Embracing a Stranger

dollThe QueryTracker blog chain topic this time was begun by Leah Clifford.  Before I address the topic, I want to congratulate Leah on signing with Rosemary Stimola of the Stimola Literary Studio.  Leah received four offers of representation from literary agents for her young adult urban fantasy, REAPERS.  Way to go! 

Jessica Verday’s post preceded mine.  Leah’s topic for this round was:

What do you do to amp up the conflict? What pins do you stick in the little voodoo dolls? How do you torture your characters?

Far more interesting than Leah’s choice of topic to me was the information presented with it.  Here’s the passage that made me grin: 

I kept imagining the look of complete horror on the faces of some of my fellow blog chainers.  These girls are nice…sweet…moms and teachers and doctors!  And not only do I love to make them squirm…I’m hoping to make them stretch.  

Now, that is what I want to write about, not how I torture my characters.  Writers torture characters to give them depth and interest.  What I do as a writer to amp up the conflict is contingent on the plot–do I kill off an entire family, do I subject the character to sexual or psychological abuse–all answered by the needs of the genre and story.  

Why a story topic is chosen and to what extent a writer tortures a character is a whole different matter.  

Billy Joel wrote a song long ago called “The Stranger.”  Though I find some of his stuff hokey, the lyrics of this song are on point:

Well we all have a face
That we hide away forever
And we take them out and
Show ourselves
When everyone has gone
Some are satin some are steel
Some are silk and some are leather
They’re the faces of the stranger
But we love to try them on

You may never understand
How the stranger is inspired
But he isn’t always evil
And he is not always wrong
Though you drown in good intentions
You will never quench the fire
You’ll give in to your desire
When the stranger comes along.

When preparing for acting roles, I was occasionally called upon to embrace the darkness in myself that was relevant to characterization. This is similar to characterization in writing–a multi-dimensional character reacts to and from suffering.

Being an acting teacher, I’ve learned even more about “the stranger.”  I was trained in the Stanislavsky Method of acting, which requires pulling up and examining memories of real life experiences to lend credibility to a role.  I teach Method acting to some of my older teen and adult students.  The reason I wait until they are older is that it requires some life experience and emotional maturity.  An actor has to face his/her inner demons in order to utilize the technique in some cases.  It is not uncommon for  young actors to break down because they have recalled and applied an experience to character development that is too painful or raw.  

Here’s what I’ve learned from my own troubled childhood, crazy youth and have witnessed during the cathartic revalations of young actors:

The people who seem most benign are often the ones who burn the hottest.  I kid you not.  The social mask is sometimes so effective, it fools even the wearer.  The people I’ve met with the most tragic or alternative pasts are often the ones who present the most socially acceptable facade.  It’s the quiet ones who surprise and delight me.

I remember going to a play that had some extreme sexual and violent content and looking at the audience in horror.  The audience members were primarily over 70  years old.  I thought, “They are going to be so offended and outraged.  Why are all these seniors here?” Then it dawned on me; the young do not corner the market on sexuality, deviance and alternative views.  These people had not only been young once, they had the experience to know what to do with that knowledge.  Hmmm.  An “ah ha” moment. Something to look forward to!  Once again, the social facade was in complete opposition to reality.

Why do we as writers torture characters?  Freud and Nietzsche have lots to say about it, but I’m not going to go academic on you.  I’ll venture to propose that it universally has something to do with that “stranger” Billy Joel sings about.  It is the same reason we slow down to look at car wrecks or read the gory details of a rape or murder trial.  We don’t want to live or deliver this torture, but we are fascinated with human suffering and how others deal with it.  We love the potential for darkness.  We love characters who are broken.

May not the claims of tender-mindedness go too far?. . . . Is the last word sweet? Is all “yes, yes” in the universe? Doesn’t the fact of “No” stand at the very core of life? Doesn’t the very “seriousness” that we attribute to life mean that ineluctable noes and losses form a part of it, that there are genuine sacrifices somewhere, and that something permanently drastic and bitter always remains at the bottom of its cup?

William James–Pragmatism and Other Writings.

 Leah’s question is intriguing. I’d love a show of hands. Who was horrified and who squirmed? I bet the answer would be surprising. Mwa ha ha!  

Now pass the pins for my voo doo doll, will ya?  Kate is up next.

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16 Comments on “Embracing a Stranger”

  1. Christine Fonseca Says:

    Great post Mary. I liked the references to method acting – as I think that is one of the best ways to truly get “into” your character’s head. I agree also, as a psychologist working with adolescents day in and day out, that the social mask most of us wear bears little resemblance to the inner core.

    Nicely Done!!!

  2. ElanaJ Says:

    Wow, you are much too deep for me! Awesome post!!

  3. Carolyn Says:

    Two enthusiastic thumbs up for this one! You know why!

  4. H. L. Dyer Says:

    This is my favorite response on this topic (and the other topics we’ve twisted it into) so far.


  5. Kat Says:

    Fascinating post.

    As for the show of hands, I have to admit that I only squirmed at the question because I didn’t really know how to put my thoughts on the subject into words. But I’m feeling much better now. 🙂

  6. “We love the potential for darkness. We love characters who are broken.”

    Yes, so true. That’s pretty sums up my thoughts for this whole past, but the above two sentences I especially identified with!

  7. Suzette Saxton Says:

    “The people who seem most benign are often the ones who burn the hottest. I kid you not. The social mask is sometimes so effective, it fools even the wearer. The people I’ve met with the most tragic or alternative pasts are often the ones who present the most socially acceptable facade. It’s the quiet ones who surprise and delight me.”

    So true, Mary. “Never judge a book by its cover” comes to mind as well. 😉

  8. B Wiggins Says:

    Amazing, Mary!
    I always find that still waters are the deepest. It is those who have endured the most that have learned, so well, how to cover it up. Or, dare I say, conquer it?

  9. Lots of great stuff in here, Mary. I loved the reference to “The Stranger” lyrics. I think how a writer deals pain and conflict to her characters says a lot about the writer.

    I wasn’t horrified by Leah’s topic, but the torture metaphor is not the way I think of my characters’ suffering. As a mom, I have a different perspective, which I’ll share in my post on this topic.

  10. Michelle Says:

    It does always seem to be the “quiet ones,” doesn’t it 🙂 I also loved the lyrics. Your posts are always so incredible. And you know, I have often had the same thoughts about senior citizens…always waiting for my grandmother to be horrified by the sex scene in my book, or to be shocked by something else going on. I suppose I forget everything she has seen in her life. She’s been through a few wars, for crying out loud!! I don’t give her enough credit 🙂

    And sorry, all out of voodoo pins…. 😀

  11. leahclifford Says:

    LOVED your answer to this Mary, and thanks for the shout out at the beginning…still seems unreal. I’m thrilled with how everyone is answering this, how each person seems to not answer the question, but rather post their own twist on it. I find myself rushing home to read each new link every day! Great job so far everyone!

  12. Terri Rainer Says:

    You so rock Mary! I am always so in awe of this group, and the more I learn about each of you, that awe just grows.
    I agree with you about human nature. What is “socially acceptable” changes when the doors close for most, I would think.

    🙂 Terri

  13. Great post, Mary! And you are so right about the social masks and quiet people…I always want to know what makes them tick.

  14. Jessica Verday Says:

    Greta post Mary! SO well thought out!

  15. Alicia Says:

    Intriguing post. I loved reading your thoughts on the topic and found myself agreeing with the reasons we, as writers, subject our characters to pain. Wonderful insights, Mary!

  16. Discoking Says:

    Great Blog!……There’s always something here to make me laugh…Keep doing what ya do 🙂

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