Writing Right with Dmitri: Rules of the Game
Are you familiar with George Kelly's 1926 play Craig's Wife? Perhaps you've seen the 1950 film adaptation, Harriet Craig, starring Joan Crawford? It's about a woman whose perfectionist obsession with creating the 'perfect life' drives everyone around her away, including her long-suffering husband. When Mr Craig finds out what Mrs Craig really thinks their marriage is all about, he moves out in disgust. You see, Harriet was playing one game, and everyone else was playing another. It's that simple.
Or maybe you've read The Forsyte Saga by Nobel prizewinner John Galsworthy? Or seen one of its miniseries adaptations? Soames Forsythe is determined to turn into an English gentleman. He's clueless. He almost destroys his poor wife in the process. You see, he doesn't understand the rules of the society game, not really.
You might have seen the film Patton, by Francis Ford Coppola. It's based on a couple of non-fiction books, but you'd get a similar view of the general if you read his own autobiography. In the film, Patton appears to believe he is some sort of universal soldier, constantly reincarnated. Sounds farfetched and unfair as a portrayal of one of World War II's major leaders. But look at what he wrote his mother once. (His mother.):
I wonder if I could have been here before as I drive up the Roman road the Theater seems familiar – perhaps I headed a legion up that same white road... I passed a chateau in ruins which I possibly helped escalade in the middle ages. There is no proof nor yet any denial. We were, We are, and we will be.
Letter from Chateau, France, 20 November 1917.
Whatever George S Patton, Jr, thought he was doing in World Wars I and II, it wasn't the same thing that everyone else was. He was playing a different game.
When you write a narrative – whether it's a fictional tale made up of whole cloth, or a non-fiction account – you need to ask yourself something about the characters in your story: what game do they think they're playing? What, in their understanding, are the rules of engagement with the world? You need to know that. Especially because those rules may not be yours.
If I'm writing about General Patton, I need to keep in mind that he wasn't a pacifist at heart, as I am. He wasn't trying to turn history into a non-zero-sum game. He was trying to win at any cost. He was saying to Eisenhower, '…we will eventually beat the hell out of those s. You name them; I'll shoot them!' And he had delusions of grandeur. He was also bloodthirsty, foulmouthed, and a disgusting racist who wrote, 'In the second place, Harrison and his ilk believe that the Displaced Person is a human being, which he is not, and this applies particularly to the Jews, who are lower than animals.' Never mind what he said about Arabs and Russians. He was sort of an equal-opportunity hater. Oh, and he wrote one of the worst poems ever committed to paper. I was going to quote it here, but it really won't get past the filther. I suspect him of reading too much Rudyard Kipling, frankly. Though Kipling would never have written, 'So let us do real fighting, boring in and gouging, biting.' Not on his worst day.
If you want to write about Patton, and you act like he thinks as you do, you are lying, and you shouldn't do that. There should be some integrity in your writing life. I suspect there'll be a test at the end.
I know: when it comes to history, sometimes it's hard to sort out the myth from the reality. Was Thomas Jefferson a visionary scientific saint, or a lecherous racist? Could be both, actually, except for the 'saint' part. One thing he wasn't, at all, was the passionate romantic fellow portrayed in 1776. Oh, yeah, he played the violin. But the rest of it is made up. To figure him out, you need to know what he did, and read his own words to see if you can figure out what he thought the game was.
So what am I saying? Find out what game they're playing, those people you write about. Fictional characters, people in real life, historical figures. Take the time to walk a mile in their moccasins. Or a verst in their boots, whatever. And apply commonsense tests to your reading of their words and actions to see if you can figure out the rules of the game they're playing.