Tag: characterization

What Can We Steal From Jason Grilli’s 2007 Topps Card?

Title of Work and its Form: Jason Grilli‘s 2007 Topps #61, baseball card
Author: Topps
Date of Work: 2007
Where the Work Can Be Found:  You likely have a baseball/sports card shop in your area.  Why not pay them a visit?  They will likely have this base card.  If you don’t know where you can find your local card shop, look it up here.  You can also purchase cards on the Internet, of course.  Check Out My Cards/Collectibles is pretty cool.  (And they furnished the card images you’ll see in the essay.)  I also love Sportlots.com; you can get a lot of base cards for a very reasonable price.  Ooh, and don’t forget to visit The Bench.  It’s hands-down the best baseball card trading site on the Internet.  I’ve met a TON of really cool people there.

Bonuses:  Mr. Grilli was on the cover of Sports Illustrated in July 2013!  Here is an article about how he and the rest of the Pirates bullpen anchored that team’s great season.  Here is Mr. Grilli’s home page.  You can also follow him on TwitterHere are Mr. Grilli’s career stats.  In October 2013, Mr. Grilli went onstage with Pearl Jam during a Pittsburgh concert and did, well, everything we would do in the same situation.  Check out the Sports Cards Blogroll for some very good writing about the hobby and about sports.  A couple of my favorite card blogs are Baseball by the Letters and The Greatest 21 Days.  The former blog follows the authors experience in writing letters to ballplayers.  The latter goes card-by-card through a classic minor league set to see what happened to the players during and after their baseball careers.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Characterization

Discussion:
Let me guess.  You don’t have a 2007 Topps Jason Grilli sitting on your desk.  Thanks to Check Out My Cards, this isn’t a problem:

Here is the front of the card.   2007 Topps #61 – Jason Grilli – Courtesy of COMC.com
And this is the reverse of the card. 2007 Topps #61 – Jason Grilli – Courtesy of COMC.com

So, some readers may wonder what the heck writers can learn from a baseball card.  Sure, there are some words on it, but is a baseball card a work of literature?  I would contend that a baseball card performs many, if not all, of the functions of literature. (One of my long-term goals/dreams, in fact, is to write at least one real baseball card. I need to figure out how to make that happen! Black magic? Some kind of Manchurian Candidate deal?)

A baseball card is an attempt to represent a player’s identity.  The kind folks at Topps or Upper Deck or Panini or Score or Donruss or Fleer consider what they want the reader to think about the man.  Some of the exposition we get is pretty shallow.  We learn Mr. Grilli’s birthdate and which arm he uses to throw and where he was born and where he lives.  (It just so happens that Mr. Grilli was born near my place of birth and grew up in the same town as I did.  More on that later.)

The folks at the card companies very seldom tell the complete stories of the players.  Why?  First of all, the cards are too small to fit an utterly comprehensive biography.  Further, the companies want to maintain a positive tone.  This is why you really don’t see the steroids scandal mentioned on any cards and you certainly don’t read anything about the crimes that various players have committed.  (Ty Cobb, for example, once beat up a handicapped spectator who had no hands.)

Topps, however, gives the reader the opportunity to figure out some of the true story for themselves.  Look at the statistics Mr. Grilli has accumulated in the major leagues.


Year Age Tm Lg W L W-L% ERA G GS GF CG SHO SV IP H R ER HR BB IBB SO HBP BK WP BF ERA+ WHIP H/9 HR/9 BB/9 SO/9 SO/BB Awards
2000 23 FLA NL 1 0 1.000 5.40 1 1 0 0 0 0 6.2 11 4 4 0 2 0 3 2 0 0 35 86 1.950 14.9 0.0 2.7 4.1 1.50
2001 24 FLA NL 2 2 .500 6.08 6 5 1 0 0 0 26.2 30 18 18 6 11 0 17 2 0 0 115 71 1.538 10.1 2.0 3.7 5.7 1.55

2004 27 CHW AL 2 3 .400 7.40 8 8 0 1 0 0 45.0 52 38 37 11 20 0 26 3 0 2 203 64 1.600 10.4 2.2 4.0 5.2 1.30
2005 28 DET AL 1 1 .500 3.38 3 2 0 0 0 0 16.0 14 6 6 1 6 0 5 0 0 0 63 128 1.250 7.9 0.6 3.4 2.8 0.83
2006 29 DET AL 2 3 .400 4.21 51 0 18 0 0 0 62.0 61 31 29 6 25 3 31 5 0 5 270 108 1.387 8.9 0.9 3.6 4.5 1.24
2007 30 DET AL 5 3 .625 4.74 57 0 13 0 0 0 79.2 81 46 42 5 32 1 62 5 0 5 352 97 1.418 9.2 0.6 3.6 7.0 1.94
2008 31 TOT MLB 3 3 .500 3.00 60 0 16 0 0 1 75.0 67 27 25 2 38 7 69 2 0 4 323 156 1.400 8.0 0.2 4.6 8.3 1.82
2008 31 DET AL 0 1 .000 3.29 9 0 4 0 0 0 13.2 12 5 5 1 7 1 10 1 0 1 59 138 1.390 7.9 0.7 4.6 6.6 1.43
2008 31 COL NL 3 2 .600 2.93 51 0 12 0 0 1 61.1 55 22 20 1 31 6 59 1 0 3 264 160 1.402 8.1 0.1 4.5 8.7 1.90
2009 32 TOT MLB 2 3 .400 5.32 52 0 11 0 0 1 45.2 50 27 27 4 27 2 49 1 0 2 212 89 1.686 9.9 0.8 5.3 9.7 1.81
2009 32 COL NL 0 1 .000 6.05 22 0 6 0 0 1 19.1 29 13 13 2 13 2 22 0 0 2 99 79 2.172 13.5 0.9 6.1 10.2 1.69
2009 32 TEX AL 2 2 .500 4.78 30 0 5 0 0 0 26.1 21 14 14 2 14 0 27 1 0 0 113 98 1.329 7.2 0.7 4.8 9.2 1.93

2011 34 PIT NL 2 1 .667 2.48 28 0 4 0 0 1 32.2 24 10 9 2 15 5 37 4 0 3 140 151 1.194 6.6 0.6 4.1 10.2 2.47
2012 35 PIT NL 1 6 .143 2.91 64 0 11 0 0 2 58.2 45 20 19 7 22 4 90 2 0 0 244 130 1.142 6.9 1.1 3.4 13.8 4.09
2013 36 PIT NL 0 2 .000 2.70 54 0 41 0 0 33 50.0 40 15 15 4 13 0 74 1 0 1 202 131 1.060 7.2 0.7 2.3 13.3 5.69 AS
11 Yrs 21 27 .438 4.17 384 16 115 1 0 38 498.0 475 242 231 48 211 22 463 27 0 22 2159 104 1.378 8.6 0.9 3.8 8.4 2.19
162 Game Avg. 4 5 .438 4.17 65 3 20 0 0 6 85 81 41 39 8 36 4 79 5 0 4 367 104 1.378 8.6 0.9 3.8 8.4 2.19

DET (4 yrs) 8 8 .500 4.31 120 2 35 0 0 0 171.1 168 88 82 13 70 5 108 11 0 11 744 105 1.389 8.8 0.7 3.7 5.7 1.54
PIT (3 yrs) 3 9 .250 2.74 146 0 56 0 0 36 141.1 109 45 43 13 50 9 201 7 0 4 586 135 1.125 6.9 0.8 3.2 12.8 4.02
COL (2 yrs) 3 3 .500 3.68 73 0 18 0 0 2 80.2 84 35 33 3 44 8 81 1 0 5 363 128 1.587 9.4 0.3 4.9 9.0 1.84
FLA (2 yrs) 3 2 .600 5.94 7 6 1 0 0 0 33.1 41 22 22 6 13 0 20 4 0 0 150 73 1.620 11.1 1.6 3.5 5.4 1.54
TEX (1 yr) 2 2 .500 4.78 30 0 5 0 0 0 26.1 21 14 14 2 14 0 27 1 0 0 113 98 1.329 7.2 0.7 4.8 9.2 1.93
CHW (1 yr) 2 3 .400 7.40 8 8 0 1 0 0 45.0 52 38 37 11 20 0 26 3 0 2 203 64 1.600 10.4 2.2 4.0 5.2 1.30

NL (7 yrs) 9 14 .391 3.45 226 6 75 0 0 38 255.1 234 102 98 22 107 17 302 12 0 9 1099 119 1.336 8.2 0.8 3.8 10.6 2.82
AL (6 yrs) 12 13 .480 4.93 158 10 40 1 0 0 242.2 241 140 133 26 104 5 161 15 0 13 1060 93 1.422 8.9 1.0 3.9 6.0 1.55

Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 12/13/2013.

If you understand what the numbers mean, they tell a story and add detail to the “characterization” of Mr. Grilli.  He made his debut in 2000, only a few years after graduating from college (and my high school).  That’s good!  I remember being proud of him when he won that game.  Mr. Grilli pitched in six games the next year.  That’s not necessarily bad…it was only his Age 24 year.  Then he was out of the majors for a couple years.  How would any of us feel in his situation.  He must have been confident, but still worried he wouldn’t be able to get back to the majors.  Then he did get back to the show in 2004.  Now look at the number of games in which he pitched in Detroit.  That’s a lot!  The team was emerging from the doldrums (thank goodness) and Mr. Grilli was a reliable reliever for them.  After a stop in Colorado and Texas…he was out of the majors for the 2010 season.  Again–doubt.  (The card doesn’t say so, but that’s when Mr. Grilli suffered an unpleasant knee injury.)  Pittsburgh time.  Mr. Grilli puts up sub-3.00 ERAs each year.  Look at those save totals!  In his first year as the Pirates’ official closer, Mr. Grilli was responsible for 33 saves.  That’s good!

What do we learn about Mr. Grilli from these raw numbers?  Well, he must love baseball.  Why else would he struggle for so long and fight through so many setbacks?  Lefty relievers have a little bit easier time finding places on a roster; as a righty, Mr. Grilli must have worked that much harder.  Now, I don’t know if Mr. Grilli has multiple homes (and why shouldn’t he), but his 2013 Heritage card says that he still lives in Baldwinsville, New York, a beautiful little village just outside of Syracuse:

2013 Topps Heritage #63 – Jason Grilli – Courtesy of COMC.com

How does all of this apply to writers?  Well, I’ve demonstrated how baseball cards are very good at condensing a LOT of information about a person into a very small space.  Even if your characters don’t have “statistics,” think of ways to provide bread crumbs of information that reinforce the identity you’re crafting for them.  Favorite foods.  Number of years on the job.  Number of marriages.  Number of colleges they attended before finally finishing.  Number of boyfriends or girlfriends over the years.  Highest number of simultaneous boyfriends or girlfriends.

Now let’s take a look at the prose on the 2007 Topps.  Like I said, I always kept tabs on Mr. Grilli’s career because he was a great pitcher…I loved pitching (until I stopped playing at nine or so).  His father is Steve Grilli, a man who pitched for the Tigers in the 1970s…I love the Tigers.  Jason Grilli went to my high school…I hoped to be a success, too.  (I’m still hoping.)  Jason Grilli is having the best years of his career and has become a star, even though he’s on the wrong side of 30…I’m a writer, so age isn’t as big a deal…but I’d still like to get something going sooner rather than later.

The prose offers a pretty obvious lesson.  Being such an important part of that great 2006 Tigers team, “helped erase the frustration of years of elbow problems.”  Writers and pitchers are quite different, but we all need to emulate Mr. Grilli’s routines.  He works out all the time and has a throwing regimen crafted to keep him in shape during the offseason and to keep him fresh at the end of the year.  He must watch game footage and study batters to try and understand their weaknesses.  During some of Mr. Grilli’s struggles, it must have seemed like the majors were far away, let alone the postseason.  (He has a 0.00 ERA in 6.1 total innings.)  Like him, we just need to plug away every day so we can be in the right position when we run into a little bit of luck.  Mr. Grilli was picked up by the Tigers and the Pirates as those teams were getting better and he was able to contribute because of his regimen.

Now let’s look at the sentences.  You’ll notice that they’re all pretty simple.  Why might this be the case?  Well, this is a baseball card and is intended for an audience of adults (who have money) and of children (who tell their parents how to spend money).  Although some sets feature prose that is intended for children, the Topps flagship sets are written for a mixed audience.

Look at the last sentence: “The converted starter limited first-batters-faced to a .170 batting average.”  A pronoun would have been just fine in this situation, but the person who wrote the card used a more specific term than “he.”  Instead, “he” was described as “the converted starter.”  Not only did the writer avoid using another pronoun, but he or she was able to pack more characterization into the small space allotted by the medium.  The reader learns from this switch that Mr. Grilli was a starter and is now a reliever.  (And that he was really good against the first batters he stared down in each game.)

What Should We Steal?

  • Offer your reader powerful characterization in the form of “statistics.”  What are some small details about your character that are especially potent?
  • Maintain your daily regimen and keep writing until something good happens.  You can’t manufacture “luck.”  All you can do is make sure that you have a really cool manuscript ready to go when you happen to sit next to an editor on an airplane.
  • Replace pronouns with more powerful descriptors.

Here’s some more fun stuff:

Night Owl Cards (another favorite blog) wrote a post about a series of baseball cards dedicated to baseball writers.

And believe it or not, the major card companies have included some great scribes in some of their sets!

2010 Topps Allen and Ginter Mini World’s Greatest Word Smiths #WGWS2 – William Shakespeare – Courtesy of COMC.com
2011 Upper Deck Goodwin Champions #183 – Edgar Allan Poe SP – Courtesy of COMC.com

What Can We Steal From John Gosselink’s The Defense of Thaddeus A. Ledbetter?

Title of Work and its Form:  The Defense of Thaddeus A. Ledbetter, novel
Author: John Gosselink
Date of Work: 2010
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The book can be found at fine independent bookstores everywhere, including Boise, Idaho’s Rediscovered Books.

Bonuses: Here are some of the humor columns Mr. Gosselink has written for his local paper.  Here is a very kind review of the book from A Book and a Hug.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Characterization

Discussion:
Thaddeus Ledbetter is a precocious seventh-grader who is as snarky as he is smart.  Young Mr. Ledbetter is just trying to help Principal Cooper increase the productivity of students and teachers at his school.  How is he repaid?  An extended stay in in-school suspension.  Does being persecuted keep Thaddeus down?  Of course not.  Although exiled, the young man compiles a series of documents to demonstrate that he is innocent of any charges that have been unfairly leveled at him.

Yes, this is a “document novel.”  Just like the one I’ve written.  The Defense contains letters from Thaddeus’s friends and enemies, reports the principal completed to explain his student’s behavior, the minutes from the tenant board in Thaddeus’s building and more.  (Yes, he annoys people at home, too.)  I love the way the narrative is built in Mr. Gosselink’s book in the same way I love how the narrative develops in my own document novel.  Instead of being told what is happening by a narrator, the reader absorbs the documents and puts the story together for him or herself.

Mr. Gosselink’s book is extremely charming.  Even though I’m not exactly in the “young adult” demographic, I was taken in by the different voices that Mr. Gosselink employs in each document.  I can see that Thaddeus would be quite annoying if I were his teacher, but it’s also clear that the young man is bright and has a great deal of potential.  The teachers and the principal acknowledge this in their missives, as well.  Mr. Gosselink made a crucial decision in the characterization of the book when he gave Thaddeus a REASON to be so annoying and so dedicated to “helping” others.  Thaddeus’s father, an efficiency expert, recently died after a long illness.  Why wouldn’t the boy take on some of his father’s attitudes?  Why wouldn’t he retreat into the “service” of his pastor (accidentally setting him on fire) and elderly people (accidentally feeding them food that is a choking hazard)?

Good protagonists and antagonists do things for a reason.  Think of a bad action movie.  You likely don’t really know or care why the bad guy is trying to destroy all of the communications satellites around the planet.  The good guy?  Maybe their children are in danger.  The internal conflicts are likely not very complicated.  We love The Defense of Thaddeus A. Ledbetter because it is hilarious and fun, but it means something because it’s really the story of a sad young man and the people who care about him and are trying to shepherd him through a sad time in his life.

What Should We Steal?

  • Consider writing a work whose story is told through documents instead of by a narrator.  Just make sure my document novel gets published first.  Okay?  =)
  • Give your audience a justification for why they are the way they are.  People don’t do things for no reason and neither should your characters.

What Can We Steal From the Feature Film Hit and Run?

Title of Work and its Form:  Hit and Run, feature film
Author: Written by Dax Shepard (on Twitter @daxshepard1).  Directed by David Palmer (on Twitter @palmerman) and Dax Shepard.
Date of Work: 2012
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The film has been released on DVD and Blu-Ray.  As of this writing, the film can be viewed on Netflix Instant.  Want to see the official trailer?

Bonuses: Here is Roger Ebert’s very kind review of the film.  Here is a fun Dax Shepard/Kristen Bell interview from The Hollywood ReporterHere is a short interview about the car chases in the film.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Characterization

Discussion:
Charlie Bronson (Dax Shepard) has a beautiful new life.  He lives in a small town with a knockout girlfriend who is as brilliant as she is attractive.  The Witness Protection Program has helped him get away from the problems in his old life and everything is perfect, until…INCITING INCIDENT.  Annie (Kristen Bell) gets a dream job in L.A.  Even though he knows he’s putting himself in danger, Charlie realizes that he must not only force Annie to go, he must abandon the Program and go with her.  COMPLICATION: Annie must get her “teaching certificate” from her creepy ex-boyfriend.  The ex-boyfriend uncovers Charlie’s real identity and gets the bad guys, Charlie’s former partners, on his trail.  This is a road trip/car chase movie; I don’t want to summarize any further; just watch the movie and enjoy the twists and turns for yourself!  (You’ll love Kristen Bell’s performance; she’s electric in everything she does.  I’m pretty excited for the Veronica Mars movie.)

Before I get into my analysis, I have to point out that Mr. Shepard is one of the folks of whom I should be terribly jealous.  Thankfully, I’m a tiny bit mature and I can get over it.  Mr. Shepard and I were both born in Michigan (Warren represent!) and both of us are writers and funny people.  Mr. Shepard played Frito Pendejo in the best film of all time: Idiocracy.  (I’ve always wanted to be a lawyer, but I hope I’d be a little better than Frito.)

Mr. Shepard has pointed out in several interviews that, after having many scripts optioned into Development Hell, he wrote Hit and Run based upon what he would like to see on the screen.  Instead of trying to calculate which characters and situations and jokes would reach the largest audience (or would appeal to the most studio executives), he told the kind of story he would enjoy.  I don’t know how other writers feel, but I often wrote “for others” when I was a teen.  I would try to write like Raymond Carver.  This didn’t work.  Why?  I’m not Raymond Carver.  A writer must privilege his or her muse over the desires of others.  (At least most of the time.)

Another of the many great choices Mr. Shepard made was to devote a great deal of time to his characters, even in a car chase movie.  Think about a Transformers film.  There’s lots of stuff blowing up, sure, but we don’t really care about what is being blown up or why.  Mr. Shepard allows Charlie and Annie to have several discussions in which they share their outlooks on the world.  These characters seem like real people, so we care when the inevitable troubles erupt.  And I love that Annie is only angry with Charlie when she really needs to be.  When she does “start fights” in the film, she is doing it because of the real problems she sees in their relationship, and not just because Mr. Shepard needed a complication for the turning point of Act 2.

So Hit and Run doesn’t have a lot in common with Terminator 2: Judgment Day.  Mr. Shepard and Mr. Palmer do, however, mimic James Cameron in at least one important way.  Instead of springing elements upon you, Mr. Shepard and Mr. Palmer make them very clear.  Tom Arnold plays a U.S. Marshal who doesn’t handle his weapon in a very safe manner.  This part of his character is made clear very early on.  Later in the film, the Marshal is driving.  We see the gun drop to the floorboard and KNOW what is going to happen and we KNOW it makes sense.  There’s a moment in the film in which Charlie and Annie accidentally enter the wrong hotel room.  (You need to see for yourself.)  At first, I figured this was just a funny beat meant to enhance the comedy.  Several minutes later, I was pleased to see that Mr. Shepard made that moment do some actual work in the story and it enhanced the suspense of the chase that was occurring.  The point is that a writer must lay the groundwork so the surprises in a story seem inevitable.

What Should We Steal?

  • Write the piece YOU would want to read.  Homogenized writing is often boring and why try to be Stephen King?  Stephen King is Stephen King.
  • Devote time to your characters.  Audiences are far less likely to care about lovers if they don’t have a hint as to what makes them or their situation unique.
  • Telegraph what will happen in your work to make the events seem inevitable.  I have trouble believing that a U.S. Marshal has trouble keeping his weapon safe.  I will believe this is the case if you make it clear early on and in a graceful manner.

What Can We Steal From Mary Miller’s “My Brother in Christ”?

Title of Work and its Form:  “My Brother in Christ,” short story
Author: Mary Miller (on Twitter @MaryUMiller)
Date of Work: 2009
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The story made its debut with the title “Go Fish” in the online extension of the AWESOME journal Barrelhouse.  As of this writing, the story is no longer online while the Barrelhouse folks reorganize their online component.  The story was included in Ms. Miller’s very cool short story collection.  Big World is available from the kind people at Hobart.

Bonuses: Here is an interview The Rumpus conducted with Ms. Miller.  Here is a short story Ms. Miller published on Tin House‘s excellent blog.  Here is another short story Ms. Miller placed with Pindeldyboz.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Characterization

Discussion:
Dana’s brother is in a bar band and she brings a friend along to see him play.  After the performance Dana and her friend follow the party back to a hotel.  Jeremy, the charismatic lead singer, is a bit of a jerk, but Dana sees some vulnerability in him and they share a moment of physical and emotional intimacy.

As you can tell from the summary, the story is deceptively simple, but I promise there’s a lot more to it.  The third-person omniscient narrator establishes the situation quickly and builds the emotional foundation of the characters with equal speed.  One of the many things I love about the story is that Ms. Miller writes about one of the less-examined milieus in human experience.  In this case: the time when a regionally popular band is setting up for a gig and when it goes to a no-tell motel to “celebrate.”  By passing up the flashier options–writing about the SHOW!  or the day when the record executive SIGNS THEM!–Ms. Miller is better able to examine the psychology of some interesting people.  They’re behaving as they normally would in their “natural habitat.”  The stellar writer and teacher Lee K. Abbott has pointed out on several occasions how few stories take place at work, even though that’s where people spend so much of our time.  If you can say nothing else about this fine story, you can say that it may be the first time you met these kinds of characters in this kind of place.

One of the things I love most about the story is how much Ms. Miller TELLS YOU without actually coming out and saying it.  Poor Dana is somewhat breaking out of her prolonged adolescence and may be tiring of the life she has lived.  After the show,

everyone, except Dana, is drunk or high.  Dana used to sleep around and drink until she blacked out, but she’s trying to be better.  She’s started going to church on Sundays and in bet at night she repeats my body is a temple until the words lose their meaning…And when she’s horny, she tells herself that men are just her brothers in Christ.

Ms. Miller puts words to Dana’s attempt to change her life.  Part of this attempt is her effort to control her…romantic willingness.  Half a page later, Ms. Miller reintroduces Jeremy, the lead singer of the band: a man who is often unpleasant and vulgar because people have allowed him to act that way for so long.  Dana and Jeremy speak as he watches a porn movie on the television.  “You probably don’t want to watch that,” he says.

In her head, she’s repeating Jeremy is my brother in Christ.

See what Ms. Miller did?  She prepared us to understand what this means: Dana is aroused.  Ms. Miller doesn’t even need to really describe how Dana is feeling because she taught us what that phrase means to the woman.  Each character has their own way of seeing the world and expressing how they think; giving them their own language can help you accomplish graceful exposition and characterization.

I have the first edition of Big World, so I’m not sure about the extra story in the second, but “My Brother in Christ” is the only story in the collection that is told by a third person narrator.  Unless I’m mistaken, all of the other stories are in the first person.  There’s nothing wrong with having natural tendencies that express themselves in our work.  Whether or not Ms. Miller knew it, she was trying something a little different.  Shouldn’t we all do the same?  If you notice that all of your stories are about accountants, maybe you write about a circus clown.  If all of your poems are in blank verse, write some limericks.

What Should We Steal?

  • Tell stories that are set in worlds that are infrequently used in other stories.  It’s fun to see a witch or wizard fighting the forces of evil…but what is it like when they have a fender bender?
  • Establish your characters’ own languages.  Once we learn about your characters and what they think and how they think it, you don’t need to explain things in a manner that could be considered clunky or obvious.
  • Identify your natural tendencies so you can experiment on occasion.  Trying something new can be interesting for both reader and writer.

What Can We Steal From Season Four of Arrested Development?

Title of Work and its Form:  Season Four of the Television Program Arrested Development
Author: The program was created by Mitchell Hurwitz (on Twitter @MitchHurwitz).  Much of the original creative team joined him, including Jim Vallely.
Date of Work: The episodes premiered on May 26, 2013.
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The episodes can be found streaming on Netflix. (Thank you, Netflix!)

Bonuses: Here is The Onion A/V Club’s ongoing coverage of the program.  Here is a massive chart from NPR that chronicles the running jokes in the program.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Characterization

Discussion:
Well, friends, you knew this essay was inevitable.  I’ve already espoused my deep love for the first three seasons of Arrested Development and the fourth season does nothing to tarnish that legacy.  As for a summary?  The fourth season takes place several years after the show ended on Fox.  We learn how each of the characters spent their time.  George Maharris went to college and studied abroad in Spain.  (He did a little bit too much studying, perhaps.)  Maeby went to high school again and again.  Tobias and Lindsay bought a house they couldn’t afford and traveled to India.  Michael built Sudden Valley and lost everything.  Lucille goes on trial for stealing the Queen Mary.  George Sr. becomes a sweat lodge guru…it’s really hard to summarize what happens.

Hurwitz and friends had a massive challenge in front of them.  Fans of Arrested Development had very high expectations for the new episodes.  The new season had to be written in such a manner that filming would coincide with the actors’ busy schedules.  There are many Bluths whose stories needed to be told in addition those of the tangential characters we all know and love.  What is the main reason that Season Four succeeded? It’s the same reason that any extended narrative succeeds: the characters are deep and the characters drive the humor.  

Think of just about ANY great extended narrative.  Harry PotterLord of the RingsCheersAll in the FamilySeinfeldThe Dick Van Dyke Show.  The situations and the humor (there IS humor in Harry Potter) emerge from the characters; it isn’t foisted upon them.  Mr. Hurwitz and company, in a way, didn’t write the new season as much as they figured out what the characters would be doing.  Think about DeBrie, one of the new characters.  She’s an STD-ridden former actress with a heart of gold.  Tobias meets her at the Method One clinic, where she’s doing one of her monologues. (Tobias is a bad actor, so it makes sense that he would confuse NA-type confessional as an actor plying her craft.)

After her character has been well-established, Tobias tries to get her back into acting by saying: “No, DeBrie, come on… Don’t you want to get back on that horse?”

To which DeBrie replies, “Even better!”

It’s not a complicated punchline, but the humor is derived from DeBrie’s constant desire to use narcotics.

Think about the extended scene in the first episode in which Michael, Maeby and George Michael are trying to decide how the voting-out procedure will go.  If we didn’t know the characters, we would probably find the scene alone pretty boring.  Instead, we love the scene because so much is going on and it’s derived from the characters.

  • Michael doesn’t understand how pitiful he has become and that his son wants to get rid of him.
  • George Michael is trying to break out of the Bluth mold and to get some independence from the family, a difficult proposition.  He’s even named for his grandfather and his father.  He wants to seduce Maeby (and was about to when Michael first burst in).
  • Maeby wants to get FakeBlock going (if I recall correctly) and wants to make pop-pop with George Michael and probably wants to eliminate reminders of her inattentive parents.

The audience understands the emotional stakes for the characters, so they care and flinch and laugh at the same time.

Another reason that the new season is so great is that Mr. Hurwitz gave us exactly what we all wanted without giving us exactly what we wanted.  It would have been very easy for him to create a less complicated version of Arrested Development in order to please the maximum number of people.  Instead, Hurwitz gave us what we REALLY wanted: a work that is complicated and requires that the viewer pay attention.

Season Four will age very well because Mr. Hurwitz followed his muse in the confines of his real-world restrictions.  I think I read in an interview that he could only get the whole cast together on-set for two days.  The budget for the new episodes was likely lower than the budget for the Fox episodes.  Therefore, Mr. Hurwitz changed the Arrested Development format in a way that he felt was true to the characters and his goals on the original show.  Had he not experimented with the Rashomon structure and each-character-gets-a-short-film idea, the art would suffer.  It’s no longer 2006, so he couldn’t pretend as though he were making whatever the original Season Four would have been.  He created the show that was dictated to him by his muse.

One of the million things I’ve always loved about Arrested Development is how clear it is that everyone on board bought into making the show great.  It’s hard to make great comedy if you are being “reverent.”  Comedy is, by its nature, irreverent.  (That’s why it is sometimes difficult to find good comedy by conservatives.  Sorry, but it’s true.  Prove me wrong?)

There are many times in Season Four in which the writers are making good-natured jokes about the actors.  For example, the acclaimed director Ron Howard gets a “hat haircut” and calls all of his barbers Floyd.  The design accent above his office door is a ballcap. (And Brian Grazer’s office next door is sculpted to look like Mr. Grazer’s trademark hair.)  Rocky Richter sits in for his brother on Conan and makes a joke about Ron Howard’s hair.  Mr. Howard could easily have had any of these details excised, but he didn’t.  Why?  Because he is laughing WITH the writers and the audience and because he is apparently as emotionally secure and as happy as he should be.  Mr. Howard has reverence for storytelling and comedy and pleasing the audience and doesn’t revere himself in an unhealthy manner, all of which benefits the work as a whole.  Isn’t this attitude one of the marks of a true artist?

What Should We Steal?

  • Derive humor and drama from your deep, complicated and human characters.  A story is not as compelling if the reader can see the hand of its creator.  Instead, the reader should feel that he or she has been offered a window into another world and a glimpse into the lives of real people.
  • Write to satisfy your muse, not your audience, imagined or real.  You’re more likely to impress the audience if you impress yourself first!
  • Allow yourself and your treasured characters to be the butt of the joke. Within reason, your priority should be to serve the work, not yourself.

What Can We Steal from Issue 2 of “Atomic Robo Presents Real Science Adventures”?

Title of Work and its Form:  Issue 2 of “Atomic Robo Presents Real Science Adventures,” comic book
Author: Written by Brian Clevinger (on Twitter @bclevenger).  Art by Ryan Cody, Rob Reilly, John Broglia and Zack Finfrock.  Colors by Matt Speroni.
Date of Work: 2012
Where the Work Can Be Found: The issue was published in April 2012 and can be purchased at any fine comic book store, including Oswego, NY’s The Comic Shop.

Bonuses:  Here is the title’s entry in the Comic Book Database.  This is the official Atomic Robo web site.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Characterization

Discussion:
In a different world, I would have written a lot of comic books.  (Yes, yes, there is always the future.  We’ll see if I ever write another script for one.)  While I’m not what you would call a “comic book person,” I love all storytelling media, especially one that has such strong roots in the United States.  From time to time, I have assigned students to read and write about comic books because it’s the kind of thing that you need to do at least once.  How do you know whether or not you like comic books unless you read one?

I picked up Issue 2 of “Atomic Robo Presents Real Science Adventures” on a whim while at my local comic book store.  Please forgive me, friends, if I get some details wrong.  Part of the reason for this essay, I think, is to demonstrate the effect of serialized writing on someone who doesn’t quite know what is going on?  What does Mr. Clevinger do to capture the interest of an Atomic Robo virgin?

The issue contains installments from four adventures, who of which are self-contained: “To Kill a Sparrow,” “Monster Hunters,” “Leaping Metal Dragon” and “Atomic Robo vs. Rasputin’.”  Atomic Robo is a robot who was (in this fictional universe) created by Nikolai Tesla, the super genius scientist guy.  The titular Sparrow is a British spy.  Bruce Lee even appears in the third story!

To Kill a Sparrow

Well, it looks as though the spy is in trouble; she’s being chased by a whole bunch of bad guys.  After a nighttime firefight, she and her sidecar passenger find themselves in a dead end and outgunned.  Mr. Clevenger makes use of the timeless (and effective) textbook CLIFFHANGER.  The hero is in big trouble; several men with big guns are about to train their weapons on her.  The “to be continued” is the best kind of tease…what will happen next?  Well, you have to wait until the next issue is released (unless you bought the trade paperback.  Then you can just turn the page.)  There’s nothing at all wrong with these kinds of cliffhangers, but bear in mind the writing advice we received from Annie Wilkes, the hero of Misery.  The cliffhanger cannot be a cheat.  If the hero is in the car and the car goes off the cliff, you can’t retcon the story (change the previous established events) and tell folks that the hero rolled out of the car just before it went off the cliff.  “To Kill a Sparrow” establishes the right kind of cliffhanger: Sparrow is stuck in a dead end and must find her way out of the pickle she’s in.

Monster Hunters

So Atomic Robo wants to take custody of the “Yonkers Devil.”  (I’ve been in Yonkers…it’s not so bad.)  A team of tough-looking men agree to help.  Three days later, there’s a pretty cool battle as the strike team and Robo attempt to take the Yonkers Devil prisoner.  Mr. Clevinger and Mr. Reilly put together a pretty cool comic book battle, but the important part comes at the end.  The character we thought was Robo is actually a human.  (Remember, I don’t know the series.  I’m sure it’s an established character.)  The man takes off his fake Robo helmet and tells someone on the phone that, “It’s done.”  In the next panel, he says, “No.  Robo will think they went without him.  He’ll have no reason to suspect Majestic’s involvement.”

Mr. Clevinger is making use of a technique that some folks have problems with, particularly in playwriting and screenwriting.  Phone calls can be tough!  On one hand, it’s hard to release exposition because most people don’t say every word they are thinking when they have a phone conversation.  On the other hand, it can be super boring if your character has a boring phone conversation.  “Hello?…yeah…okay…sure…yep…uh huh…that’s right…cool.”  Mr. Clevinger tells a newbie like me a great deal.  Apparently, Robo is having problems with an agency called Majestic and that Yonkers Devil creature is important to Majestic.

Leaping Metal Dragon

Robo was friends with Bruce Lee!  Artist John Broglia uses an old-timey lots-of-dots comic book style to depict a training sequence.  Robo wants to learn to fight, even though he’s very tough and is a robot.  Robo is beginning to learn that fighting evil and defending good is not just about brute strength.

I’m not ancient, but I miss the way that comics were printed in the seventies and 1980s.  The paper was cheaper and the coloring was more obviously provided by the little tiny dots.  Mr. Clevinger and Mr. Broglia made a great choice in using the old-time style.  After all, the section of the comic takes place in the past.  (Bruce Lee, sadly, died decades ago.)  In order to create something new in your chosen genre, you need to understand the state of your genre in the past.  Mr. Broglia, no doubt, is perfectly capable of creating more creative layouts, but he made the choice to keep the layout of the panels very simple, because that’s the way comics looked in the past.

Atomic Robo vs. Rasputin

This story goes all the way back to 1924 in the Big Apple.  Atomic Robo is trying to study and has finals to take in the morning.  Unfortunately, the spirit of Rasputin (who died in 1916) interrupts him.  Robo uses some kind of device to SKZKOW SKOOOM the spirit, but causes lots of unintentional damage.  Other folks plan on pinning the damage on Robo, “Tesla’s infernal atomic robot.”

Atomic Robo seems like an interesting character because he’s not a typical robot.  He attempts to understand what it means to be human (yes, like Data) and needs to get an education the old-fashioned way and acts like a young person.  There are about eleventy billion robots in fiction.  Mr. Clevinger makes his special without removing his robot identity.

What Should We Steal?

  • Employ honest cliffhangers.  Go ahead and tease your audience, but make sure you make good on your promise.
  • Ensure the phone conversations in your work have a point.  There should be a reason your audience is hearing or reading one side of a phone call.  Exposition, characterization…we need something.
  • Educate yourself in the history of your field.  Nonfiction writers should know all about Gay Talese.  Comic book writers and artists should know all about Steve Ditko.  Novelists should know about Jane Eyre.  (They don’t have to like that book if they don’t want to.)
  • Differentiate characters who might otherwise seem common.  What makes the spouse abuser in your story different from the cliché?  Why should people care about your dragon protagonist?

What Can We Steal From “Best Man for the Gob,” an Episode of the Television Program Arrested Development?

Title of Work and its Form: “Best Man for the Gob,” an episode of Arrested Development
Author: Written by Mitchell Hurwitz (@MitchHurwitz) and Richard Rosenstock and directed by Lee Shallat Chemel.
Date of Work: The episode originally aired on April 4, 2004
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The episode is included in the Arrested Development Season 1 DVD package that you should have on your shelf.  You can also stream the episode on Netflix.

Bonuses:  Here the episode’s page on The O.P., a very cool fansite.  Here’s a Tumblr filled with animated GIFs from the show.  (A necessity on par with food and water and air.)

Here is the pain Tobias went through after Lindsay and Maeby quit the band and he learned about the conference’s policy regarding parking validation:

tumblr_m4rimzXvNv1qgoi9lo1_1280

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Characterization

Discussion:
It’s hard to summarize any episode of Arrested Development because of the simple fact that SO MUCH HAPPENS in all of them.  In this first season classic, accountant Ira Gilligan points out that money is missing from some of the Bluth Company’s accounts.  Gob is going to have a bachelor party to celebrate his union with Wife of Gob; George Sr. takes the opportunity to turn it to his advantage.  What’s the plan?  The bachelor party will be an excuse to make Ira think he killed a narcoleptic stripper, leading him to leave the country and end his investigation of the theft.  Tobias, Lindsay and Maeby are getting the band back together.  Dr. Fünke’s 100% Natural Good-Time Family-Band Solution played lots of wellness conventions, informing listeners about the side effects of drugs such as Teamocil.  (“There’s no I in Teamocil…at least not where you think…”)  Buster is thrilled about the unlimited juice (fake blood) at the bachelor party and Michael, offended at being passed over as Best Man, takes George Michael on what he intends to be a fishing vacation.  But poor George Michael wants to spend time with Maeby and play wood block in the band because he’s such a good percussionist.  The bachelor party goes wrong, of course.  Ira’s a designated driver, so he’s not drunk.  He vows to testify against the Bluths.  The kicker?  Ira’s the one who stole the money.

One of the greatest strengths of Arrested Development is its dedication to giving secondary and one-time characters full citizenship in the story.  We’re never going to see Ira Gilligan again, but we learn a great deal about him.  He’s annoyed by working with incompetent people, he puts up with a lot of abuse (being called “Gilligan”), he seems like a moral person (until the reveal), he’s good at his job…  Ira Gilligan is a real character and you can imagine what happens to him after the episode is over.  Now, you can’t make EVERY character in your piece a complete citizen.  Think of Law & Order; sometimes you need a witness who isn’t a full character to simply point out where the bad guy ran.  But look at this list of secondary characters from Arrested Development:

  • Wife of Gob
  • J. Walter Weatherman
  • Steve Holt!
  • Bob Loblaw
  • Stan Sitwell
  • Sally Stickwell
  • Warden Gentles
  • Tony Wonder

The list goes on and on.  Even though these people are only given a few minutes of screen time, the writers, directors and actors make them real, well-rounded people.  Why is this a great thing?  People, just like characters, don’t exist in a vacuum.  When you write a story, you’re creating a world and are just choosing to focus on specific characters from that world.  In spite of this focus, your protagonist inhabits a reality filled with people who are protagonists of their own stories.

One of the many ways that Arrested Development sets itself apart from other programs is that the characters are extremely unlikeable in a number of ways.  Each Bluth is selfish and is usually willing to cheat the others to get what they want.  George Sr. embezzles from his business.  Lucille dislikes most of her children and has smothered Buster so much that he can’t function on his own.  Tobias refuses to get a job or to acknowledge the truth about himself.  Lindsay is insanely shallow.  Gob lies to women (a lot of them) and ignores his son.  Why don’t we hate the Bluths?  Their misadventures seldom cause terrible damage to the lives of others and, just like a real family, there are moments of genuine love between them.  (Just think of the Lucille intervention that turned into one of their best-ever parties.)

lucille intervention

Your audience will see the humanity in the worst character if you depict them in full.  Tom Perrotta’s Little Children depicts a child predator in an appropriately sympathetic light.  You love your crazy uncle, even though he’s crazy.  We can appreciate unpleasantness in the people we read about so long as we have some clue as to WHY they are the way they are.  (Lucille just wants her childrens’ love, Gob doesn’t know how to love, George Sr. is really a henpecked husband…)

Arrested Development stole a lot from Seinfeld in the structure of its plots.  The Bluths spend a lot of time apart in the rest of the episode.  The bachelor party climax of the episode, however, brings together many of the elements from the episode.  Gob’s relationship with his wife, the theft of the money, the strife in Tobias’s family, Buster’s addiction to juice…they’re all dealt with.  Interestingly, this moment also evokes a lot of emotion.  In spite of all of the unpleasantness the Bluths try to visit upon each other through the episode, Michael and Gob share a kind moment between brothers and the problems in the Fünke household are dealt with in some manner.

What Should We Steal?

  • Populate your world with a full set of real people.  You may not tell the reader what your tangential characters do in the future, but your reader should nonetheless be able to figure out some of the secrets that reside in their hearts.
  • Allow your characters to be unlikeable…allow them to be human.  Superheroes have been given increasing amounts of pathos for a reason.  Real people are flawed; if you look deeply enough, there is darkness in us all.  (Except for me.)
  • Build your plots and subplots to a meaningful crescendo.  No matter what you’re writing, think of yourself as a conductor.  Your climax is the place where you detonate all of the land mines you’ve planted and when you get to show off your skills to the fullest.

What Can We Steal From the Television Program “Reno 911!”?

Title of Work and its Form: Reno 911!, television program
Author: Created by Thomas Lennon, Robert Ben Garant and Kerri Kenney-Silver
Date of Work: 2003 – 2009
Where the Work Can Be Found: The program was originally broadcast on Comedy Central and is currently in syndication.  Each season is available on DVD; as of this writing, Reno 911! can be seen on Netflix.  

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Characterization

Discussion:
Reno 911! is a COPS-style mockumentary program that chronicles the adventures of the members of the Reno Sheriff’s Department.  Led by Lieutenant James Dangle (Thomas Lennon), the officers are a family of sorts.  A very dysfunctional family.  When Officer Jones (Cedric Yarbrough) loses his job as a jingle singer for High Sierra Carpeting, the group surrounds him and offers heartfelt consolation.  Then there are days like the one when a colleague dies, bequeathing a Jet-Ski to the department; everyone fights to decide who will get it.

Reno 911! is special for several reasons, but chief among them is the brilliant way in which the directors and actors have created such indelible characters.  Lieutenant Dangle is not just “the one in the short shorts.”  Dangle wears the shorts for several reasons; he claims he needs to be able to run like a cheetah, but is really providing the audience with a commentary regarding his sexuality.  Dangle is a man between worlds, simultaneously inhabiting the traditionally masculine world of the police and the freer, less judgmental gay and gay-friendly world.  Trudy Weigel (Kerry Kenney-Silver) is not just a strange woman who loves her cats.  Silver makes sure that we understand Weigel on a deep level.  She’s a woman who has always had trouble being loved because of her…eccentricities.  Deputy Garcia (Carlos Alazraqui) is incredibly repressed and pushes people away because he can’t accept himself or his circumstances.

Great works are often memorable because of their memorable characters.  It would be very easy for the necessarily unbalanced deputies of the Reno Sheriff’s Department to seem like cartoon characters, but they’re not.  Indelible characters are particularly important for successful television shows.  Think about the great sitcoms throughout history: Taxi, Cheers, Arrested Development, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Charles in Charge…each of them is populated with deep, realistic characters.  Further, each line is specific to each character and reflects their unique personalities.

Who but Deputy Junior (Robert Ben Garant) would say something like this during a discussion as to whether or not a man should want to have sex with Weigel?

What the hell kinda woman do you want then? She’s got all the right parts, just the-the… the wiring’s screwy, ya know. It’s like the flippers work and the bumpers work, it’s just the wiring’s screwy and the score’s all wrong.

Who other than Weigel would describe the new British exchange officer thus?

Officer Smiley reminds me of someone from Mary Poppins.  Someone who, for instance, comes riding in on a jalopy and he has whipped ices for all the little children and he says “come along everyone, I have whipped ices!”  And then when they get close enough to him he grabs them and rapes the shit out of them.  Then he tosses them in the back seat and off he goes and then ‘chip chip cheerio.

One reason that the characters are so well-drawn is because the dialogue is mostly improvised.  The writers/producers would dream up a general situation and then the actors would improvise around that situation.  “Jones and Kimball get lost in a parking lot while chasing a perp.”  Okay, great.  We’ll turn on the cameras and let the actors run around and see what magic we can capture.  The producers put together a cast of great improvisers who cared very deeply about their characters.  A novelist, for example, doesn’t have the same luxury.  He or she can, however, be vigilant in considering (and depicting) each character’s reaction to the same events.

What Should We Steal?

  • Allow your characters to have virtues and faults that emerge through good times and bad.  Even the worst people have a good side, hard as it may be to find.  The officers of the Reno Sheriff’s Department are selfish and petty and incompetent, but they also care for each other on some level.  Avoid the temptation to make your characters into caricatures.
  • Ensure that your characters are as unique as the people you meet every day.  Great works are populated by memorable characters.  The people in the worlds you create should, to paraphrase Polonius, be true to themselves.
  • Improvise!  Great ideas must percolate and you never know when they’re going to emerge.  Respect the cool and unexpected thoughts you have, even if they contradict some of the plans you have for your work.  Where will improvisation take you?

What Can We Steal From Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest?

Title of Work and its Form: The Importance of Being Earnest, play
Author: Ernest Hemingway
Date of Work: 1895
Where the Work Can Be Found: The play appears in all kinds of anthologies.  Thanks to the wonders of public domain, the play can be found on the Internet.  (In your face, Sonny Bono and Mickey Mouse!)

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Characterization

Discussion:
The Importance of Being Earnest is, quite simply, one of the best comedies around.  Not only is there a laugh every fifteen seconds, but the characters are compelling and charming.  Best of all, it’s a love story!  Don’t we all enjoy a good love story?  John Worthing and Algernon Moncrieff are…committed bachelors…wink wink…right?  Get it?  All they want is to find women with whom they can settle down.  The course of their true love doesn’t run smoothly at all.  Each of them assume the name Ernest as a way to remain anonymous while having fun.  Algernon also pretends to have a friend named Bunbury who serves as a convenient excuse when he wants to take off.  Enter Gwendolyn and Lady Bracknell.  Gwendolyn is a sweet and beautiful young woman; John/Earnest proposes marriage.  (She loves guys named Ernest.)  Unfortunately, John is not satisfactory marriage material; his mother stuffed him in a handbag as a baby and left him in a train station.  Long story short: a ton of coincidences are discovered and everyone ends up happy and married at the end.

Lady Bracknell is my favorite character from the play.  She’s an older woman who epitomizes the Victorian ideals of propriety.  The most important thing, of course, is not actual propriety, but the appearance of propriety.  (Do we have anyone like that?)  Lady Bracknell doesn’t worry too much about money, which gives her the luxury of living life “properly.”  Her clothing is always perfect and a judgmental quip is always on her tongue.  Freed from the struggles of “normal” life, she is free to tell others what to do.  And the dialogue Wilde gives to her couldn’t sparkle any more brightly.

Let’s look at Lady Bracknell’s entrance and first lines.  (Always a good idea.)

[Algernon goes forward to meet them.  Enter Lady Bracknell and Gwendolen.]

Lady Bracknell.  Good afternoon, dear Algernon, I hope you are behaving very well.

Algernon.  I’m feeling very well, Aunt Augusta.

Lady Bracknell.  That’s not quite the same thing.  In fact the two things rarely go together.  [Sees Jack and bows to him with icy coldness.]

Wilde wastes no time!  Lady Bracknell follows the social script by asking how-do-you-do and then reprimands Algernon, doling out one of her legendary pronouncements.  We don’t often think deeply about these kinds of perfunctory situations, but Lady Bracknell is right; behaving well and feeling well are two very different things.

We love Lady Bracknell because she is relentless and devoutly committed to her beliefs.  Unlike wishy-washy people, she creates drama by being inflexible and unforgiving.  Here are some more of her lines:

I’m sorry if we are a little late, Algernon, but I was obliged to call on dear Lady Harbury.  I hadn’t been there since her poor husband’s death.  I never saw a woman so altered; she looks quite twenty years younger.

Well, I must say, Algernon, that I think it is high time that Mr. Bunbury made up his mind whether he was going to live or to die.  This shilly-shallying with the question is absurd.  Nor do I in any way approve of the modern sympathy with invalids.  I consider it morbid.  Illness of any kind is hardly a thing to be encouraged in others.  Health is the primary duty of life.

An engagement should come on a young girl as a surprise, pleasant or unpleasant, as the case may be.  It is hardly a matter that she could be allowed to arrange for herself . . .

I have always been of opinion that a man who desires to get married should know either everything or nothing.  Which do you know?

It’s true that Oscar Wilde stole a little bit of Lady Bracknell’s character from similar characters in farces that preceded Earnest.  In the years since I read the play, I have noticed some examples of television writers doing what Wilde did: taking a character “type” and putting a unique spin on it.

Arrested Development’s Lucille Bluth (Jessica Walter) is a wealthy woman who cares only about appearances.  She’s forever telling her children and her husband and her adopted child Annyong and her grandchildren and the painters and the household help how they should live their lives and what is “right” and “proper.”  Fun example: Lucille constantly criticizes her daughter Lindsay’s weight.  They share this exchange in a restaurant:

Lindsay: Did you enjoy your meal, Mom? You drank it fast enough.

Lucille: Not as much as you enjoyed yours. You want your belt to buckle, not your chair.

Two and a Half Men’s Evelyn Harper (Holland Taylor) is a wealthy woman who cares only about appearances.  She’s forever telling her children and grandchildren how they should live their lives and what is “right” and “proper.”  Fun example: in one episode, Evelyn is excited to attend a party in her honor and to soak up attention.  Unfortunately, she is upstaged by the singing of the housekeeper’s sister.  In a moment of reflection, she lets loose this very Bracknell line:

Evelyn Harper: Why does anyone want a party? To feel superior while feigning humility!

What Should We Steal?

  • Take a stock character and make him or her your own.  These words can be very confusing.  They can also characterize the attitude of a character or narrator.
  • Make the most of the entrances your characters make.  Your audience or reader should understand your characters within seconds of meeting them.  Sure, you may change the perception you create later in the piece, but your characters are actors at heart.  They want to make big waves and burn themselves into the audience’s memory instantly.

What Can We Steal From Tom Perrotta’s The Wishbones?

Title of Work and its Form: The Wishbones, novel
Author: Tom Perrotta
Date of Work: 1997
Where the Work Can Be Found: The novel is available in paperback at all fine bookstores.  You should run out and buy it immediately.  You can also get the book from Amazon.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Characterization

Discussion:
Gosh, I love Tom Perrotta’s early work.  (Don’t worry; I love his more recent work, too.  Just in a different way.)  The Wishbones is an entertaining read, but also packs a big emotional wallop.  Dave plays in The Wishbones, a wedding band that doesn’t make much money.  They do, however, have an awful lot of fun.  The fun/money ratio is getting to be a problem as Dave gets older and more serious about Julie, his on-again/off-again girlfriend of FIFTEEN YEARS.  When a patriarch of the wedding band community dies during a showcase, Dave goes into shock, leading him to finally, at long last, propose to Julie.  Only the next morning does he realize that he doesn’t want to get married.  I don’t want to ruin the twists and turns; let’s just say that Dave learns a lot about himself and a lot about life.  (One unexpected lesson: it’s possible to write a pretty great musical about the Kennedy Assassination.)

Perrotta’s third-person narrator is in on the joke and along for the ride.  When you sit down with the book, it’s clear that Perrotta wants his narrator to help him accomplish a few goals: to entertain, to tug on heartstrings and to tickle your funny bone.  How does he do this?  The narrator is completely honest about Dave, even when it makes the guy look like a massive jerk.  For example, here’s how the second chapter starts.  It’s the next morning, immediately after Dave proposed to Julie:

He woke the next morning with a consciousness–it felt something like a hangover–of having made a terrible mistake.  He couldn’t figure out how it had happened, how he’d allowed years of resolve to crumble in a single moment of weakness.  In the half darkness of his bedroom, he fantasized about calling and rescinding the offer.

“I’m not ready,” he’d explain.  “I don’t have a steady job or any money in the bank.  You deserve someone more reliable, a husband you can count on.”  He figured he’d leave out the part about not believing himself capable of a lifetime of sexual fidelity.

And how does the fiancee respond in his fantasy?

The imaginary Julie listened carefully, her brow knitting into wavy lines of concentration.  “I understand, Dave.  It would be crazy for us to get married right now.  But I do want to continue having sex with you.”  Her voice dipped into a more sultry register.  “In fact, I want to have sex with you right now.”

The fantasy sequence accomplishes a lot:

  1. The concept is funny.  There really isn’t a woman around who would react in the way Dave imagines Julie might.
  2. The fantasy reflects upon the immaturity in Dave’s character.  He’s not such a bad guy, but he is a little too selfish to truly make Julie happy.  He still has a somewhat adolescent mindset; instead of thinking about adult responsibilities, he’s thinking about how breaking off an engagement will get him laid.
  3. The fantasy reflects upon the maturity in Dave’s character.  Dave has SOME measure of self-awareness.  He knows that what he has done is pretty crummy and understands that he must get out.  He just can’t get out in the right way.

It’s a strange kind of praise, but Perrotta is a master of writing material that is ostensibly written by his characters.  (I LOVE the letters from Cindy in Joe College.)  The Wishbones required Perrotta to write some of the poetry of Marlene Fragment in addition to lyrics for The Grassy Knoll (the JFK assassination musical).  Dave’s friend Ian is a decent man, if a little private.  He’s been working on The Grassy Knoll for a long time, but has been reluctant to share his work.  Much to Dave’s surprise, it’s pretty good.

About halfway through the book, Perrotta recounts the development of The Grassy Knoll and describes some of the breakthroughs Ian had during the composition of the work.  Originally, the musical was only about JFK being shot.  Eventually:

Ian realized the song could move in an entirely different direction–instead of being about JFK, it could be about the audience.  Once he had this insight, the lyrics pretty much wrote themselves.

Do you see what Mr. Perrotta is doing?  He’s slyly giving us advice as to how we can improve our own writing.  Whether we’re writing about the assassination of JFK, genocide in Rwanda, the Holocaust or the red carpet premiere of Paris Hilton’s latest movie, we’re obliged to think about the world our characters inhabit.  Dave doesn’t live in a vacuum; he is influenced by people around him.  Those people influence those people…before you know it, your story touches everyone on the planet!

What Should We Steal?

  • Decide what kind of relationship your narrator will have with your reader.   In The Wishbones, the third-person narrator has full understanding that many of Dave’s actions are selfish.  In addition to honestly reporting Dave’s thoughts, the narrator also allies himself (herself?) with the reader, interjecting with the same judgments we would have.  For example, “Luckily for Dave, Julie didn’t hear.”
  • Populate the world your characters inhabit with the documents they produce.  The reader will never meet so many of the people you breathe to life.  Your protagonist, however, will seem more realistic if he had a third grade teacher, a favorite Spice Girl and chocoholic tendencies, just like everyone else.  Put extra effort into making the documents that your characters create in the standard course of their lives.  When you include a love note in a novel, it should be clear that the note was written by the character, not by the person whose name is on the book jacket.