12 October 2022
Characters ask to be in my stories. I’ll wake up from a sound sleep, and realize that they have joined the cast of my dreams. I’ll be writing the terrible movie treatment I use to outline novels (I mentioned it last week) and they will show up, complete with a name and a backstory, and start auditioning for the job. They know New York or Los Angeles well, or they have a work history that I can leverage. Or, in the real world, I’ll see a car or a van, and a character who should be in my novel will be driving around in it. Get back in my draft, I want to say. It’s not safe for you to drive. You’re not real. But of course, they are. They are a shadow version of the character I’ve been thinking about. I watch them drive by. If I’m closer, I will borrow a gesture from them; if I hear them speaking, I’ll take a word sequence. Character acquisition and shoplifting have a lot in common.
Every so often I’ll need an archetype to fill a role, an architect, or inventor, or start up founder, and I’ll Google real people like that. I know I’ve found the right person when I see a shadow image of them, someone who is not quite them. They’ll be quoted in an article, and I’ll steal what they say, wrangle it around, and make it mine.
Some characters gently appear from behind curtains; others are ambushed. The author has no choice but to pull them off the street, throw a hood over their head, wrestle them into a black car; they end up in the narrative, blinking and confused. It’s too late. You’ve already been written in. Sorry, not sorry.
All fictional characters come out of nowhere, which is another way of saying they come from somewhere, a waiting room filled with people waiting to be born into fiction. The collective unconscious. They may show up suddenly, lacking a door or window for entry, but not from nowhere. They come from a mirror held to the past, from unfinished business with people I loved or hated, or people I still can’t decide about. Characters are wisps at first, phantoms behind curtains. And some may not live very long at all.
Everyone has to audition. Every one of them. If I write a paragraph for them, and it goes cold, well, sorry. Next. Some may be assigned supporting roles because all they can do is nudge the plot along a little, create a moment of chaos. Then they have to leave.
When I was casting plays in New York, we would hold public auditions. Hundreds of people would show up over a few days to read for the parts we wanted to cast. So many people, so many line readings, they all started to blur.
A few stood out.
In our cast breakdown, we described one role as an “aggressive person.” I remember it being late in the day. The director and I were tired. Just a half dozen or so people waiting to audition outside.
The door opened, an actor came in, stood before us, and pulled a gun out of a paper bag and pointed it at us. She said some lines she’d memorized. It was probably not a real gun. I didn’t have the presence of mind to dive under my chair. I just stared at her. I don’t remember a thing she said. Amazingly, we listened to a few more auditions before going home for the day.
We used to have an expression: “It’s too on the nose.” I don’t know what it has to do with noses, but it meant that the story beat or line fit a little too perfectly, leaving too little to the audience’s imagination. Pulling a gun in an audition is a bit on the nose. If the audition is going to work, it has to call up a shadow character, someone who is real, but also is not quite there.
Thanks for reading.
(c) Lee Schneider 2023. Take care of each other. Subscribe.