Life In the World

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.


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