Archive for June, 2010

Life In the World

June 30, 2010

When thinking about creating fictional characters, here’s something to consider. It’s so obvious we breathe it while busily constructing backstories and personality traits and overarching goals, but may not focus attention directly on it. That is, how do these people balance their inner life with their outer population?

It’s absolutely basic: the tension between inner goals and outward demands is the main driving force of most if not all plots. Not to mention history. And real life. You may have thought of how your main characters see themselves contrasted with how others see them. But think about this: what concessions do your characters make to get along with the outside world? And where do they draw the line? How, exactly, do they manage to coexist? And where are the points of greatest vulnerability, where sensitive spots get scraped or jarred–do they have to do with physical space, spiritual striving, or self-image? Who are the sandpaper people in this character’s life? Can they be avoided, or modified, or must they simply be tolerated with a good biblical word, forbearance?

Any confined space of enforced proximity is a good place to study relationship dynamics–like an office, a school bus, or a locker room. That’s what make a TV show like The Office work: nobody really changes and there’s no plot to speak of, but viewers have been tuning in for over five years now because of character interaction. It’s like the lab work for Human Relationships 101. Since all the characters speak to the camera from time to time, each takes a turn as protagonist, but they mainly reveal themselves when firing off each other.

The Office is funny, but it’s often painful, primarily because of the two characters who can’t get out of themselves. Michael, the manager who couldn’t manage two paper clips, wants to relate and imagines that he can, but suffers from terminal cluelessness. Dwight (not assistant manager but assistant to the manager), feels perfectly sufficient unto himself and makes no concessions to anybody. But he’s also pathological. There’s always a tradeoff.

In fact, the most successful characters are the two who make the smartest trades. Jim meets provocation proactively with practical jokes, and Pam has somebody to love. Eventually, as every fan knows, they find each other, and their wedding in Season Six (“Niagra,” parts one and two) is a perfect example of creative forbearance.

On any occasion of milestone importance, like a wedding or funeral, people tend to be themselves only more so. The office occupants being what they are, and ancient family dynamics adding to the tumultuousness, Pam is headed for the rocks in the last remaining minutes before the ceremony. “This is supposed to be our day,” she sighs plaintively to her fiancée. “Why did we have to invite all these people?”

That’s really our heart’s cry, isn’t it? This is my life–why do all these people have to interfere? Because if no one ever allowed people to interfere we’d live in a world of Dwights, which is horrible to contemplate. Instead of answering sensibly, Jim just smiles, and in the next scene they’re running hand-in-hand around the corner of the church, making their getaway.

Over the next few minutes we see them donning raincoats to board the Maid of the Mist, then steaming toward the mighty and majestic falls, then repeating their vows after the boat’s captain, after which they rejoice in their private moment, heading back to land as the falls recede. Meanwhile the wedding guests are complaining or commiserating with each other. “It’s been a terrible year for love,” Michael sadly tells the bride’s mother, who has her own reasons to agree. But then, the bride and groom return. No excuses, no explanations–on with the wedding. It’s just as goofy as Pam feared, but that’s okay: this is life, and the glances she and Jim send each other are reassurances that as long as they have each other (and Niagra Falls) they’ll be able to balance the goofiness.

That’s what we all have to do. Few lives are without conflict, and anyone who refuses to deal with it on the outside will drive all their pathologies inward. How do your characters deal? What’s the trade, and what’s the compensation?  worth thinking about.


The Cracker Jacks theory of fiction

June 23, 2010

When you open a box of Cracker Jacks you know what you’re getting: a few crunchy handfuls of caramel corn with the occasional embedded peanut. But some marketing genius long ago had the idea of going one step farther: “A surprise in every box.”  To this day, Cracker Jacks is known for that inspired combination of a familiar pleasure plus a little extra tingle of the unknown. It doesn’t matter that the surprise is usually a piece of inconsequential plastic that will end up mashed into the playground gravel; it’s the anticipation that matters, not the object itself.

Opening a novel or story should be a little like that: a balance between the familiar and the surprise. Or in other words (quick visit to Roget’s), the domestic and the exotic. The ordinary and the extraordinary, the stock and the shock, the everyday and the once-in-a-lifetime. Some writers can lean toward ordinary yin and make it fascinating while others can switch the yang into hyperdrive and make tons of money. But most of us have to find our own proportion.

Why the familiar? Because continual stimulation creates no bond. A hand is comforting; take the reader’s hand. A door is as solid and reassuring; open it. What is more welcome in time of need than a handkerchief? Unfold it. You’re going to mystify, you’re going to speed up the pulse, you may even stun or shock, but you’ll do it in a world that may be slipped on like old shoes, once the reader consents to enter it. People have to eat, sleep and breathe; they also have to interact, recognize, feel, compare, relate. That’s where you catch a reader, in the relating. Something familiar, something he recognizes even in a different setting. Cliché, which budding writers are taught to avoid (like the plague) actually stands many a best-selling author in good stead. Like throwing a flag on the scrimmage line, it helps the reader sort out quickly what everybody’s feeling so we can move on to the action. A “literary” author will take more care with the language but still has to find points of contact. This can be the sharply-observed detail (Yes! I’ve heard water sound just like that!) or the fleeting personality quirk (that’s how Aunt Sarah laughs). A genre writer establishes familiarity through character types easily recognizable from the movies or other works of fiction. This is either boring or comforting, depending on the readers and what they’re after. The point is, there’s more than one way to establish a writer-reader bond.

But once the bond is created, is has to be continually refreshed. My agent once told me that the goal of a fiction writer was not to get the reader to the end of the book, but only to the next page. And the next, and the next. That means you have to get out ahead–not as obvious as it may seem. Often writers find themselves playing catch-up, reacting to their characters’ reactions. That magical moment when characters seem to take control and start acting on their own can become a trap. The author has to stay in control; a story given over to domineering characters is in danger of slipping into autopilot. Remember the Cracker Jack rule: a surprise on every page. And there’s more than one way to surprise–it’s not always a twist in the plot (or else your plot would resemble a corkscrew). Sometimes the sharp observation that establishes familiarity can surprise at the same time: the paradoxical “shock of recognition.” The surprise might be some revelation of a character that makes him more appealing or more sinister; something in her background that shines light on the way she’s behaving now. It might be a dash of humor in a serious novel, or a somber moment in a comic novel (harder to manage). Or a clever turn of phrase that startles or delights without distracting.

Can you do this on every page? Without it coming to seem like you’re just pulling stuff out of a hat, like a magician increasingly desperate to hold his audience? That’s where the craft comes in, and works out.

Books In the House

June 18, 2010

Most readers can recall the books they first fell in love with–which, even after a series of romances, they always recall with the nostalgia of a first kiss.  If I asked, what was yours? it probably wouldn’t take you long to recall.  But here’s another question, raised by Laura Miller in an online article titled, “Book owners have smarter kids.”  According to a study published in Research in Social Stratification and Mobility (a professional journal–who knew?), kids who grow up in a household with 500 or more books is “as great an advantage as having university-educated rather than unschooled parents, and twice the advantage of having a professional rather than an unskilled father.”  It’s scientific!  Even 25 books in the house can propel a child through two years of schooling more than a contemporary with no books.  Another study found that giving 12 books to low-income children at the beginning of the summer helps prevent the effects of “summer slide” that put these kids so far behind their more affluent peers.  Naturally, there’s a federally-funded program expanding to eight states this summer, giving away 2.5 million books to disadvantaged children.

There’s not enough information in the essay to determine if the children actually read these books or if the mere presence of solid spines on a shelf radiates intelligence.  I’m not being entirely facetious.  If the books are on a shelf nearby, someone is 100% more likely to pick one up and open it than if there are no books. The exercise of reading and comprehending even a few paragraphs is the equivalent of fifty pushups for the brain (more or less). 

My parents were not college-educated (my mother got through one year at Texas Women’s University before, in the words of a cousin, the family had to spend her college tuition for tires), but we had well over 200 books in the house–an eclectic batch of history, geography, art, essay, poetry, and some fiction.  Some titles I remember: 1849: year of Decision (DeVoto), Their Finest Hour (Churchill), Is Sex Necessary? (Thurber and White), Impressionist Masterpieces, At Ease: Stories I tell to Friends (Eisenhower), Up Front (Maldin), Hammonds World Atlas, Hiroshima (Hershey), several volumes of the Classic Club, Van Loon’s Lives, Robert Service’s Poems.  Particularly significant was a very incomplete set of Shakespeare: little volumes published in the 1890s and containing one play each, plus critical essays.  I didn’t read much of the plays (still don’t enjoy reading Shakespeare), but devoured the essays, including a series called Mrs. [Somebody’s] Characteristics of Women, which were apt to begin with sentences like “Ophelia!  What pathos, what heart-rending sympathy that name brings to mind . . .”   Also significant: A Thurber Carnival, collected cartoons, stories and essays that I read over and over, especially the autobiographical stories from My Life and Hard Times.  James Thurber’s humor was so subtle I often didn’t catch it, though certain cartoons and sentences struck me and nobody else as funny. 

Most of these books however I didn’t read.  But during my years of living among them there probably wasn’t one I didn’t pick up.  Laura Miller recalls reading the plays of George Bernard Shaw simply because they were laying around the house, and though she didn’t especially love them, or gain memorable knowledge from them, they expanded her world.  Just knowing what a book is about expands a world.

So I’m wondering: who remembers growing up with books, even if they don’t remember all the titles?  Were there any you read, or at least looked through, that left an impression even if you didn’t particularly like them?  Does that, by itself, prove the point?

Old Movie Week

June 14, 2010

Finally, after three years of waiting, the 1974 version of The Three Musketeers is available on Netflix.  I was very much alive in 1974, but incommunicado as far as media was concerned.  We lived in a small town in the  New Mexico mountains, owned no TV or radio, had no phone, saw may three movies in an entire year, if that much.  Occasionally we heard some news: there was this investigation going on, something about Watergate?  And oh yeah, the President resigned over something.  And life went on in the world of best-sellers and blockbusters, including what some believe to be the definitive version of The Three Musketeers.  It’s fun–a powerhouse cast including Charlton Heston, Michael York, Oliver Reed, Richard Chamberlain (how many of those names do you recognize?) and a classic catfight between Raquel Welch and Faye Dunaway.  Nice opening sequence, great costumes, so-so soundtrack, clever bits including background comments by the King’s dwarfs that cracked me up.  In the end it sort of disappears.  Dumas’ classic work is actually pretty thin on story–I did read it once, but it didn’t have very powerful claws to hold my imagination or memory.  C. S. Lewis wrote that what he missed in it was a sense of place; the action shifted from Paris to London and back with no indication of the character of the locations.  I missed a sense of character.  Athos, Aramis, and Porthos display distinctions–the jaded one, the religious one, and the buffoon–without depth.   D’Artagnon is the naïve enthusiast catapulting himself among them, and for an adventure yarn that’s good enough.  The story just doesn’t hold up for me, and the movie is fun but forgettable.

 For character study, check out A Face In the Crowd.  This is a 1957 movie by Elia Kazan (you know, of On The Waterfront) that didn’t get much attention at the time.  It has its weaknesses, but also some striking moments, especially in the development of the two main characters.  Patricia Neal is Marcia Jeffries, whose uncle owns a radio station in NE Arkansas.  Marcia is bright, ambitious, and enthusiastic; it’s her inspiration to go into out-of-the-way places to capture authentic hillbilly voices to feature on her program, “A Face in the Crowd.”  On a trip to the county jail she stumbles up on a mercurial character named Rhodes who can be persuaded to sing for a slug of Jack Daniels.  From there he launches into an improvised riff that inspires Marcia to offer him his own radio show, billed as “Lonesome” Rhodes.  A swift rise follows, from Pickett, Arkansas, to Memphis, Tennessee, to New York City and the big big time, accompanied by the screams of adoring fans and the solicitation of wealthy entrepreneurs and politicians.  All this naturally goes to his head and leads to a bad end.  It’s predictable enough but still engrossing: first as an artifact of the days when campaign managers were just beginning to catch on to TV as a means of manufacturing political persona, and next as a character study of a well-rounded human being who flattens into his own self-image.  And finally, as a fascinating side trip into what Andy Griffith’s career might have been before he became Sheriff of Mayberry.

It would be easy enough for Griffith to portray his character as an amiable dunce (where have I heard that term before?), pumped up by his handlers.  He starts out as a drifter, a skirt-chaser and a bum, sleeping off a bender in the county jail.  But Larry Rhodes is nobody’s fool and besides his natural gift of gab and a sharp sense of just how far he can push the envelope, he possesses an instinctive feel for human character that masquerades as sympathy.  He’s successful because he can connect, not only with the faceless crowds of radio and TV-land but also with Marcia Jeffries.  Marcia is nobody’s fool either: a strong female in a man’s world, meeting obstacles with charm and enthusiasm, she rides Rhodes to the top and then fears she’s ”created a monster.”  With some justification, but she was also his first victim.  The storyline wobbles toward melodrama but doesn’t cross that line, and even though Griffith’s performance is a bit over the top at the end, it gives the lie to the legend of the bland, conformist, Eisenhower fifties.

 Except for one thing: the movie’s view of the American public is as cynical as Lonesome Rhodes’.  We’re all a bunch of sheep out here; all you need to know about us can be read in the ratings and market share reports.  Elia Kazan and screenwriter Bud Schulberg were left-leaning anti-communists, a rare combination in McCarthy-era Hollywood.  They took an admirable and costly stand against communism but, at least in this movie, showed a condescension toward the masses not too far removed from contempt.  If the public is as Kazan and Schulberg portray them, so gullible as to be swept away by cracker-barrel corniness, what’s wrong with somebody like Rhodes profiting from it?  That’s a question scarcely raised.

 One other observation about old movies: sound tracks have sure changed.  When did movies start using a continuous sound track?  The score of old movies is mostly noticeable in its absence, except when clangs into the story at a dramatic moment with a screech of strings.  Some directors, like Eric Rhomer, did without scores altogether.  It’s a bit eerie, like standing a little too close to the action.  Do movie and TV scores today function as insulation from life, or has life itself become something that’s scored all the way through?

Bright Wings

June 4, 2010

There’s a cardinal perched on the locust tree outside my window.  Yes I know, it’s a common sight, but these birds have a built-in surprise quotient, whether seen against the snow (classic Christmas card!) or in deep summer green.  They’re a splash of the tropics in the midwestern bland, a little gasp of surprise flitting along the landscape.   Along with bluebirds (which I don’t see enough of) and goldfinches (which I haven’t seen at all this season) they flash back to Gerald Manley Hopkins:

And though the last light off the black West went

Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs–

Because the Holy Ghost over the bent

World broods with warm breast andwith ah! bright wings.