Tuesday, October 1, 2013
Tuesday, October 23, 2012
As a devotee of BBC's Sherlock, I came to this as a bit of a biased snob. "What? Making Watson a woman? Taking Sherlock out of London?" Etcetera, etcetera. But, of course, people probably said the same when Sherlock came out in 2010: "How can Benedict Cumberbatch possibly be better than Jeremy Brett? The idea!" But... while these misgivings are valid in their own way, I've come to realize or remember with humility that these are all retellings, not the original story.
Like my argument about viewing a book and its subequent film or films as different animals (i.e. Pride and Prejudice), I think we need to look at the different versions of the stories as equally legitimate renderings. There cannot be one "true" film or television verson of a story. Each will be different. Elementary chooses to emphasize Sherlock as a brilliant drug addict with tattoos, and Watson as a woman and the doctor assigned to keep him sober. In Sherlock, he labels himself a "high functioning sociopath" and texts compulsively, as Watson is the roommate who keeps him in line and keeps him human. One show is American, the other is British. One is slated as a regular series, the other is a miniseries. The comparisons continue, but neither is wrong. Both are a celebration of the original seed of the Sherlock Holmes stories that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote in the late 19th century. To nitpick about Watson's gender or Sherlock's hair color is to totally miss the point. The details are just colors, shadows and angles. The writers, actors and directors of both shows have distinctly different ideas about what makes those stories and characters so compelling. That's why I sit humbly on my hands when i think about my ire for Ridley Scott's Robin Hood. No one owns Robin Hood. No one owns Sherlock Holmes. They belong to everyone.
Retellings are in our blood, those left-over Anglo-Saxon narrative impulses. Our version of Beowulf isn't the original, but it celebrates the original seed of the story. Same with King Arthur and Robin Hood, and Homer's tales. In this era, the stories have evolved from oral anonymities to published works. I ask again, how many times has Pride and Prejudice or Great Expectations made it to a miniseries or theatrical form? Many times celebrated. If anything, film versions always bring the most intrigued back to the source, back to reading how the "real" Sherlock Holmes solved mysteries, made meticulous observations and shot cocaine when he was bored. (No, I don't condone him. We're not supposed to.) So how can multiple versions be a bad thing? And can't they co-exist?
So... pick your poison!
|Elementary starring Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu. CBS.|
|Sherlock starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. BBC.|
Monday, October 1, 2012
Tuesday, February 7, 2012
I was one of those who was exposed to Dickens early and never really knew why. First there was A Christmas Carol in middle school; then A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations and Nicholas Nickleby in high school. This in conjunction with later offerings of Moby Dick, Pride & Prejudice, Return of the Native, offerings from The Canterbury Tales and Wuthering Heights; it is hard to read Dickens if you're a teenager with her head in a galaxy far, far away or in Neverland or floating out in the cosmos somewhere in a Tardis.
Of course, if you're anything of a Whovian, you'll know that the Doctor met Charles Dickens and saved Cardiff from an invasion of ghostly aliens in 1869. But I digress...
Dickens is awesome - but you knew that, of course. It may have taken my little brain a while to realize it, but it is quite obvious. In recent years, I've become blissfully lost in all the plot paths, back alleyways, shadows and sudden turns of his work. It takes patience. The man uses a lot of words. He can ramble. He can paint a very intricate political allegory (case in point, the plethora of Barnacles in the useless Circumlocution Office in Little Dorrit). It is not easy to begin him young. But he is a delight to dive into a little later.
Claire Tomalin puts it this way (as I read it in Linda Wertheimer's article on NPR today): "He did these great walks — he would walk every day for miles and miles, and sometimes I think he was sort of stoking up his imagination as he walked, and thinking of his characters. The way he built his novels was through the voices of his characters."
That, I think, is the fundamental reason his stories resonate so clearly with us today. It is a piece of advice from beyond the grave, as it were, from one Great Writer to this little writer: "think of your characters and their voices."
What I celebrate today is a Writer of Writers, whose stories move us. Films and plays of his works will forever challenge filmmakers, actors and writers for years to come. Today, the Prince of Wales, Dickens' descendants, and many, many others paid their respects, and placed white roses and snowdrops on his grave. Ralph Fiennes read a passage from Bleak House. In so many ways, it was clear how Mr. Dickens is alive in all of us.
What a wonderful thing it is to remember a writer, a wordsmith, a story-teller, to continue to laud his accomplishments and consider the mystery of his life. It demonstrates what we hold onto as human beings - how much we cherish the art of Story, and how that will carry us into a hopeful future.
Thank you, Mr. Dickens, for the ways in which you inspire all of us to write and imagine.
Wednesday, April 20, 2011
4. There were moments where lines, lifted almost exactly from the book, were delivered awkwardly, as if the actors were reading them aloud in a literature class.
Jane Eyre 2006 (Ruth Wilson)
Friday, January 14, 2011
Wednesday, May 13, 2009
Some interesting reflections on character, though, from the novel's preface. (I'm working with a 1991 TOR paperback.)
Most novels get by with showing the relationship between two or, at most, three characters. This is because the difficulty of creating a character increases with each new major character that is added to the tale. Characters, as most writers understand, are truly developed through their relationships with others. If there are only two significant characters, then there is only one relationship to be explored. If there are three characters, however, there are four relationships: Between A and B, between B and C, between C and A, and finally the relationsihp when all three are together.
Even this does not begin to explain the complexity---for in real life, at least, most people change, at least subtly when they are with different people...Our whole demeanor changes, our mannerisms, our figures of speech, when we move from one context to another. Listen to someone you know when they pick up the telephone. We have special voices for different people; our attitudes, our moods change depending on whom we are with.
So when a storyteller has to create three characters, each different relationship requires that each character in it must be transformed, however subtly, depending on how the relationship is shaping his or her present identity. Thus, in a three-character story, a storyteller who wishes to convince us of the reality of these characters really has to come up with a dozen different personas, four for each of them.
Something to think about. Something sobering, because as I try to count my main characters, I am seized with fear that I have at least four. I try to comfort myself with remembering that Dickens certainly doesn't follow the three-character rule. Then I remember that I'm not Dickens.
Sunday, April 12, 2009
I discover on revisiting The Sun Also Rises that the main character's name is not Nick but Jake. Whoops; embarrassing error. And the "selfish, thoughtless whatsername" is Brett, in case anyone was wondering. And Brett's not so bad...she's just lost like everybody else in that book.
Wednesday, April 8, 2009
My friend sent this to me with a note saying that she thought of me. This is ignominious proof of my tendency to become over-involved with fiction, and while I do continue to insist that I am not in love with Doctor Who, no one ever believes me. (It's terribly insulting.) I know I'm not the only one who knows the difference between fiction and fact but doesn't necessarily feel that difference. I knew someone in college who with every fiber of her being wanted to stand between Nick and the thoughtless, selfish whatsername in The Sun Also Rises.
In any case, Smith's basic basic point is that we respond to stories as if they're real. This is simply how they're made. He writes:
The truth is that for many of us fiction is in some sense real, and that what happens to fictional people is, in a curious way, happening in the real world.
It's trompe l'oeil again. We cry or laugh because we accept, however momentarily, that it's real. Smith teases out some of the interesting ways in which detective fiction specifically relies on this as a genre.
Writing is a moral act: What you write has a real effect on others, often to a rather surprising extent.
Write responsibly, I guess.
Thursday, March 12, 2009
I made a very incomplete list of some good names.
Dickens is the king of them, of course:
- Teachers: Mr. Machoakumchild, Mr. Headstone, Mr. Wackford Squeers
- Lawyers (shady and otherwise): Mortimer Lightwood, Tulkinghorn and his assistant Clamb, Mr. Jaggers, Mr. Vholes
- Men of business (shady and otherwise): Wilkins Macawber, Uriah Heep, Harold Skimpole, Ebenezer Scrooge, Mr. Guppy, Mr. Smallweed, Mr. Bucket, Mr. Krook, Mr. Ryderhood, Mr Venus and Silas Wegg
- Ladies and gentlemen: Sir Leicester Dedlock, Baronet; Miss Havishem; Mr. Twemlow
- Poor souls: Miss Flite, Jo, Charlie Neckett, Oliver Twist, and, naturally, Little Nell
Russell T Davies can be quite Dickensian about his epithets too, as they range from silly to histrionic, tongue-twisting to beautifully, contrastingly simple. I love the way he blends in scientific terms with the lexicon of fantasy as well. Who says television dulls our sensitivity to language?
- Tandocca Radiation
- Jaws of the Nightmare Child
- Shadow Proclamation (which in my opinion was much cooler just as a suggestive name—see picture, when the mystery became an old lady with a rhino…)
- Human-Timelord Biological Metacrisis
- Chameleon Arch
- And the counterweights to such vivid tongue-twisters: Time War, Reality Bomb, Void Ship. It also makes a nice contrast that his characters frequently have very simple names: John Smith; Martha Jones; Rose Tyler; Harriet Jones; Donna Noble.
Reading Terry Pratchett has also given me an occasional grin over the names:
- The Counterweight Continent
- Susan Sto-Helit
- Mr. Teatime (pronounced TAY-uh-TEE-meh)
- Agnes Nitt and her alter-ego Perdita
- Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg, and Magrat Garlick
- Hogfather and Hogswatch
- Twoflower the Tourist (who becomes, for a few seconds in The Colour of Magic, Zweiblumen)
Saturday, January 31, 2009
Damsels in distress are deep in the bones of Western literature at this point—maybe Virgil didn’t feel he needed a blonde woman going “Save me!” but by the time we get to the 13th century, they’re pretty firm fixtures. Your hero has a woman he fights for—a lady fair. Oh, there are variants: sometimes she’s really ugly. Sometimes she’s treacherous. Sometimes he needs her more than she needs him. But she’s always there, getting into scrapes and thereby allowing him to demonstrate his masculine prowess.
And there are reasons it works—reasons far too deep and lengthy and controversial and hard to express to get into here—but let’s all admit that it is so satisfying when Edward saves Bella from the potential rapists in Port Angeles; or when the Doctor shouts, “Now there is no power on this earth that can stop me!”; or when Mr. Darcy pays for Lydia’s wedding so that Elizabeth’s life won’t be ruined…on and on and on, all the incarnations. At its best, the tradition of the damsel-in-distress can do some very nice things to develop a character or a relationship. What jump-starts a confession of love better, for example, or proves its sincerity, than a perilous rescue?
The weaker-vessel-female thing also has some very lovely manifestions, in ballet or figure skating or fairy tales. There’s also a fun strain of irony in those manifestations, as we all know (or should know!) the strength and physical prowess it takes to be a ballerina, or the hardiness of heart required to survive a fairy tale. So the illusion of weightlessness in such stories is always just that—she only appears to be a creature of glass. If we don’t forget that it’s an illusion, it can be a fun game to play among ourselves.
“If we don’t forget.” But oh, how we forget. And the damsel in distress becomes so very problematic.
The first problem you probably saw coming a mile away. In many of the traditions, the damsel has no character. She becomes nothing more than an object to be won, a cipher for the hero to project himself onto. In actual fact, medieval romance perpetrates this kind of bland commodification much less often than 1930s heroic films or Walt Disney movies, but that’s neither here nor there. Remember the ridiculous women of Errol Flynn films, or to take a more elevated example, Lucy Manette in A Tale of Two Cities. I love A Tale of Two Cities, please don’t mistake me, but does that woman have any characteristics besides golden beauty and undiscriminating goodness?
And you’d be surprised how quickly the cipher damsel can take on darker characteristics. Take all the collective fantasies about sleeping, unconscious, or otherwise immobile women—Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Pygmalion—who must be restored to life. In a lot of the original versions of these stories, it’s not a nice little kiss that awakens these women, either, but fully fledged sexual conquest. I’m not of the camp that says these stories should be utterly jettisoned, as I think there are many interesting things going on in them besides a necrophilic impulse, but the pathological passivity of these women in many of their cultural incarnations—particularly the Disney ones!—shouldn’t be overlooked.
Or look at this Fuseli painting again: It’s not hard to see that while the source of the horror is supposed to come from the dark powers encroaching on the pure woman, there’s quite a voyeuristic sexual charge coming out of the threat to her as well. Why save her, when you could watch what happens next?
Then there are the scores and scores of Victorian poems involving ladies fair who die, the countless pre-Raphaelite paintings of dead or dying women, the images of Leda all painted from a masculine perspective in which the woman who is raped by a swan gazes lasciviously out of the canvas while it happens. Sorry to disturb you, but this is the heritage of anybody who writes in the Western tradition. Granddad left us more stuff up in the attic than the Mona Lisa.
So where does that leave a writer?
Contemporary adventure films always have to confront the damsel-in-distress tradition. Often, I think, they do it extremely unsatisfyingly, even when writers are clearly trying to be PC. Indiana Jones gets plucky companions, but the scriptwriters seem to mistake shrill shrewishness for feminine strength. As far as I’m concerned, this is just another form of misogyny. Elizabeth Swann in the Pirates franchise is also clearly a direct attempt to circumvent the damsel-in-distress tradition (“You like pain? Try wearing a corset!”), but to me and almost everyone else I know, she registers only as irritating. And as for the tough-and-rough women of sci-fi (Angelina Jolie’s Tomb Raider? Charlize Theron’s assassin in Aeon Flux? River Song in Doctor Who?), with their lycra costumes and dominatrix overtones, they’re fantasies just as disturbing as all the sleeping princesses in all the towers you could imagine.
Where's the good news, Michelle? Well, despite all appearances, I do actually think that this isn't a hopelessly screwed up motif. There are some examples of fiction, ancient and new, that offer some possibilities for hope.
The best and most broadly applicable answer is probably just to write rich characters. As I said earlier, if the damsel tradition is used judiciously in a relationship that is developed sufficiently in other ways, it can be very moving. If the damsel motif is so deeply ingrained in the Western tradition, then it stands to reason that it’s pretty deeply ingrained in the Western man, and that this is one way that a character born and raised anytime after the 13th century would communicate love. So, yeah, Edward wants to save Bella, and as long as he’s not objectifying her, we can and should accept it as an expression of love. Similarly, it doesn’t bother me that the Doctor is always trying to save his companions in NuWho (that’s kind of his thing, anyway); that Darcy gets all protective of Elizabeth; that Tristan comes swooping in to keep Yvaine’s heart from being cut out…etc, etc, etc. I’d sure appreciate that if my heart was going to get cut out, after all, and all the women saved in these stories have sufficient personhood that we experience these moments as expressions of feeling rather than defense of possessions.
Another contemporary film that has effectively dealt with the damsel issue is, bizarrely, The Mummy, starring Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weiscz. The filmmakers let the man demonstrate his physical prowess as he’s always done, but provide the woman with a definite character and unique contribution to the situation. So, Brendan Fraser got to swoop in and save a woman who’s as hopeless in a crisis situation as I certainly would be, but she’s the one who is able to figure out what was going on by virtue of her archaeological expertise. (Again, though, this requires script development: it’s not enough just to put Jessica Alba in glasses and a lab coat and say, “See? She’s a scientist!")
There are also older stories that complicate the issues very satisfyingly. Jane Eyre springs to mind, with its constant fluctuation of power between the two protagonists, ultimately leading them beyond questions of power into love. In The Lord of the Rings, too, I love the character of Eowyn, who clearly can save herself with a sword but also suffers from a deeper spiritual distress (totally lost in the movie). Chaucer’s Man of Law’s Tale also portrays a woman who triumphs by the strength of her own character even as we wait for her to be reunited with her warlike husband. If memory serves, Chretien de Troyes’ Eric and Enide is also interesting on this score, as is Book III of the Faerie Queene, featuring Britomart, the female knight who is questing for her beloved.
Possibly it just says more about my personality than anything else that I prefer stories that work within the tradition to enrich and subvert it rather than stories that declare open war on it. Still, as Sleeping Beauty and Snow White prove, the good and the bad in culture can be inextricably tangled.
That is certainly the case for all those poor damsels in distress. Let’s save em, shall we?
Saturday, January 24, 2009
It’s not something I’d like to emulate, but I have to confess that I sympathize with him. I want to be one and whole, but as a writer, I feel subject to warring impulses of all kinds. I’ve got enough desires for several lives, not just one. Does anyone else experience this?
I haven’t got them all categorized—and I doubt that anyone would be interested in hearing the definitive catalog anyway—but my crew of Michelles, responsible for getting my life to safe harbor, argue constantly among themselves. There’s Ambitious Michelle, who ferociously wants to get her writing published and be part-of-the-world, constantly at war with Private Michelle, who doesn’t want to make an exhibition of herself and is happiest on some lost floor of a university library. There’s Writer Michelle, who doesn’t understand that Physical Michelle must eat and have health insurance. Don’t even get me started on Domestic Michelle and what that means for Adventurous Michelle. I want to be, well, everything, and I am often extremely discontent that I just can't be.
Contrary to all appearances, I’m not posting this as an opportunity to navel-gaze ad nauseam. (Believe me, I can do that without posting.) It’s just that I think that it might not be just me who can’t reconcile all these impulses. I think a lot of artists experience this. Everybody has contradictions, but artists, who tend to feel and think whatever they feel and think so intensely, practically have multiple selves to deal with.
Even characters can be a bit like multiple selves—I’ve got whole populations and races of people jostling around in my imagination, clamoring to get out! And they all have bits and pieces of me, of course.
I’m not particularly fussed about this. I’d like to think I’m a better captain than Jack Sparrow—nicer to all my little constituents, for a start. I took a walk yesterday, and I didn't kill the Workaholic Michelle who was protesting like mad; I just politely asked the other Michelles to sit on her head.
It also seems to me that it ties in nicely to Plato’s diagnosis of the soul: we have Rational Souls, Appetitive Souls, and Spirited Souls. Happiness is a matter of bringing those souls into balance. I imagine that it’s much the same with the artistic life—none of those Michelles get to run the show, but none of them should be shunted aside either.
F. Scott Fitzgerald is famous for saying that an artist is someone who can hold two opposed views and still function. When I looked it up, it turned out that he actually said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” I guess the jury is still out on the subject of my intelligence, and it remains to be seen if I will “retain the ability to function.”
But I’ve got 169 pages of a novel and I love my family: my hopes are high. I hope yours are too.
Tuesday, January 20, 2009
For those of you who don't know, for months after David Tennant announced he would be leaving the show, a long list of possibilities emerged to replace him as Doctor Eleven. Before Matt Smith was confirmed, there was an interest expressed by several (including Russell T Davies) to have Catherine Zeta-Jones take over the role.
I will be frank. The day the re-creators of Doctor Who decide that he will regenerate into a woman, I will be done with the story. Why? I do not believe this is an issue about feminism or politically correct sentiments. This is a basic tenant of the Doctor's identity. He has been a man for ten regenerations from personality to personality from Time Lord to Time Lord. It is not the same issue as the Doctor asking Rose (right after he regenerated into David Tennant): "Now be honest, how do I look?... Am I ginger?" It is not so simple. In fact, it is complicated... perhaps too complicated. When you change the gender of a character, everything changes. And that is not simple a "rule" that applies to the Doctor and James Bond, but to any character.
I have come to believe that masculinity and femininity are simply not interchangable. And the Doctor so far this revival has not exactly been sexless. Out of the many episodes where the Doctor and Rose struggle with their relationship, or Martha pines away because the Doctor won't even look at her... with a girl in every fireplace... a smarty pants, a lady-killer... the "fire and rage" and the broken soul of a lonely wanderer, a father without children... all these and more point to the reality that the Doctor is undoubtedly a man. In nearly every episode, the inevitable question about the enigma of his identity must be asked: "Who are you?" His answer has been expressed in a variety of ways, but one definitive answer that pops into my head in this moment is from "The Girl in the Fireplace": "I'm the Doctor! And I just snogged Madame de Pompadour!"
The Doctor is an enigma, multiple facets brought out by many different men. The mystery deepens around his name, the lives he's led, the people he's met, the enemies he's battled, the people he's lost. We see him clearer with each mystery. He is many men. And once, you could even say he was a woman - when Donna absorbed his regenerative energy - we did have a taste of this particular what-if. But there can't be more than a question. The Doctor is a fixed point in his story. Perhaps he reflects pieces and echoes of the companions that have shared the TARDIS with him over the years. But he retains a few fixed points of his own. And this has to be one of them.
Wednesday, January 14, 2009
Today's topic: names and the wonder that is behind them. Reader, you may snort a little at such a trite observation, but 'tis true. As a writer, I am obsessed. I have been known to ruminate over the names of my characters for months, only to settle on the one that will feel essentially right. I find myself wondering how people I meet in random situations were named the way they were... especially if they are unique... or if there is a particular story behind it. Names are, after all, identifiers. Even if your parents could not predict what you would be like as an adult, they chose names that were meaningful in some way to them. It is one tiny thread of a person's identity that shapes them and continues with them throughout life.
I have enjoyed creating names out of existing ones for my more wayward and fantastical stories: Annara (a combination between Anne and Sara); Rurac (a version of the Celtic surname Rourke); Shadow (nickname for a man named Brey); etc.
But I continue to balk at the growing trend of name-changing and children given utterly bizarre or offensive names. To change your name is your decision, but what, ultimately, does that look like? People have been known to change their legal names to domain names, advertisments and other sorts of meaningless tripe. Meaningless? Yes. Meaningless. Done on a whim to satisfy spur-of-the-moment impulses. Honestly, "Thor, God of Thunder" might appeal to you now, but what about in ten years? Do you really want that on your marriage license? Your diploma? Your death certificate? Or are we really not thinking that far ahead anymore? I have begun to appreciate the fact that we do not, in general, choose our names. We grow into them, we learn to tolerate them or find some way around them (via fun and interesting nick names). But it says so much about our character if we are able to honor the people who gave them to us. Being named after a grandparent or your mother's favorite Jane Austen character might actually give the opportunity to redefine that name with your own life. What good is a journey with the name you were given if you give up? (Think along the lines of a "Boy Called Sue" by Johnny Cash.)
What about children who are given bizarre and unflattering names. And I'm not actually referring to, say, Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner's newborn daughter Seraphina... which is actually quite pretty, if you ask me. There has been a recent story floating around the news media in recent months about the Campbell family out of New Jersey whose 3 year old son, named Adolf Hitler Campbell (not kidding), and was refused a birthday cake with his name on it. "Adolf" apparently has two little sisters with similiarly themed names: JoyceLynn Aryan Nation and Honslynn Hinler Jeannie. His father, in a video interview, expresses his apparent disgust with the dismissive comment, "They're just names." I am sitting here with my mouth dropping open. Just names? All right, this is a little worse than the "Boy Called Sue". As if Hitler was just an ordinary person. The implication is that the origins of those names do not matter and that everybody else needs to be "tolerant." It saddens me that he can be so careless.
A few scenarios:
The name John was taboo when it came to the English monarchy. John, you ask? Remember the cruel, greedy, awful King John - whose barons forced him to sign the Magna Carta (or evil Prince John from the Robin Hood stories)? He was the cause of so much grief in 13th century England, with his murderous rampages and conflicts with France that caused him to lose much of the land that was once considered English soil. I consider it to be no coincidence whatsoever that there has not yet been a King John II.
Switching to Doctor Who, the Doctor actually has a name other than Doctor. Trouble is, no one knows what it is, and I've heard that Time Lord names are forgotten once they've chosen their designation. (Anyone well-versed in Time Lord culture, please feel free to correct me!) There are a few episodes in Series 4 that touch on the secret knowledge of the Doctor's name - as the difference between the trust of strangers and being chucked out of a car ("Midnight") or the identification of a person he hasn't met yet ("Silence in the Library"), but might be the most important person he ever meets in his life. Further, there are other little identifiers in Doctor Who which seem like nothing, but are actually carry earth-shattering importance. If a mysterious blonde woman appears from a parallel universe, carry with her the key phrase "Bad Wolf"... we know it can be no one but Rose Tyler.
In The Lord of the Rings, Gandalf has many, many names... all of which carry different meanings: Gandalf the Grey, Gandalf the White, Storm Crow, Mithrandir... he goes by all of them and yet they are all, essentially, him.
In Return of the Jedi, (I smell a pattern) Darth Vader responds to the utterance of Anakin Skywalker: "That name no longer has any meaning for me." To which his no-doubt miserable son returns, "It is the name of your true self you've only forgotten."
In the pilot episode of Criminal Minds, FBI agents Hotchner and Gideon get into a conversation about how difficult it is for Hotch and his wife to choose an appropriate name for their unborn child, because any innocent sounding name makes him think of an infamous serial killer. That, apparently, is not a burden Hotch wants his son to carry with him.
Obviously, Mr. Campbell, it isn't merely a name if the world still shudders when they hear the name Adolf Hitler. I feel for his little son who doesn't know any better. When he is older and in school with other Timothys, Adams and Brians how will he discover the dreadful history of his name? It really is a burden already weighing. Names shape us. How was Adolf Hitler meant to shape him? Or was it merely an identifer of his parents... and their questionable political leanings?
Forgive me if I've burdened you with this flood of words. Names are art to me, and it makes me sad - and, I admit, less articulate - when people see them as nothing more than gibberish or an advertising space. Names make us human, connect us to our history and make the steps we take distinctly ours. We are characters in a larger story, and no character is meaningless. Why should their designations be any different?
Tell me, am I totally overreacting or this a legitimate defense of art?
Monday, October 27, 2008
Tuesday, October 14, 2008
It was fascinating to realize that this could happen not though some active mistake on my part but through the simple failure to keep giving her life by writing about her. I left her alone too long, and like a plant unwatered, she died.
Tuesday, September 23, 2008
I haven't really written much in about a week, on the blog or on my projects, because I had an experience that kind of upset me and I've been...rebuilding. I read a story of mine to some family members, and they ended up understanding way too much about me, myself, from hearing it. It's inevitable, I suppose, that people look for the writer behind the words, but I wasn't prepared for them to be so right. My listeners last week are kind people, of course, and didn't abuse the knowledge in any way, but it was scary to realize how much I can apparently reveal about myself without intending to at all.
Let me clarify that none of the characters in the story were me, none of their experiences were like mine, and I didn't write with any intention of revealing myself. It's just that you (or I, anyway) have to use my own emotional impulses, the things I find happy and the things I find sad and the things I find interesting, to write, because I have nothing else. Maybe that's what they mean by "writing what you know" - I've always wondered. As a writer, I suppose I'm a little bit like a method actor, needing to find the reality in myself before I can write about it convincingly.
But I found it really scary and upsetting, to discover that I can be so transparent in my writing, and I've had to process the revelation. But I've decided it's a bit of an occupational hazard of being any kind of an artist - you put your deepest self at the service of others and the truth. That's why certain roles are exhausting for actors, why it hurts so much to have your work rejected.
And I am driving home this truth to myself by posting about it on the blog where anybody can read it. So there.
Monday, September 15, 2008
Tuesday, September 9, 2008
When I say that characters ought to be "consistent," I don't think I mean that they ought to be static. But they ought to be...whole, somehow. One being, not a cipher to do whatever you need them to do in a story.
Characters I can think of off the top of my head who undergo change but remain whole/consistent/real: Harold Crick in Stranger Than Fiction; King Lear; Ebenezer Scrooge; Pip from Great Expectations; the Beast in Beauty and the Beast; Frodo in Lord of the Rings; Cassandra in I Capture the Castle; Karenin (Anna's husband) in Anna Karenina (I adore the very human unreliability of his character!)
There are probably more, but it's late and I'm trying not to write an endless post!
Friday, September 5, 2008
Last night I watched the 2000 BBC adaptation of Lorna Doone, and it has fired my soul with a single desire: namely, never to read Lorna Doone. I realize it's a beloved book of many, and the film had many good qualities. These include:
- The presence of the fanstastically named Honeysuckle Weeks (of Foyle's War fame) as John Ridd's sister;
- Barbara Flynn turning in a performance way too good for the whole project;
- Michael Kitchen in a Restoration-era wig;
- Jesse Spencer (Chase from House) with powdered face; and
- A valiant attempt by the villain to escape the whole ridiculous film via a pit of quicksand.
- Oh, and swashbuckling. Gotta love swashbuckling.
I'm posting about it, though, because it actually got me thinking about character. Specifically, how to write decent ones.
My main quarrel with the film is that the characters were inconsistent, and I couldn't figure out their motivations. This is fatal in a story that purports to be about deep-seated jealousies and hatred. Nothing was deep-seated for these people. I don't blame the screenwriter, Adrian Hodges, for this, as it seems to be more or less the structure of R.D. Blackmore's book that these people have very short attention spans.
At the beginning of the movie, the whole problem with a relationship between John and Lorna is that he's a Ridd and she's a Doone (i.e., Oh noes! Montagues and Capulets!). However, John shows almost no struggle in getting over this obstacle, and he's not like Romeo, detached from his family feud. Instead, he's filled with hate and at the heart of it...until he realizes that apparently, Doones can be pretty, and all the visceral hatred goes out the window.
Then, halfway through, we find out that ***SPOILER ALERT*** she's not a Doone after all! However, I can't help feeling that really, this would cause very little change in her familial feelings. They would get more complicated, but she would still feel like a Doone. Well, you would think so, but it is not so, my friends. In a moment that reminded me strongly of the end of Arsenic and Old Lace ("Elaine! Elaine! I'm the son of a sea cook!") she pretty much just said "SWEET!" and got on with her life.
Unfortunately, we still had a lot of story to get through, so the tensions then had to come from elsewhere, and they came from similar about-faces from characters who formerly had held onto certain principles for dear life. For example, the maid who was all smiles about Lorna and John earlier suddenly decides that her precious mistress can't marry a farmer.
The villain similarly had very obscure motivations. I'm sure the actor, Aiden Gillen, had a clear idea of his character, but the story sure didn't. Was he just a punk? Was he power-mad? Was he obsessed with Lorna? Did he love the Doone Valley? The movie offered all of these explanations, but none of them were particularly convincing. He just seemed to be a Bad Man. And I'm afraid his final demise had me in stitches...sorry...but he looked just like Tony Shalhoub at the end of The Imposters.
OK, I'm cheap-shotting a lot at easy targets, but this kind of inconsistency in character is much more common than you might think. I was ultimately highly unimpressed with what I saw of Season 1 of Heroes, because I felt that the scripts had many of the same problems. Take Milo Ventimiglia's character and his love interest: her father is dying, and she's making eyes at his nurse?? Her father's death was just a script vehicle to get the pretty faces together. Likewise, Ali Larter's character wakes up in a room spattered with blood and corpses, and in the very next scene, she's calling her son, saying tranquilly, "I'll be home soon, sweetheart." Where was the residual horror about her situation?
I'm just noticing a lot lately how often characters are just cardboard cutouts for the writers to walk through their outlandish situations. They're collections of quirks and qualities (this one has a really deep voice and a lot of anger; this one is addicted to painkillers; this one works in an art museum and is kind of funky), but they don't respond consistently to the events in their "lives."
This is why I have nothing but the deepest respect for Russell T Davies and Doctor Who, because the characters are, by and large, consistent (please enjoy the photo of Donna's character standing up to deep scrutiny). Even when the story's getting weird, he always remembers what his characters hold most dear, what they would think of first and foremost. Hence, we get the continual family theme in Rose's stories, and almost all the episodes in Series 2 comment in some veiled way on the sacrifices Rose and the Doctor will make for each other.
This is also why my favorite character in Lorna Doone was Anthony Calf's: Tom, the Reformed Highwayman. He actually responded to things consistently, didn't undergo any total metamorphoses. He was a criminal; decided to change his life; fell off the wagon; came back. He had much more consistency than anyone else in the whole thing.
Still, on general principle: ALL HAIL THE BBC! Even when they're not so great, they give me something to think about. And I don't mean to suggest that creating characters is easy: the fact that some of the most lauded shows in the business have trouble with it should tell you that it's hard. But absolutely worth doing!
To read more about why Daedalus Notes exists, click here.