Writing Right with Dmitri: Adaptability

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Writing Right with Dmitri: Adaptability

Editor at work.

In between the first sentences – the attention-grabbing, eye-popping start – and the final, inspiring words, what do you want to have happen in your story?

Are you trying to:

  • Amuse, tickle the funny bone?
  • Arouse anger, indignation, the desire for social or political change?
  • Inspire reflection on the nature of life, the universe, and everything?
  • Just let off steam about what gets your nanny?

You can do any or all of these things. You can do something else. But you may have a fight with your characters about it, whether they're sort of factual or completely fictional.

So real are my characters to me that on one occasion I had fixed I upon the course which one of them was to pursue. The character, however, got hold of me and made me do exactly the opposite to what I bad intended; but I was so sure that he was right and I was wrong that I let him have his own way.

Charles Dickens, quoted by Henry Fielding Dickens, Harper's Monthly Magazine, CXXIX (1914).

Yeah, like that. Listen to the characters: if they're well-drawn, they'll tell you what they would or would not do. Follow them rather than leading them, and see where they take you. As my editors always say, 'Consider…' (I love that editorial locution, which usually comes before some hair-brained inspiration they had just before bed.) Consider letting them have the run of the story. (The characters, not the editors.) Consider letting them have their say. We might all learn something.

But what do the characters know? What can they tell you? Well, they can tell you what the world looks like from their perspective. They know:

  • What they want. (Even if they aren't consciously aware of this, just like you.)
  • What they'll settle for.
  • What they're willing to do to get it.
  • What they think about what they see, hear, and experience.

And all of that is more than you know, so let them tell you about it. How do you do this? By writing them into a rough-draft scenario – on virtual paper or in your head, doesn't matter, you could even use a sketch pad if you're artistic like that – and letting them at it. I believe I've mentioned before that great writers like Thomas Harris do it, and far less great writers like me do it, and you can do it, too. A scenario that can't be revisited isn't worth anything. Discard it. Let your characters gallop around the yard. Unlike your kids or dog, they aren't likely to run out into the street.

'But,' I hear you ask – for when I write, y'all are characters in my mind – 'can they learn anything? Are these characters capable or growth, of change?' (In my mind, you talk like that, erudite but eager.)

'Why don't you ask them?' I reply calmly. (I try to be soothing when talking to people in my head. It confuses the passersby.)

I am reluctant to bring up Matt Weiner again, but hey, he's recent, noteworthy, and he done good with Mad Men. Unlike that awful pilot I watched half of last night…more about that later. Anyway, Weiner irritated his eager fans during the last season by drawing our attention to the fact that the characters, whom we'd known now over about a decade, kept making the same mistakes. He was trying to tell us something, but we weren't listening. We just wanted Peggy to be happy, Joan to get recognition, and Don…well, half of us wanted him to grow up, the other half wanted him to jump off the Time-Life Building, already.

Then came the finale. And behold: everybody behaved in character. They didn't 'change', if by change you mean 'act out of character' or 'have a wild epiphany'. No, Peggy was still the girl who wanted it all. And she got it: a satisfying job and the guy next door (literally, in the office). Joan made her decision: career before romance. We left her happily answering the phone in her new business. And Don? Oh, it's been long enough. Go watch the ending, it's brief. You see it, don't you? Without violating his characters' integrity, Weiner has brought us closure. Yep, they got what they wanted. What they chose. And no author had to pick them up, pluck them out of the action, and set them down in utopia. They got there all by their own selves.

They didn't go where you wanted them to go, you say? So what? Maybe they didn't go where Weiner wanted them to go, either. The main character didn't go where the actor playing him wanted to go, at all. Jon Hamm has said it was no picnic being inside that guy's head. Apparently he has more fun playing a tortured, morphine-addicted Russian doctor in that Bulgakov adaptation. Which will give you an idea. The actor has my sympathy.

Oh, that pilot I turned off? It was called Aquarius. Leave the 60s alone, writers. At least, if you're unwilling to do your research. A character under 30 said, 'Whatever.' WHATEVER? Help. No, they weren't slackers. They were hippies. Really short fair-use clips of hit songs and moody darkness do not a story make. And I'm afraid that's more about Charles Manson than I ever wanted to know. David Duchovny is not playing a character, he's merely smirking in the background. That is not the kind of trip I want to take. I suspect these writers' 'research' consisted on binge-watching The Mod Squad while indulging in what is no longer an illegal substance in California.

I wish they'd got the language right. And let the characters run around on the beach in their heads. We might have got a better story out of it.

Want to tell us about your adventures in character exploration? Plenty of space below.

Writing Right with Dmitri Archive

Dmitri Gheorgheni

15.06.15 Front Page

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