Monday, November 29, 2010

Challenge the Character

I've got this phrase written twice in my notes, on separate pages. That means Peter Orner has said it more than once in class and it resonated with me. Why challenge a character? To see what s/he is made of, to see what kind of a human being s/he is. (For ease of reading I'm going with "she" now.) Is she timid? A bully? Reluctant? Aggressive? Feeling entitled? Generous? Her reaction shows who she is without labeling or describing her. The old "show, don't tell" mantra. It is much more interesting to read what a character does rather than a description of who the narrator says she is.

How do you challenge a character? Look at what the person is doing, then figure out a stumbling block for her. The stumbling block is most interesting when one character is challenged by another character. Examples: being approached for gas money in a parking lot, being asked for directions, getting on a crowded bus, being asked to deliver an unknown package. These examples lead to the idea that someone wants something from this character. Her response will give you a clue to her personality. She may ignore the favor, hand out spare change, let someone go first or push her way to a seat, wish to please or to avoid all conflict. Let the character speak for herself and see what happens.

A story from an artist's book I made in 2007 called T/ravel: Body.
 Your Good Deed
He asks for my help. He is balanced there, on the sidewalk, leaning on an aluminum frame. I look up from my purposeful walk into his face, lined, with eyes directly on me. Somehow he has gotten down long stone steps and needs something. I am startled by his request to a stranger, me. I feel my cheeks burning.
    “Go into the garage, Unplug the cord. Press the button. Lift the wire to steer it.” His voice is steady, grounded.
    One short pause seems too long. Should I do this? The cinder-block garage is five feet from me. The warped door is open. I can see the scooter in front. Who can hurt me, here? My heart is pounding. I worry about social interactions with strangers. Everything feels like a trap. Sometimes actions are like jumping into the pool. I jump: I go into the garage.
    I press the button on the scooter, but nothing happens.
    I'm failing already.
    Flailing, I suddenly remember to unplug the cord, then I press the power again. I lift the wire the way he said to steer it and begin to maneuver jerkily towards him.
    “I'm sure you are much better at this than I am,” I say lamely. He ignores my comment and thanks me for arranging the scooter close to him where he can get on it.
    “There, “ he says, seeing absolutely, positively right through me as if I were water. “You've done your first good deed of the day.”

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