Friday, September 30, 2016

A bit of characterization advice: the ideal self

Sometimes my time wasting habits are validated. In this case, my time spent on Reddit furnished some enlightening (or at least intriguing advice).

I've complained before about how I never felt like my formal education taught me about good prose but almost nothing about good stories. So when I find advice in that vein that actually clicks with me (like Orson Scott Card's M.I.C.E. model of plotting) I get pretty excited about it. The same goes for characterization. The character-building exercise that sticks in my mind most clearly is the one I remember as the least useful: "What are ten things your character would have in their pockets?" That's a question that might tell you something about your character, but rarely the sort of things that drive a character-based story--at least, not the kind of story I'm interested in writing.

I think I've gotten better about writing active characters. (In college, I wrote one story about a high school student who did nothing but observe the people around him, and at the very end of the story, punched a locker and cursed.) But I know I'm not the only writer who's still vexed by a need, pointed out by the occasional beta reader, to make a character more "likable."

Maybe it's because I grew up watching Seinfeld instead of Friends (although I still like the schmucks on Seinfeld better than the schlemiels on Friends). Anyway. Everyone "knows" that you need likable characters, and maybe Seinfeld is the exception in the perennially misapplied axiom. And getting people to like your characters sometimes seems as confounding as getting them to like yourself.

In response to a question on /r/writing, Redditor Lon-Abel-Kelly made a straightforward observation on creating likable characters that I can't recall seeing before:
Have some idea of their ideal selves. Who they would wish to be if not for circumstance and personality flaws...
You should like the ideal selves, they should be great company... You should sympathize with the ways they fail and self sabotage and you should be endeared by the little ticks of progress.
There was more, but that was what jumped out at me. If you can like who a character wants to be, you can like the character. If nothing else, it's easier to find people who aspire to goodness than who achieve it to an impartial observer's satisfaction. It's also easier in fiction than in real life to show someone who a character wants to become.

The idea of a likable ideal self rings true when I check it against successfully written characters. Many, many protagonists start of wanting to be heroes, to be brave and competent, and yet spend a surprising amount of their stories being bad at these things.

Looking at a character through this lens also exposes the whole space between who they are and who they want to be as a field for conflict and achievement within the story. When they grow, it has value. When they fall short, it's a tragedy we can share with them instead of just another reason not to like them.

This is, of course, assuming that the character wants to be someone you would like. If you know a character aspires to something that a reader will detest, well that opens up new horizons for creating unsympathetic characters. (Or does it? Kylo Ren in the latest Star Wars wants nothing so much as to be like Darth Vader, and that's so misguided and sad that he ends up sympathetic again. But maybe that's so relatable because, deep down, we all want to be Darth Vader, and the tragedy is that we shouldn't.*)

At any rate, this is a perspective I'm definitely using as I flesh out the characters in my current project, which is just at that stage where personalities and events are starting to inform each other.

* And I told myself I wasn't going to use Star Wars as an example. I was going to bring up Luke Skywalker earlier but no, I told myself, you can do better.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Perfect hamartia: Romeo and Juliet's interlocking tragic flaws

Continued mulling on Romeo and Juliet since my last post has led me to a new conclusion, and maybe a less contentious one. Like I said before, R&J is dualistic, so now that I've argued for the ugly and frightening aspects of the story it's time to find something more traditionally romantic there. But I get ahead of myself.

I seized on the idea that Romeo (and Juliet; I'll get to her) is a tragic hero, following the pattern of other tragic heroes. This has certain requirements, and certain implications. As a baby English lit student, I learned that all tragic heroes, from King Oedipus onward, must have a hamartia--a tragic flaw. The hero's downfall must come from an element of the hero's personality, and for maximum effect it should be connected to whatever virtue propelled them upward in the first place.

R&J is a story with two tragic heroes. What are their fatal flaws? I went looking for Romeo's, but Juliet's came to me first. Juliet's tragic flaw, which makes her great and destroys her, is her fidelity.

She has this virtue from the start of the play. We see her first as an obedient daughter, promising to make a go of falling in love with Count Paris, since her mother asked her to, "But no more deep will I endart mine eye than your consent gives strength to make it fly." What more could the parent of a 13-year-old ask for?

Once Juliet has married Romeo* her fidelity transfers to him. Romeo immediately tests whether Juliet is more faithful to her family or her new husband by killing her cousin. In fact, while Juliet laments Tybalt's death and has strong words about what this implies about Romeo's character, she stops short of wishing Romeo any ill. When the nurse declares, "Shame come to Romeo!" Juliet recoils, and launches an epic tirade in Romeo's defense.** She makes it very clear that Romeo supersedes any other allegiance she may have had.

Juliet will take extraordinary measures to remain true to her husband, Romeo. It's treated as a heroic trait, and it's the one Lord Montague acknowledges in the final scene:
For I will raise her statue in pure gold;
That while Verona by that name is known,
There shall no figure at such rate be set
As that of true and faithful Juliet.
But, like I said, fidelity is also Juliet's tragic flaw. It is what kills her. After Romeo is banished, Juliet has an out: she could forget her one-day marriage to Romeo and marry Paris. She explicitly refuses--she will do any number of awful things, including kill herself, but betraying Romeo is not an option.

And in the end, finding Romeo dead, Juliet follows her husband into death. At the risk of belaboring the obvious, this is not mandatory. One could imagine a character enduring the same traumatic scene and allowing herself to be led away, devastated but alive, by the well-meaning Friar Laurence. One could imagine a character doing that, but not Juliet.

On the other hand, when we meet Romeo at the start of the play, fidelity is not among his virtues or his flaws. In fact, if he had Juliet's sense of devotion the play would be called Romeo and Rosaline and who knows if anything interesting would have happened? No, what Romeo has in spades is reckless passion. It's what leads him to pine after Rosaline, and what leads him to forget about her. It leads him to approach Juliet, to sneak into her garden, and to agree to marry her the next day. Romeo is the type to completely commit to whatever feels right, for as long as the emotion carries him.

And yes, this reckless passion leads to worse things than a shotgun marriage.*** Once Tybalt has killed his friend, Romeo has no sooner figured out how he feels about it than he engages Tybalt in mortal combat. Likewise, when he hears that Juliet is dead, his first impulse is to go to her and die; he forms and executes a plan with astonishing alacrity. Romeo hardly pauses enough to say, like Macbeth, "This deed I'll do before this purpose cool." Of course if he had hesitated, he could have lived, and so could several other characters. But it's not in Romeo's nature to separate feeling from doing.

With that depressing assessment, I remind myself that I opened this post by claiming I had found something romantic in all of this. Here it comes: R&J presents passion and fidelity as two halves of romantic love. Romeo and Juliet each have one without the other. (I've talked about how inconstant Act I Romeo is, but consider Juliet's first scene too. She is all duty and passive obedience, without even a thrill of anticipation about possibly falling in love with the allegedly admirable Paris.) It is only when Romeo and Juliet meet that they learn their missing aspect.

In their first exchange, Juliet presents herself as an inert painted saint; Romeo introduces passion to the image, and in doing so, to her. When they meet at her balcony, they are both overflowing with passion, but Juliet teaches Romeo fidelity (and a little about delayed gratification). When she says,
O, swear not by the moon, the inconstant moon,
That monthly changes in her circled orb,
Lest that thy love prove likewise variable.
she isn't just quibbling over metaphors. She has Romeo dead to rights. But he is willing to embrace fidelity, at least with regard to her--and she embraces passion toward him, but not before she feels it cracking the boundaries of the merely dutiful person she had been. "I am too fond," she says. "I should have been more strange."

There is a moment, once both vows and affection are exchanged, when there love is complete and nearly perfect:
And yet I wish but for the thing I have:
My bounty is as boundless as the sea,
My love as deep; the more I give to thee,
The more I have, for both are infinite.
Romeo's passion joined with Juliet's fidelity seems capable, like this blog post, of continuing forever, if only for that moment. But time proceeds, the moment passes, and the tragedy begins from that high point.  

* Not before. Recall that she arrests the sexual momentum of the balcony scene with--as Elizabethan virtue would require--a marriage ultimatum. She does not meet Romeo again until the wedding.

** Specifically, she says:
Blister'd be thy tongue
For such a wish! he was not born to shame:
Upon his brow shame is ashamed to sit;
For 'tis a throne where honour may be crown'd
Sole monarch of the universal earth.
O, what a beast was I to chide at him!
Shall I speak ill of him that is my husband?
Ah, poor my lord, what tongue shall smooth thy name,
When I, thy three-hours wife, have mangled it?
But, wherefore, villain, didst thou kill my cousin?
That villain cousin would have kill'd my husband:
Back, foolish tears, back to your native spring;
Your tributary drops belong to woe,
Which you, mistaking, offer up to joy.
My husband lives, that Tybalt would have slain;
And Tybalt's dead, that would have slain my husband:
All this is comfort; wherefore weep I then?

*** It's easy to feel like Juliet's defining virtue isn't a vice, except by accident, while Romeo's defining vice isn't a virtue, except by accident. That may be fair. I will point out that Romeo's recklessness might have been called courage if the story worked out differently, and without it none of the good things in the play would have happened either. And given the consequences of Juliet's choices, it would be just as fair to call her fidelity "reckless" as Romeo's passion.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Romeo, the murderer

I had the pleasure the night before last of seeing a preview performance of Romeo and Juliet by DC's Shakespeare Theatre Company. This post isn't a review; briefly, it was excellent. This post is about the thoughts it made me think on the way home, particularly about dimensions of the tragedy that I've never seen a performance (even this one) explore.

(Addendum: I had further thoughts soon after. If you're interested, they are here.)

There are two main popular conceptions of R&J. The first is as an idealized love story; the second is as a cautionary tale, or satire of teenage lovers getting carried away with themselves. (The first interpretation is most common in people who've never read the play; the second is most common in people who had cool English teachers and like to feel like they have one over on the first group.) I think the truth isn't in the middle, but at both extremes simultaneously. Part of what makes Romeo and Juliet wonderful is that duality: the love story is beautiful and stupid, which is what makes it tragic and not just unfortunate.

Shakespeare creates this duality in a lot of his plays by subverting his source material, but not contradicting it. R&J draws on sources that have much less sympathy for their reckless, horny teenage protagonists. Shakespeare grants that their decisions are terrible and precipitous, but finds beauty and nobility in their motives. Othello's source is a cautionary tale against miscegenation that doesn't even name its murderous Moor of Venice; Shakespeare makes Othello the noblest Venetian and invents Iago to drive Othello into murderous passion. Hamlet's antecedent is cunning and dutiful; Shakespeare's Hamlet is these things but also conflicted and possibly insane.

Othello and Hamlet are definitive Shakespearean tragic heroes. They are noble figures driven to extremity, and they end their respective plays as whirlwinds of destruction. The audience ends up caught between sympathy and horror for them.

What I think I realized is that Romeo has more in common with Othello and Hamlet than we acknowledge. In fact, we edit it out of performances.

Hardly anyone stages Paris' death anymore. To recap: when Romeo goes to the Capulet's tomb, intending to kill himself next to Juliet, Paris is already there paying his respects to the woman he thought he was going to marry. Paris sees Romeo breaking into the tomb and declares a citizen's arrest. Romeo kills him, but grants Paris' dying wish to be part of the tableau in the last scene.

Everyone but Julian Fellowes cuts Paris' death scene. For one thing, it adds to the number of actors trying to breathe inconspicuously onstage for the last few minutes of the show. For another, there's an idea that it interrupts the flow of the play's climactic sequence. But I would argue that Paris' death only looks extraneous to the play because we're already ignoring or excising the inconvenient context.

We edit it out, I think, in order to preserve an image of Romeo as unambiguously sympathetic and pathetic rather than threatening. We want to see Romeo's fall as a more or less straight line from tragedy to self-destruction. But Romeo's fall isn't about self-destruction, it's about destruction more generally.

Tybalt's death* is just a starting point. He's quick to try to kill himself, prompting Friar Laurence to warn, "Wilt thou slay thyself? And stay thy lady too that lives in thee?" (Answer: yes, yes he will.) Exile only puts him in a state of suspense, and the first provocation (in fairness, it's a big one) sends him charging back towards death. More to my point, he makes it very clear how ready he is to take others down with him.

Romeo immediately suborns the convenient apothecary to a capital crime. (Should we assume the apothecary gets away clean? He could just as easily be among those the prince promises to punish in his final speech.) Moreover, here's how Romeo tells Balthasar to leave him alone at the Capulet tomb:
But if thou, jealous, dost return to pry
In what I further shall intend to do,
By heaven, I will tear thee joint by joint
And strew this hungry churchyard with thy limbs:
The time and my intents are savage-wild,
More fierce and more inexorable far
Than empty tigers or the roaring sea.
That's him threatening to dismember his friend, and in about the same tone that Hamlet declared, "Tis now the very witching time of night, When churchyards yawn and hell itself breathes out Contagion to this world: Now could I drink hot blood, And do such bitter business as the day Would quake to look on," shortly before mostly-accidentally killing Polonius. Romeo goes immediately from this exchange to his confrontation with Paris.

Romeo killing Paris is hardly surprising. Romeo is a powder-keg at this point**. He's been itching to kill someone since Friar Laurence talked him down from killing himself the first time. I think that we should be afraid of Romeo by the end, like we are afraid of Hamlet at his most manic or Othello at his extremity of passion. He has become the explosion that everyone else has warned about since the first act, and maybe we should feel a little relief when he's finally extinguished.

Romeo and Juliet ends with four named corpses on stage, even with the closing abattoir of Hamlet. I think we miss whole dimensions of the tragedy by downplaying these other victims, or by treating Romeo as fundamentally passive in all this destruction. In fact, Romeo starts the play trying to hold himself aloof from the violence in Verona. He ends it not just as a victim, but a participant--driven to it by the thing we hoped would take him out of it. The change in Romeo is why his part of a story is a "tragedy" in the way we use that word in English classes, and not just in the way we use it on the news.

* As some oft-excised lines make clear, Romeo fights Tybalt because he believes manhood requires that of him:
O sweet Juliet,
Thy beauty hath made me effeminate
And in my temper soften'd valour's steel!
Away to heaven, respective lenity,
And fire-eyed fury be my conduct now!
There's a paper in there about toxic masculinity, but I'll leave it to someone more enthusiastic to write.

** There is definitely a gunpowder motif in R&J. I'm surprised I've never seen it on the lists of obvious Shakespearean motifs, alongside poison in Hamlet and blood in Macbeth.

Monday, March 7, 2016

A parable of a town on fire

Once there was a town called Elephant Falls. At least, it may have been called that; it hardly matters. Most of the buildings there were made of wood and close together, predating the advent of fire codes. One summer morning, as should surprise no one, a fire started in the downtown area. And as soon as people saw it, they started shouting, "Fire! Fire! Soon the whole town will go up in smoke!"

The mayor was very worried and called a meeting of all his subordinates. "This town is very vulnerable to fire," he said. "I'm worried that the whole town will burn down."

The mayor's secretary, who was very smart and whose opinion the mayor valued highly, said, "I don't think the whole town will be destroyed. There have been fires here before, but the whole town did not burn down. In fact we have a very well-funded fire department, which tends to keep these things under control. It would be foolish to panic." The secretary's words came as a great relief to many.

The fire marshal left the meeting in fine spirits and returned to the fire department, where he found the firefighters enjoying a game of cribbage. One of the firefighters greeted the fire marshal and said, "I've heard that there is a fire downtown, and I was wondering what we should do about it."

The fire marshal replied, "I have just come from a meeting on that very subject. There's no need to panic. It turns out that our town employs people to keep these things under control." And the fire marshal joined the fire fighters in their game.

Around lunchtime that day much of the city was on fire. People from the town next door gathered to toast marshmallows and laugh. "I always knew this town would burn to the ground," they said.

Some citizens tried to organize a bucket brigade. Many other citizens shook their heads and said, "It's too late for that now." Still another group of citizens said, "I don't see what all the commotion is about. I've been saying for years that some of these buildings were eyesores and needed to go. Why are you so upset now that someone's gotten around to it?"

In the afternoon, the mayor called another meeting of all his subordinates. "This is very alarming!" he said. "Three-quarters of the town are on fire. What are we going to do?"

"Some of the citizens are forming bucket brigades," said the mayor's secretary. "We could use the town's firefighting equipment to help them."

"No more out of you," said the fire marshal. "We wouldn't be in this mess if you hadn't given everyone a false sense of security. In my opinion it is too late to stop the fire from spreading. I think we should try to make friends with the fire. If we bring it offerings of newspaper and gasoline, it may remember that we were helpful and only burn the people we don't like."

"Under the circumstances, that seems like the most reasonable course of action," the mayor said, the heat curling his mustache.

Friday, September 11, 2015

We do well to remember

Obviously I am back to updating this blog as the spirit moves me. Not for the first time, the spirit is moving me on September 11.

Exactly a month ago I happened to be vacationing in central Pennsylvania, and I realized I was in the vicinity of the Flight 93 Memorial. (Thank God for the racks of tourist pamphlets in every hotel and rest stop--they are not, as it turns out, obsolete.)

Flight 93 was the hijacked flight whose passengers realized what was happening, and chose to fight the hijackers. They died, but they stopped the attack before it reached Washington D.C., where it presumably would have crashed into the White House or the Capitol Building. In the year or so after the 9/11 attacks, I found the story of Flight 93 hugely compelling. So, though it wasn't part of the plan (to the extent that we had any at all), I made a point of visiting the memorial. Now I want to talk about it, because I realized a good memorial is worth praising.

I am, above all, glad that the memorial is thoughtful. I remember reading, while we still argued about how to memorialize the 9/11 attacks, about the World War II memorial finished in D.C. in 2004--the sense being that it was too triumphalist, to sterile, and so long overdue as to be perfunctory, drained of meaning. It gave me something to be afraid of in the development of the "Ground Zero" memorial in the footprint of the World Trade Center.

There is an art to memorializing events, which I am beginning to appreciate. The Flight 93 Memorial's design wasn't without pitfalls and controversy, but it came together effectively to, in essence, turn an idea into a place.

It's a big place, too, if you count the whole national park space surrounding the actual built memorial. The effect is that the whole landscape is empty as far as you can see from the memorial itself. It was the wall of names that I actually want to talk about, though.

The names of passengers and crew are carved in a marble wall, but there is a second, shorter wall parallel to it, that turns the memorial into a corridor, like the interior of an airplane, oriented toward the crash site. It ends like this:
A wooden gate (solid but conspicuously impermanent, breakable) separating the corridor from the stone marking the crash site. One remembers that the passengers of the plane used a drink cart as a ram to break down the door to the cockpit--an act that hastened their deaths by a few minutes but fixed it in this spot, where no one further would be hurt. The whole memorial points this way, and the ghosts almost call you to do as they did.

This is all to say that the memorial succeeded in reminding me of more than the fact that people died here. It mattered how they died, and it still matters.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Writing, advantages, and the myth of Athena

Rather than being born and growing, the goddess Athena was said to have emerged out of Zeus' forehead, fully grown and fully clothed, too. Writers have been trying to recreate Zeus' workflow ever since.

Or, at least, writers have a frustrating habit of doing actual work and then lying about it. (c.f. Coleridge and the poem "Kubla Khan," supposedly conceived full-formed in a dream). This is part of what got us creatives into the mess I was complaining about last month, where the general public is loath to pay for art that they think came about effortlessly.

It's not just economics that makes it a good idea to acknowledge the realities of writing--that is, it's not just audiences who need to be set straight. People who want to create suffer from the popular image of art as something that just sort of happens to creative people. (There's similar harm done by the idea that to be an artist it's necessary to be crazy or dysfunctional.) What work, exactly, I am trying to do and how, exactly, to do it, is something I'm still getting a handle on, myself.

What brought me back to the topic is a pair of articles I stumbled on today. One is a book excerpt by Matthew Weiner, the major creative force behind the recently ended series Mad Men. I'll just quote what he says on the matter right here:
Artists frequently hide the steps that lead to their masterpieces. They want their work and their career to be shrouded in the mystery that it all came out at once. It’s called hiding the brushstrokes, and those who do it are doing a disservice to people who admire their work and seek to emulate them. If you don’t get to see the notes, the rewrites, and the steps, it’s easy to look at a finished product and be under the illusion that it just came pouring out of someone’s head like that. People who are young, or still struggling, can get easily discouraged, because they can’t do it like they thought it was done. An artwork is a finished product, and it should be, but I always swore to myself that I would not hide my brushstrokes.
Much of his story of the path to success is the usual one about persisting in the face of discouragement and rejection, but he also mentions being married to an architect who was willing to support him during his years of frustration. I think more people who extol the virtue of persistence should be up-front about how they ate while they were persisting. Which brings me to the second article I stumbled on (with the help of my wife--just one of many things she helps me with is stumbling on interesting writing) by author Ann Bauer, saying authors should be less coy about where their money comes from (at least, as is often the case, when it comes from family or spouses). Even Virginia Woolf said that if you're going to write fiction, you need some money (and a room of your own) first.

It's disheartening to imagine that people who succeed do so because of money or connections, but then that's not the entire truth, either. I suspect that the real secret to success (and a secret because, unlike, say, luck or hard work, we rarely discuss it) is to figure out what advantages you have and make the most of them. The right combination probably isn't the same for everyone. But aspirants should stop feeling like failures for relying on their support networks just because their heroes forgot to mention the time they spent doing the same.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015


It's not that I regret seeing Jurassic World. Wife wanted to see it and I wanted to indulge her, and after we had watched the movie we set into it with our claws, tearing it into juicy ribbons that served us as the dinner component of the evening.

Jurassic World was bad. It was baad. It was baaaaaaaaaaaad. But what's more, it seemed convinced, on every level of subtext, that it should not exist. Half a dozen conversations in the movie follow the same basic structure:

Guy 1: We wanted to do something interesting with real dinosaurs but the banal masses only want stupid things, so we mashed together a bunch of dinosaurs to build the Awesomesauce Rex.

Guy 2: That's terrible and an affront to everything I thought this franchise stood for. Why couldn't we just leave well enough alone?

Guy 1: We would but we have a directive from corporate to blindly chase profits until the whole enterprise falls down around our ears.

Guy 2: Welp.

I couldn't help but notice that Universal Pictures is now "A Comcast Company," yet one of the park folks name-drops Verizon as their corporate sponsor for the new "dinosaur." Make of that what you will.