Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Dramatic Storytelling (3): It's the Characters, stupid!

Effective dramatic characters are bundles of contradictions. They command our attention by virtue of their contradictions (or their depth), which is another way of saying complex characters are more interesting and, except in the case of some forms of comedy, more likely to produce emotional energy than one-dimensional, stereotypical characters. The quest of dramatic storytelling begins with a willingness to embrace a character’s contradictions, and this involves something more than merely thinking them up and writing them down.

A storyteller’s characters are usually conceived of as the creation of the storyteller. But the storyteller is also a creation of the characters. They create one another. To create as well as be created by one’s characters, and experience that sense of give and take that is the soul of a genuine relationship, the storyteller must find ways of embodying the drama. It is not so much a matter of understanding it, but of entering it; and getting rid of every thing that is an impediment to entering it. One is either in the drama or out of it. Only when one has entered into it can one see and hear the characters, not as they appear from the vantage point of the unobserved observer (the storyteller), but as they see and hear themselves and one another.

But how does one enter into the drama without having already established the very relationships that one is seeking? It’s one of those chicken and egg questions, only it’s the wrong question.

To enter the drama is to intersect with the dramatic problems that are facing your characters with the same degree of emotional seriousness and gravity that you would feel if the problems were actually happening to you. So long as you merely stand by and watch the gathering crisis and impending calamity with the mild gaze of a mildly interested spectator, you will never connect with either the drama or the characters. To mean is to care! And to care is to operate at the emotional level that is appropriate to the threat that is driving the action. The meaning of every action and every emotion is robbed of meaning without this psychic translation, and the storyteller who avoids making such a translation does so at his or her own peril, and at the expense of remaining entirely ignorant of the dramatic possibilities afforded by the deep grammar of both the character’s and one’s own origins.

The surest way of gaining access to a character’s inner emotional life is to make the same emotional journey the character is on. This cannot be done at arms length, nor is it merely intellectual. One must follow the character and the energy wherever they lead. This is the single, most potent secret (and problem) concerning the art of dramatic storytelling. Though the screenwriting gurus might allude to it, the idea itself has not been adequately addressed or explored by them because it is not something that can be reduced to a recipe, or encapsulated in a scarcity of jargon and methodology. The question is, how does one climb inside the skins of the characters? How does one find one’s own fear in their fear? In short, how does a storyteller transform him or herself into a MEDIUM.

An emotionally satisfying character-based story is seldom if ever the product of intellectual wilfulness. Even when supported by a thoroughgoing knowledge of the mechanics of story construction, willpower is simply not enough. To produce such a story the storyteller must undergo transformations every bit as dramatic as those experienced by the most dramatic of dramatic characters; and unless the storyteller is able to do this it will be almost impossible for him or her to discover characters that are capable of doing so.

The sort of transformations I refer to begin and end in the unconscious. Even as they occur and rise to consciousness, they evoke a sense of mystery and wonder, possessed as they are with a delicious otherness, as we have been invaded by persons or forces that have chosen us to tell their story. To work as a medium is to stand outside oneself, or more nearly in oneself, than is the case when one works from the narrow perspective of self and self-interest. To undergo the kinds of transformations that enable one to shift one’s psychical distance to story, and through that shift to encourage and stimulate greater vision, is to enter into three primary relationships whose efficacy in illuminating story becomes so palpable that the storyteller often feels someone or something other him/herself is telling the story.

The psychic metamorphosis that brings about the storyteller’s transformation into a “receiver” of story requires the storyteller to enter into an elemental dialogic predicated upon a heuristic notion that dramatic stories, as well as being about relationships, also evolve from relationships, and that not all of these relationships are circumscribed by the script or screenplay. The on going and evolving quest of the medium is to free one’s characters from the preconceptions and prejudices that one imposes upon them in the service of one’s needs and fears. If the storyteller is to transcend those prejudices and fears then his/her participation in a dialogic that is grounded in the storyteller’s relationships with characters, with audience and with tribe. This dialogic has its roots in the essence and nature of every dramatic story, which is necessarily conceived and told from a point of view, in a context, to an audience. To grasp this notion is to enter into the relational contexts by which and through which characters and their stories develop and attain authentic and thoroughly fresh meanings.

Collectively, these three primary relationships – the storyteller/character relationship, the storyteller/audience relationship, and the storyteller/tribe relationship – excite the imagination with visions that evoke discoveries conducive to the writer’s transformation into a medium. Also, the writer’s active engagement in each of these relationships is instrumental to shedding the egocentric stance to storytelling that is both the basis of the storyteller’s fears and prejudices and the source of a story’s predictable mediocrity.

It is only when the storytelling process allows not only the characters but also the audience and the tribe to become part of the creative act, that the dramatic story has a chance of affecting us deeply. The perspectives provided by these relationships, and the contrasting opportunities for grasping and multiplying meaning that these vantage points suggest and illuminate, trigger a perceptual engagement with story that takes us beyond or behind the mere expression of its visual and aural content. Taken together, these relationships – or multiple perspectives – conduct and encourage the storyteller into interactions with the story that breakdown the habitual referencing and code-reading that frustrates the possibility of entering into a living and dynamic involvement with the action and energies that the characters generate. Indeed, the primary function of this relational dialogic is to conduct the storyteller into the drama, so that he/she enters as a participant, intimately involved with the characters at a psychical distance that is appropriate to the energies that are in play.

The three relationships, which are really vantage points or perspectives from which to view the story, supply the critical contexts through which characters internal and external to the story attain the emotional presence that enables them to become co-creators of the story-being-found. As one’s participation in all three relationships develops, one is conducted into a catalytic dialogic that promotes an ever-increasing susceptibility to the emotional energies present in the action by allowing one to jettison or transcend the insecurities that have been keeping characters at bay. Ultimately, the degree to which a storyteller is able to enter vividly into all three relationships is proportional to the storyteller’s success in becoming a medium for both character and story.


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