacceptable, we remember the art we experienced in our past: the great stories, great pictures, great music, great movies, great TV shows that we enjoyed so much that we innocently thought, wouldn’t it be great if I could do this?

Another reduction is that the process of making art, and experiencing it, returns us to cherished innocence in which we believe, not just that anything that can happen, but that the right things will.





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