Friday, December 5, 2008

The Characters in the Play

The characters in the play, in other words, need to help write the play. Write the play that fits the genre in which they wish to exist. The kind of world in which they want to live. Write themselves the kind of role they see for themselves. The kind of role they want to play.

The playwright has chosen to do only so much after all, and the characters must do their part. They must develop. Well. Their own character, their own logic. Their own attitudes. Their own motives. Their own particular places in the action.

It’s kind of like improv. Only instead of stand-up comedy, it’s stand-up narrative. Stand-up playing. Stand-up theater. You and the other actors in your play are all improvising your parts, largely.

I say play, but pick your literary form. Pick your medium. Could be a movie. Could be a novel. Could be a narrative poem. Could be. Oh, I don’t know. A TV show.

But here’s the idea. You’re an actor, see, if it’s in one of the performing arts. Or you’re an agent, if it’s purely literary. Purely written and not performed. A clue is that an agent is not fully human yet. So also is an actor with respect to his character. They are both proto-characters in search of their full human identity. Actor or agent in search of who they will be. Who they will choose to be. What role they will actually play. And that role may change. May evolve. One hopes it does, because with experience, one would hope there is some learning and some changing. As one interacts with others, develops relationships with others, one hopes one would change to accommodate the needs of others. One hopes for a dynamic quality to the performance.

In other words, you start off in the life of the narrative as something pretty close to a blank. A mere possibility. A possibility, however, that is qualified by certain constraints. Certain givens about your circumstance. Some are given more options than others here. And as the narrative progresses, you realize progressively more and more of the possibility you’ve been given. You make choices. You select a particular path through the landscape. Everywhere you go, there are branches off the path you are on, and you are therefore making choices all the time.

The path you take is selected from a many, many possible paths. You become individuated. Your genre almost selects you based on these individual choices you make. Let’s use weather as a metaphor for genre. So your path leads you to. Oh. San Diego, for example, where, except for the June Gloom, it is mostly sunny and warm. Comedic, let us say. Or you select a set of paths that take you to Barrow, Alaska, for example, where for six months of the year, it’s dark, and for most of the year, it’s cold. More of a potentially Tragic sort of a place, where you really must scramble to make any sort of a living at all, where there are few jobs to speak of, and where hunting and fishing are the principal occupations. Which is in contrast to San Diego, where the jobs are plentiful, of great variety. Et cetera.

But let’s shift our metaphor back to the theater, for a moment. So you’re an actor, let’s say. A male actor, who finds himself in a play, playing A, for example. A young man fresh out of Columbia University with a degree in English, of all things. (Who gets a degree in English, you moron? What were you thinking? You can’t get any sort of a job with a degree in English. A good-paying job, I mean. Oh, you can be a clerk or dishwasher or bathroom attendant. Yes. If you want a career in cash register jockeying, an English degree is ideal. But otherwise, you are up a sorry, stony, dried-up creek-bed without a paddle, Fella!)

Where was I? Oh. Then A meets B, a successful comedienne on Saturday Night Live. And that’s it. That’s all you’re given. Now you make up who you are as you go. And what you do. What your attitude is. What your values are. What you believe. What kind of a life you want. Improvise!

You decide what your genre will be. What kind of story you will live inside. What you’d like the beginning, middle, and end to look like. To live like.

For example, here’s one plot and implicit genre that you might try to fashion for yourself: A falls in love with B, but B doesn’t fall in love with A until late in the third act, when A goes to work for an NGO in Darfur. A is rivaled by C for B’s affections, a rich up-and-comer investment banker. C woos B in A’s absence. A feeds the hungry and contracts a disease that almost kills him. He’s rushed back to New York for critical medical care. B helps to nurse him back to health, revives his will to live type of deal. C proves himself to have been a linchpin in the development and sale of mortgage-backed securities. B finally rejects C for his moral bankruptcy. Word-play intended. A writes a best-selling book about his experiences in Darfur. A and B marry, taking an apartment together in SoHo, where they live a bon vivant type of life, routinely having parties for the cast of Saturday Night Live and the homeless, in which everyone yuks it up over hors d’oeuvres and drinks.

Or here’s another plot and implicit genre you might try on for size: A never falls in love. He’s kind of like Woody Allen in Annie Hall, except that instead of falling in and out of love, he never falls in love. He’s too demanding. Too picky. Too whiny. He meets a nearly infinite number of possible Bs, but each of them is faulty. Each of them is something less than perfect. A knows what he’s looking for. He knows exactly what he’s looking for. But he can’t find a B that meets all the requirements. So he becomes a career employee of the New York Public Library. He works in the bowls of the organization on obscure conservation projects. He slowly gets his MA in Library Science, one course at a time. He saves his money carefully for his retirement. He’s promoted slowly over the decades after he receives his MA. He begins to take winter vacations in Belize, where he delights in sea kayaking. He begins to dream of retiring early there. He saves his money carefully, almost never going out, eating macaroni and cheese for dinner or spaghetti, looking forward to the day when he can retire to Belize—he loves the sound of that word, when he says it—where he can live in the sun. But then one day, at his desk, he dies.

In other words, you have a great deal of latitude here. Particularly in North America. You in fact have a great deal of freedom. But so does everyone else. You may have difficulty getting your plot to turn out exactly as you wish, but your character and your attitude. That wonderful Mr. Wonderful You. Is the one aspect of this whole metaphor that you have quite significant choice over. (Particularly with 21st century psycho-active drugs.) And to the extent that character can increase the probability of genre—and it can quite profoundly—you always have that.

Plot. The particulars of plot. Well. That’s a bit more iffy. As I say. What with freedom running rampant all around us and a certain randomness embedded in everything.

But I’m repeating myself. But I’m repeating myself.

The point is that the structure of the world is open in some significant measure. Is open in the sense that much of it can be up to you.

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