Embracing a Stranger
The 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
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?
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.