Friday, January 27, 2012

Relationships in a Fishbowl

Maybe there’s no such thing as good characters—just good relationships. Seriously, we talk all the time about the importance of good characters, but who really cares? You can have a great “character”, but put them in the middle of a desert with no one to talk to, and what have you got? Not much. Even Tom Hanks had ‘Wilson’, the lovably silent volleyball with a drawn-on face in the film Castaway. The duo even got an MTV nomination for ‘Best On-Screen Chemistry’. Even when a character is all alone, the way they interact with their environment is a relationship on some level. So, maybe we’ve got it a little backwards.

As writers we often talk about creating characters and what that means. We then work very hard to create characters that are interesting, and then we throw them at other characters to see what happens. Truthfully, nobody cares anywhere near as much if the character is interesting if the interactions are dull.

The other day was my mother’s birthday (she turned 30-something, I’m certain of it J (love you, mom)), and that evening she wanted to watch one of her favorite shows: Downton Abbey. Not my thing, but it was my mom’s birthday, so I watched it with her. Being a story person, I analyzed the show very closely, and what I realized was that I was watching Star Wars. Just another melodrama, not necessarily with familiar characters, but familiar relationships. The characters who love one another despite the odds (friendship, romance or family), the characters who hate one another despite the reasons not to, and the characters who hate despite the fact that they are not themselves hated in return. Suddenly, there is drama, and story. The marriage between plot and character, so often seen as disparate elements.

I went home with these thoughts in my head and proceeded to do the unthinkable: I pulled up Netflix on my laptop and started watching the pilot episode to Grey’s Anatomy. I watched purely for the relationships; and by yesterday evening I had watched the first six episodes with only minor shame.

We like to give our characters back story for the sake of itself; but what’s the point? So we can have a character with a back story? As a reader/viewer I only care about the back story if it explains the relationships—and it’s something I don’t mind learning over time. Like the jerk on Grey’s Anatomy who is antagonistic to everyone, whom everyone hates, until it is slowly revealed his father was a heroine addict and his home life was a mess. Suddenly the character has depth, and the relationships become more meaningful. But it wasn’t the back story that brought me in, it was the relationships made real by the back story.

So, as I continue to write, I find myself asking two major questions: are the relationships interesting? And what fish bowl have I thrown my characters into, thus forcing them to interact? If the answers to both of these questions is interesting, then I think I’ve got what it takes to write something that resonates. 

1 comment:

Erik said...

I like how you call your stages 'fishbowls.' It's a great visual on writer/reader perspective. It also helps me to remove myself a bit from meddling with them too much, like a painter who keeps painting to try to make things "more perfect." People are messy, they aren't perfect.

As I write, I invariably discover that some characters are intriguing (making even me, the writer, wonder about them,) and some characters are plot fodder. It often happens that I don't know which one a character will end up being. As I have reflected on this, I try to make real-world scenarios for my characters. I'll place them at the table across the coffee shop, and figure out if they are worrying about anything, or if they're innocuously sipping their latte. The ones that I can picture caring (read as: placing values on things that may or may not be shared by the people around them,) are the ones that matter to my story. Which, as you said, then begs the question 'why.'

Each character is unto itself a system. Adding interaction should be like introducing a new system, like two gyroscopes who get too close, or two engines trying to work together while they run.

Now, if only I could quit making my characters such extensions of myself. That's where I falter most.