Wednesday, April 2, 2008

The Storyteller & the Characters - The Primary Relationship

Knowledge is frequently cited as a conventional remedy for prejudice and fear, but in the case of dramatic storytelling knowledge can only take you so far. Possessing an intellectual grasp of plot construction and character development neither inspires nor sustains the courage and depth of insight necessary to the task of finding fresh and compelling characters. Nor will being conversant with the jargon, or having an academic command of comparable methodologies, assuage whatever doubts and insecurities accompany the process of grappling with a character’s inner and outer problems and contradictions. In fact, knowledge very often reinforces and legitimises the underlying anxieties that stand between us – the storytellers – and the story we are trying to find.

But if knowledge cannot help, and if fear and prejudice serve only to drive the anxious storyteller ever deeper into the complacency of formula, by what means might a storyteller fruitfully uncover those characters and actions that form the basis of energetic drama? How does a storyteller bring about the essential connectedness between him/herself and the characters that is the soul of the storytelling partnership? If one’s goal is to become a medium for character and story, how is it possible for the storyteller to identify so strongly with the characters that s/he becomes the characters, or, more exactly, the characters themselves “create” their own story?

Much of the storyteller’s fear is stimulated by an unwillingness to confront or acknowledge the emotional messiness that is buried in the dramatic actions of the characters. This can be further complicated by a lack of confidence on the part of the storyteller when it comes to tracking these actions back to their source in a character’s origins. When unchecked, the storyteller is likely to produce stereotypical characters that illustrate rather than dramatise the action.

Great characters never give up their secrets easily. Just as a character is capable and often eager to conceal from the other characters what is most important to him or her, so too is a character inclined to hide his or her deepest feelings from the one who would seek to publicise them, i.e.: the storyteller. One cannot address this problem by merely assigning one’s characters biographies and moving them around the page whilst thinking up new ways of describing their appearance and what they are doing. The imposition of traits and actions, short of an emotional connection with the character, breaks faith with the kind of relationship that allows a character to become a partner with the storyteller in the creation of the story. Indeed, such a relationship is impossible so long as the storyteller maintains his or her narrow role as cold-blooded manipulator. What is required is some degree of faith and courage and a willingness to trust one’s characters. Trust is everything, for it is only when one trusts one’s characters that they can become truly responsible for their own actions. In surrendering control, in allowing the characters to speak and act for themselves, a storyteller creates the circumstances for the characters’ eventual escape from the storyteller’s wilfulness. When a dramatic story evolves from characters that insinuate themselves in this way it creates the impression – at least, within the storyteller – that the story is writing itself. Indeed, from the point of view of the storyteller-as-medium, it is probably more accurate to describe the process as a finding rather than a making.

The storyteller/character relationship provides the usual vantage point from which dramatic screen stories are conceived and constructed. The incipient relationship between the storyteller and his or her characters owes almost everything to the storyteller’s continuing and developing interest in the characters’ as-yet-undiscovered possibilities, which involves the characters and their world, and some degree of curiosity on the part of the dramatist concerning the characters’ problems, goals and plans. As this interest grows, the storyteller is increasingly inclined to lay aside his or her fears, prejudices and habits of thought, exchanging them for a more genuine relationship. So long as the storyteller continues to be intrigued, the relationship will grow.

In the early stages of the storyteller’s relationship with a character, the storyteller is only partially cognizant of the problems and circumstances with which the character is struggling, and whatever knowledge he or she may have about the character is largely based upon a set of assumptions concerning what and who the character is. Building a relationship upon assumptions and the prejudices that they foster is hardly conducive to promoting the sorts of interactions one normally associates with genuinely creative relationships. It is difficult to imagine an authentic relationship between a storyteller and a character that is based solely on the storyteller’s need for the character to act and speak according to a set of prejudices and expectations that force the story to move in a direction that has already been conceived by the storyteller. To avoid the staleness and predictability this kind of non-relationship breeds, one must engage with one’s characters in a way that allows them to contribute something.

The initial stage of this engagement usually involves “a dialogue” in which the actions and motives of the character as well as the storyteller are interrogated and thoroughly scrutinized, both on and off the page. But the dialogue only really begins in earnest in the re-writing process when the storyteller is able to examine and question the weight and rhythm of the emotional energies that have been found.

Every re-write is a kind of seduction conducted by pushing one’s characters into one crisis after another and watching how they behave. As they navigate the problems and manage the threats inherent in the action, their own actions reveal aspects of their being. Dramatic problems provoke dramatic actions. Dramatic characters ACT; undramatic characters merely behave.

In drama, as in life, adversity that builds character. When seriously opposed or in danger of losing what he or she most prizes, the dramatic character acts and through that action shows us the stuff of which he or she is made. Whatever tricks the storyteller may employ to entice, cajole or coax the character out of hiding, nothing is more revealing of a character’s innermost attitudes and motivations than what they actually do in the face of life threatening circumstances. Hence, a character with his back to the wall will act in ways that reveal much more information about what he really thinks and believes and feels than a character who casually discusses the weather over an undramatic cup of tea.

In the process of discovering one’s characters, one also comes to realise that this is also a process of self-interrogation in which the storyteller must find, challenge, and sometimes transcend, those anxieties, beliefs and prejudices, that serve only to obscure his or her relationship with the characters.

Probing deeper, a storyteller may uncover resonances between the characters and actual people in the storyteller’s world. Drives, wishes and fears relevant to the storyteller and the characters are laid bare, exploited, or rejected according to the weight and relevance of the energy they contribute to the story-being-found.

Basically, the storyteller/character relationship begins where Drama begins – with a PROBLEM. In fact, the problem is the first, single most important dramatic artefact that the character and the storyteller have in common. But a problem only becomes a dramatic problem – with an implicit dramatic question – when it goads a character into action, action that is directed towards achieving a desired objective or goal. This goal must, in turn, stimulate a plan of action that, when enacted, carries significant risk for the character.

A dramatic problem is the kind of problem that gets worse if it isn’t dealt with. It’s also the kind of problem that gets worse because it’s dealt with, and will go on producing even bigger problems as a result of the character’s actions to resolve it, thus creating even greater risk. In this way a dramatic story goes on building tension and emotional energy until the characters (and the storyteller) are faced with a problem of such magnitude it begins to look as if there might not be any way of solving it.

The major creative challenge of dramatic writing is to create a problem that is thoroughly both coherent and necessary in terms of what has preceded it, and which inexorably and logically leads to a problem that is apparently unresolvable. The seemingly unresolvable problem is the brick wall at the heart of every dramatic story worth telling. It is the inescapable initiation ceremony that every story requires of its storyteller if it is to divulge the secret/sacred lore that contains the essential power of the story-being-found. In acknowledging this, Cassavetes stated one of the more profound truths of dramatic storytelling when he wrote “filmmaking is about asking questions concerning things for which one has no answer, while holding yourself tenderly open, ready to come across new questions at any moment.”

The seemingly unanswerable question – the unsolvable problem – is the source of the terror that lies at the base of the storyteller/character relationship. A writer who is brave enough to journey with the characters and undergo, with them, all of the anxieties that the risk and urgency of their problems visit upon them is thrown into temporary despair when faced with the seemingly solution-less riddle of the story’s last great obstacle; for until a solution can be found the story cannot proceed, nor can it be finished. And not just any solution will do.

Drama is concerned with the meaningful movement and transformation of emotional energy. But the change that occurs will not command our attention unless it is significant. Change is made significant – or emotionally satisfying – when it is authentic, i.e.: when it is the expression of a character’s genuine emotional state rather than being merely the generic expression of some emotion or another. In order to transcend technique and method (formula) – and thus make one’s characters authentic – the storyteller must find ways of making the characters present.

In order to become present, a character must become more than an idea or even a collection of ideas or word/images that refer to that character. To become present means to inhabit the realm of the utterly original – which is to say, the character is possessed of a nature that is unique to that character, which flows from every action that character makes, and allows that character to understand and be understood (susceptible to our empathy) in its own terms – including the terms of our world – without reference to characters extraneous to the story or any number of formulaic reductions (stereotypes) that serve only to rob it of its uniqueness.

A storyteller experiences a character coming to life when the character has been actualised in such a way that its attributes multiply their meanings by virtue of the internal and external relationships one ascertains in the act of witnessing the actions that are peculiar them. Merely adding personal details does not guarantee this multiplication of meaning, for only part of the life of a character actually exists on the page. A character’s most profound existence – even at the scripting phase – operates as a creative exchange of understanding between the storyteller and the character, mediated by text, context and subtext – but not limited to these. It involves not only those elements of character and story that are fully articulated and materialised, but also those aspects that are vividly implied by virtue of the imaginative associations inspired by what is stated and shown, as well as whatever is discovered as a result of the storyteller’s willingness to engage with character at a meta-linguistic level. This multiplication of meaning – which is really the essence of “modernism” – is elucidated more broadly in Eisenstein’s theory of montage and Ezra Pound’s ideogrammatic method, both of which lie beyond the scope of the present book.

Legend has it that when Duke Ellington was asked to define jazz, he said simply: “it’s what you leave out”. The same can be said for dramatic storytelling. It’s what you leave out that lends it its potency as well as its authority, which is something we bestow upon it by virtue of the emotional connections it invites us to discover.

In terms of story, the multiplication of meaning operates largely as subtext, creating the physical, psychical, emotional and intellectual spaces and distances that evoke imaginative leaps and personal, seemingly privileged, observations that promote identification and involvement. Subtext permits an audience to care about what happens. To the extent that the subtext is apprehended, it becomes the audience’s and the tribe’s contribution to the making of the story. But more about this later.

The notion that the multiplication of meaning begins with the storyteller and what the storyteller is able to show or suggest is a vast delusion. The multiplication of meaning is not only a function of the storyteller’s involvement with the characters; it is also a manifestation of the characters’ facility to stimulate discovery in the storyteller, and more specifically, a manifestation of the characters’ willingness to be involved with the storyteller. Stated in a different way – and borrowing a phrase from Pound – the multiplication of meaning is both the cause and the effect of the storyteller’s discovery and affirmation of those unexpected qualities that make a character and the character’s relationship with the storyteller NEW.

To make a character new, ingenuity is indispensable. Indeed, effectively written drama is the presentation of ingenuity in action, wedded to needs that are important to the characters: the thing we might have done if only we had thought of it! A character, and the situation into which that character’s actions propel it, might very well be dramatic, but this is no guarantee that the character won’t be dull. Drama alone is not enough. A character must also be fresh, and at the same time, thoroughly credible.

The value of the unresolvable dramatic problem, creatively speaking, is that it provokes ingenuity from the writer/character relationship, and in so doing – so long as the writer does not lose heart – provokes the character into becoming more present. Interestingly, it also provokes, or at least encourages, the storyteller into become less present! Or, at least, the storyteller’s prejudices and fears. Because the unresolvable dramatic problem defies method and formula by presenting a dilemma for which neither method nor formula can provide any fresh and satisfying solutions, it ultimately forces the storyteller to abandon his/her reliance upon those sets of prejudices and fears that parade as knowledge, thus leading the storyteller to confront the character and the character’s problems in their own terms.

Whilst caught up in the chaos of the unresolvable problem, bereft of knowledge and the slightest hint as to what might be done, the storyteller arrives at his/her first best chance to make a clean break from the methodologies and formulas that stand between him/herself and the characters. When the storyteller’s ego-self backs down, when it finally admits it has no answers, that it is in fact the veritable fool at the heart of a foolish enterprise, when it becomes completely undone under the weight of not knowing, there is a chance, to hear the characters speak, and to find the solutions that only each character-as-that-character can find.

To fully appreciate the primary storyteller/character relationship is to understand that it involves not only the storyteller’s relationship with the main character, but with all of the characters. Indeed, to produce fresh, surprising and credible dramatic actions, the storyteller must have an energetic alliance not only with the main character, but also with those that stand in opposition to the main character’s plans and goals.

This shifting of allegiance – the storyteller-as-betrayer – is itself a dialogic that the storyteller navigates by translating into meaningful actions, the inner beliefs, attitudes and motives of all the characters. In short, the storyteller must care just as much about stifling or impeding the main character’s progress towards its goal as he/she does in seeking a successful outcome to the problems that the character encounters. This shift in loyalty is, in fact, a shift in point of view. One might ask: from what psychical position or distance is the storyteller viewing the actions of the characters? From whose point of view is the writer telling the story? The question goes to the core of every dramatic problem, for without an empathetic perspective, the writer will neither hear nor see the authentic character that is struggling to escape the prison of the storyteller’s prejudices and fears.

Successful storytellers are not limited to one point of view. Only by entering into a story through every character’s perspective and with every bit as much empathy as one has for the main character, can a storyteller find authentic characters that multiply the emotional meanings of the energies being built and released by their actions. The effectiveness of the storyteller/character relationship hinges upon this inclusiveness, for unless the relationship involves all of the characters that are relevant to the story’s telling, and only those that are relevant, Drama’s bastard brother, Melodrama, takes over.

So what is the essential nature of the storyteller/character relationship? It is much more subtle and complex than a mere résumé of the storyteller’s bio or the character’s circumstances might suggest. The relationship is both implicit and explicit. Implicitly, it is based on enquiry. The storyteller, searching to find surprising and credible solutions to the problems faced by the characters, probes the characters’ possibilities and potentialities by ascribing individual attributes, aptitudes, motives, values, fears, and idiosyncrasies to them, expressed in actions that are tested against other actions, which invariably creates new insights and possibilities that, in turn, are also tested, incorporated or dismissed. Superficially, the aim of the inquiry is to identify possible solutions to the problems confronting the characters AND the storyteller, but more profoundly it is to enable the storyteller to intersect with the characters emotionally, to experience the same anxieties that the characters themselves experience in their pursuit of answers to the problems that threaten not only their well-being but the well-being of the storyteller, as well. Through this quest, and the anxieties it gives rise to, the storyteller develops an increasingly intimate sense of the characters’ inner life, which gradually creates a pivot point.

It is at this pivot – where the storyteller’s and the character’s anxieties and understanding of one another reach critical mass – that the storyteller/character relationship becomes explicit, where the flow of energy between the characters and the storyteller undergoes a radical shift. Where once the energy flowed from the storyteller to the characters, it now flows from the characters to the storyteller, and almost as if by some alchemical action, the characters begin taking charge.

Ironically, the ultimate expression of the explicit storyteller/character relationship is the obliteration of the dichotomy of storyteller and character, which is a fundamental component of the storyteller’s transformation into a medium. In other words, the storyteller seemingly stands aside, letting the character be what the character is, without the mediating filter provided by the storyteller’s cerebral cortex.

In this sense, the most eloquent task facing any dramatic storyteller is simply to get out of the way. Once the character is in the driver’s seat, and the storyteller made into the vehicle by which the character transports his or her story from the storyteller’s subconscious onto the page or screen, the story begins to take on the quality of something that is telling itself. This is the finest and most complete expression of the explicit storyteller/character relationship, and is the key to building the energy that will effectively drive the dramatic story – or any series of inter-related dramatic actions (the so-called “story arc”) – in a manner that is both fresh and surprising as well as being utterly coherent and thoroughly credible. It results in the storyteller and the character becoming active partners in a story that is happening both inside and outside the script.

The storyteller/character relationship is the primary relationship of dramatic storytelling – the primordial building block upon which every successful dramatic story is constructed – for it is through this relationship, from this relationship, and into this relationship, that every particular action, image and/or sound, implicit or explicit to the story-being-found, rushes towards or away from meaning and relevance.

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