Thursday, February 16, 2012

Dancing With The Devil In Details

I didn't know ice cream had a smell until I worked in an ice cream shop.  It's not a bad smell, just distinctive, and after a few weeks working there, it pervaded my senses daily, whether I worked that day or not.  I became hyper-alert to the scent of all things dairy, especially whipped sweet creams, and for a while there I thought I'd never be able to enjoy the stuff again.

Thankfully I only worked there one summer and, to the detriment of dietary discipline for years to come, I was able to re-acclimate myself to the wonderful flavors and textures of ice cream.  But as a writer, that experience really brought home to me the notion of specific detail, the kinds of things only people neck-deep in something notice and obsess about, and the very details that excite my imagination and feed my love of history and research.  One of my favorite discoveries is in Dickens' Bleak House when a young street orphan is given a gold sovereign coin, which in context for that kid was a ton of money and I thought should have made him happy--at first.  But the kid wasn't happy, and Dickens takes pains to educate his readers that such a sum in an unbroken denomination is a major hazard for a little kid at the bottom of the social pecking order, who becomes an instant target of assault and robbery or accusations of theft walking around with gold in his pocket.  And in fantasy tales, too, it's the little details that bring the text to life, dressing "world rules" in entertaining anecdotes that make readers forgive or just enjoy the exposition.

But the devil's in the details, and I have a devil of a time picking or committing to these kinds of things when it comes to defining character.  It's the dance of plant and pay-off, and it's a tricky one for me to practice.  Some people are all plant and pay-off, others all plot, others all character, and of course as writers we all have to master all of these areas.  But the plant and pay-off that keeps paying off is a super-power I covet and struggle to develop.  

Maybe it's the cartooning, but I find I can readily plant and pay-off in the short run.  It's the long run character trait that I find I'm resisting, and I'm not entirely sure why.  But as I write this and think of traits or "business" often attached to characters, I realize part of my problem is that real people who have overt, reoccurring traits are often really annoying.  Smoking is a great one for film (less now for television with all the regulations about what can and can't be shown, which is why the only smoking characters do it off screen except on premium cable channels where they smoke like chimneys as if to make up the difference).  For a writer, smoking as a character thing is a great bit of business because it is totally imbedded with so much stuff--there's the addiction factor, so a character can go in and out of withdrawal and craving cycles, there's all the physical stuff of smoking, lighters, matches, packages, trash, the thing itself whether it's a cigar or pipe or cigarette, and then there's the social integration factor, whether the character is a litterer or is conscientious and clean or disdainful.  My favorite is the constantly trying to quit character (which you'll see a lot of on network TV because it's the only way to say "smoking" while also delivering the public service announcement message of "don't smoke, it's bad."), because showing someone resist throwing out a half-empty pack of cigarettes instantly externalizes and makes visual all that internal angst and struggle.  It's a great short-hand.

But because it's so universal in human experience (and such an easy fix for a writer looking for a way to bring the internal out) it seems super over-used in television and films.  Like curse words on cable, there's a novelty to it, but at some point you start to wonder if the writer can find any other way to say it.  Of course, smoking has the added benefit, visually, of appearing beautiful, especially filmed black and white -- smoke is a great atmospheric, and watching a flirtatious scene with smoke-play between the characters can be such a dance of seven veils, it's scary-sexy...on film.  Kinda stinky and carcinogenic in life.

I'm currently searching for some external behavior that can bring the internal out, and I'm having a hard time.  I think that's because, like smoking, a lot of visual human behaviors that are somewhat unique tend also to be bad-mannered and sometimes gross.  They're certainly not desirable.  I should know.  I was a career thumb-sucker for a while there, and I remember the looks that sometimes got, the disdain and disapproval from peers.  And like nose-picking or finger-smelling or body-part-scratching, hair-twisting, lip-chewing and knuckle-popping, which are also self-soothing behaviors, they don't come with as much stuff as drug and nicotine habits. Then there are the lovable yet annoying repertoire of O.C.D. disorders (remember Monk?  I loved Monk), which are versatile and often accompanied by assorted paraphernalia, but it's at risk of becoming the new smoking and equally over-used.

How do you short-hand I.D. characters to make them stand out and true to themselves without writing yourself in a corner?  My question quest for the day.  Brainstorm, anyone?


  1. The smoking thing is a problem for me in my current pilot too -- the main character has for lack of better terminology (and getting too far into the weeds) a split personality, so I wanted to show a difference by having one of the two personalities smoke. Seems clever enough... except it's been done, once in JEKYLL, the brilliant Moffat penned series and in the pilot NBC picked up this season DO NO HARM. So, suddenly not so clever -- it feels derivative, and as you mentioned, the smoking thing was already an overused device.

    So now what -- one personality is lactose intolerant and the other doesn't care? I just don't know...

  2. It is really, really tough. In my brainstorming search for physical habits, I'm finding behaviors a plenty but with limited emotional range -- anxiety, mostly -- not much with the bounty that is addiction management. Next to "Monk," my favorite is "The Closer," which gave the lead character a sugar addiction (without a corresponding weight problem, so they successfully telegraph a range of emotions and internal struggle, addiction resistance and breaks in self-control) with careful and judicious use of a telling desk drawer packed with sweets.

    But I do have faith in the creatively expressed weirdness of others. Maybe a dedicated stint of people-watching will uncover a wealth of character "business" as yet untapped. "No, no, officer, it's okay. I'm a writer."

  3. I love the thought of knuckle-cracking for the Hyde side of the split -- if that's really the way it breaks down.