Writing Right with Dmitri: Out of Place Characters
You will remember (because I tell you to) that a few weeks ago, I suggested that we writers needed to change the default settings on our fictional universes. Now I'd like to suggest another cute trick: put your characters in a time machine. No, not a literal time machine, unless you absolutely must. I mean an unspoken time machine, one you don't really tell the audience about.
'You can't do that,' you exclaim. 'Readers will get wise to tricks like that.' Oh, yeah? In the TV series Dark Shadows, Grayson Hall played her character, Dr Hoffmann, as being secretly in love with the main character, Barnabas Collins the vampire. Nobody in the writing staff noticed, but the audience picked up on the dynamic. Then there was the 'erotic subtext' of the 1959 Ben Hur. The erotic subtext that writer Gore Vidal only told one of the two actors about. . . the audience noticed, at least some of them did, but apparently Charleton Heston was blissfully ignorant. . .
Yeah. You can do that. Now, what I'm going to suggest is that you take a character in your story and mentally make that character be out of place in some way. For example: your story's set in Regency England. Think of one of the characters as coming from another time, say the 21st Century. See what that does to Lady Mariette de Lacey. Not that Lady Mariette knows anything about the 21st Century, mind you. But somehow, doing needlepoint and walking in the park is just unfulfilling. She'd rather take up sport. . . and those Regency bucks just get up her nose, and the clothes are so uncomfortable. She's not into fabric and flirting. See? You might get a refreshing take on it all.
Or have your contemporary detective be an old-fashioned romantic kind of guy. He's courteous. He doesn't like tech. He never watches TV. Instead, he reads and goes on long walks. Maybe that's how he solves the case. . .
Now, of course, I have an example from my usual lazy habit of trolling for old TV shows.
Johnny Yuma was a re-bel, a re-bel without a bike. . .
From 1959 to 1961, there was a quirky little half-hour TV Western in the US called The Rebel. It starred Nick Adams, a talented young actor of Ukrainian extraction. So much for typecasting. The series was unusual in a lot of ways: more realistic and faster-paced than most Westerns, with a really talented slate of guest actors. If you're an old-TV buff, you might enjoy finding these shows on Youtube. Dan Blocker (Bonanza's 'Hoss') is a villain in the first episode. The show also featured a hit theme song by Johnny Cash. As a kid, I loved this show.
The premise: Johnny Yuma, the titular 'rebel', is an ex-Confederate soldier who returns home to Texas during the Reconstruction, only to find that postwar life on the frontier is a mess. Of course it was. This is the realistic part. Yuma starts out on a personal journey to find meaning. He keeps a journal in his saddlebag. He hopes to become a writer someday. Meanwhile, he gets shot at a lot. Many Italian actors play Native Americans. Washing powder is sold in between acts.
The gimmick: Johnny Yuma is secretly a beatnik. Nick Adams was a close friend of James Dean's. James Dean was the 'rebel without a cause' who devastated his teenage fans by dying young in a car accident. Nick Adams was also friends with Elvis Presley. He had that teen idol thing going, sure. But better than that, in terms of drama: having a beatnik in the mix totally changed the way we saw the Reconstruction period. It was, to use the trite modern phrase, 'relatable' again. Yuma doesn't have to justify his ability to see past the prejudices of his age: he just keeps looking at these lunatics with a youthful incredulity that says, 'What do you think you're doing, anyway?'
Watch this montage and listen to the song. Can you see why it works? The whole 'look' has changed. It brings the past into sharper focus, but without that jarring sense of anachronism you get with forced trendiness like this turkey. This series, The Young Riders, was good for nothing but selling Peterman coats.
In the late 1950s, people were interested in the US Civil War, because the centenary began in 1961. People were still around who'd heard about it from older relatives – in fact, the last witness to Lincoln's assassination died in 1956. They had an idea about what went on, though the idea may have been rather inaccurate. (It was still clearer than the notions of average audiences today.) But they needed a way to gain perspective on the events of a crazy time. What better way than to relate it to the current crazy time? I rest my case.
So what are you going to do? What characters are you going to transpose? Sherlock in space? A Charlotte Yonge lookalike in the Trump cabinet? Your own take on a Bible story? The other night, I saw a great little film in Arabic about the prophet Elijah. For once the people, costumes, and scenery looked real. Okay, it's not easy to do when you have a very tiny CGI budget, but it was a truly fine little film. There's a really creepy weasel of a king in that story by the name of Ahab. He's hard to play without looking utterly ridiculous in a counterproductive way. But the actor played Ahab brilliantly – as a sort of early stoner. Ahab seemed so 'out of it' most of the time that it was no wonder Jezebel had to make all the decisions. We laughed, we cheered.
So make us a story with a transposed character. The character may not have much fun, but we will.