Heads Up: On Characters

February is one of our big submission months and we’ve already seen a few patterns in our turn downs. My feeling about character complexity has changed after working with some playwrights last summer. I used to think we should let characters define themselves by their actions or their engagements with plot. Anything else was too back story or irrelevanty or just sort of moving furnitury.

A stage is much smaller space than what can happen in a novel or story. There isn’t a lot of room for all of the action a character might need to define herself so there’s a lot of implied off-stage action going on simultaneously. It’s the same with comix where there’s implied action in the space between each panel–the gutter space–along with all of the actions occurring directly in the panel.

Unless you’re the sort of writer who can push around a million actions (big ones and many tiny ones) in a ten page plot there’ll be some trouble. There won’t be enough different actions for the character to be defined uniquely apart from the other characters in the same plot. He or she will seem flat, or else the plot will overwhelm the characters, and so on.

To varying degrees, I think we need to consider developing characters who are more complicated than the sum of their responses to the plot they find themselves in. Say plot is like driving a car. What if we take our hands off the wheel or close our eyes for just a second? What if we stop controlling plot? Wouldn’t it in turn stop controlling our characters by reducing them to its own singular dimension?

I’m not against plot at all, but I don’t want plot to be too perfect or rigid. I want plot to be as messy and subtle and ironic as the characters inside it. And I definitely want some plot to take place off stage or in the gutter.

Robert Stone has that image of letting go of the tow line–the plot–when he’s in the southern ocean, wondering how far the line can go without his being able to swim after it and catch it back. Can’t our plots be elastic like that? Tension and resistance to the plot are important tools to define a character, but if they’re the only ones we use, we’re sunk.

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