An exercise

Some excellent blogs have lately discussed the importance of knowing what the character you are writing is doing at any given moment in any given scene – and why they are doing it. Most importantly, why. See this entry, and this one.

Something else to remember about that why – it's the character's why, not yours. The scene that the character wants is probably NOT gonna be the one you give him. This is the stuff of drama: you want a fight scene, your character wants a nice, peaceful night. Tada! – conflict! characters gettin' thwarted and having to find a new way to get whatever it was that they wanted (if a comedy) or expire trying (if a tragedy). And I don't mean this in the obvious don't-have-your-characters-do-things-just-for-plot-reasons way. Sometimes the character has a damn good reason for getting into that fight; still doesn't mean he wants to fight.

Back in my acting days I found it nearly impossible to keep fellow thespians from lunging straight for that conflict – to assume that the reason we found ourselves in an argument was because our characters wanted to argue. Which is so rarely the case in life. And is not very interesting to the viewer. Even in a straight-up boxing match, you can assume the fighters want to win and you as the viewer can get involved in that. If it were just about the fighting...? Meh.

To thwart these straight-for-the-jugular tendencies, I put together an improv that helped me as the actor connect with those hopes and dreams that will, yes, eventually inspire my character to wind up back at someone else's throat:

You're an actor facing a tough scene. You think about that "what do I really, really want in this scene" question and throw out your best guess. It has to be something positive – not just "I want to leave" or "I want this confrontation to be over." The other actors take that idea, think about it in turn – and then play the scene GIVING YOU EXACTLY WHAT YOU WANT. And then some: frequently the other actors can finger your character's unspeakable fantasies a lot more honestly than you ever can. You play the scene – the situation at the start, anyway, as typically the scene heads off the written rails pretty quickly. And then you keep going until your character is so friggin' satisfied that, well, you might need a smoke afterwards.

Then you play it again for each character in turn: Claudius apologizes to Hamlet, explains he never slept with Gertrude, and falls on his own sword; Mitch answers Blanche's revelations with a deep, sensual kindness and carries her off to a fantasy castle in the sky, everyone lives happily ever after, whatever.

As an actor, the memory of getting exactly what you wanted – even if only that once – will keep you and your character going in the face of never, ever getting anything you ever wanted ever again. As a writer... it's good to remember that your characters probably wanted something very different before you started screwing with them – and that they might just fight you to try to get that fantasy back. And THAT fight is what's really interesting to viewers.

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