Saturday, April 3, 2010

Things that fester in a sealed skull

I had a fun discussion about this with a student not too long ago, so I think I’ll restate it here for the benefit of the writers, and anyone else foolhardy enough to wonder how fictional sausages are made.

My student was working on a fic (yes, I help my students write fanfic, and you would too if they’d finished their homework), and she was having a little trouble with her villain. Specifically, getting him to do something interesting. He was pretty much your basic “Mwa-ha-ha-ha, I am an evil supervillain and soon I will conquer the wooooorrrrrrld” kind of guy, and it was making the writing process dull and less than fun. And while I was trying to think of a diplomatic way to say that even Ming the Merciless occasionally had a little depth to him, I remembered something Robert McKee used to say in his seminars and in his useful screenwriting manual Story. So I paraphrased it.

“You know,” I said, “the best villains usually think they’re the hero of the story.”

It was great to watch the lights come on behind her eyes. Instantly, she was off and running again, creating a backstory and motivation for her villain that would set him on an inexorable collision course with the hero. Inside of five minutes, she had a terrific story worked out. I love working with this kid so much it’s not even funny.

While I don’t agree with McKee on everything, I do think he’s onto something with this villains-think-they’re-the-hero thing. It’s quite similar to what Sol Stein called the “Actor’s Studio method of developing drama in plots.” Stein did an exercise at the Actor’s Studio, many moons ago, where he had an actor and an actress playing a scene. The actor was the headmaster of a private school, and the actress was the mother of an expelled student trying to get her boy reinstated, and the scene wasn’t working until Stein pulled each actor aside, one at a time, and gave them private direction. He reminded the actress that her boy was a perfect angel, a gifted student and a caring friend, and the victim of a grudge by a mean-spirited teacher jealous of his intelligence. She simply had to get her darling boy reinstated. Then he told the actor, out of the actress’s earshot, that the kid was a little hellion, prone to disrupting class, destroying property, and generally making life miserable for teachers and students alike. Under no circumstances was he to let this student back into his school.

Well, you can imagine what happened next. Within seconds of restarting the improv, the two performers were screaming at each other and the audience was riveted. Stein later described such a technique, when used in fiction, as “giving the characters different scripts,” and it’s one of the most useful things I’ve ever learned. It’s quite true to life, too. Think back to the last argument you had with someone. Were you expecting the conversation to go some way other than the way it went? What do you think the other person expected? People don’t get up in the morning and plan to get into an epic conflict, so if you’re going to push your characters into one, you’ll have to send their tidy plans off the rails somehow. Next time your plot seems a little too rote, try giving your characters different scripts. Watch them stop agreeing and start living.

Spider Robinson once wrote a brilliant short story called “Two Heads Are Better Than One.” It was about telepathy and, among other things, the way a human adolescent would react to suddenly developing the ability to read minds. Forget what you’ve read in X-Men or seen on Heroes; this is as much a horror story as a light sci-fi piece. Robinson did an exquisite job of describing the torment of that first mind-to-mind contact:

“Have you ever considered how terrible it would be to find yourself in someone else’s head, with all that unsought and unwanted knowledge? As long as people remain locked in their own skulls, they should be—because as most people intuitively realize, the things that grow and fester in a sealed skull aren’t always fit to share … there’s the sheer shock of directly confronting a naked ego as strong as your own, and … it doesn’t help a bit that the other ego is unaware of you. Most people never get over believing that they’re the center of the Universe, even if they know it isn’t so—to have your nose rubbed in it is unsettling.”

This is how I came up with the character of Captain Catastrophe—a sad-sack villain who first put on his costume because he wanted to be a hero before it all went wrong. In his mind, he is the hero—he’s going to slay the dragon (with a made-in-China death ray) and get the girl (the less said about that, the better). And when his moment comes, and he finally gets a chance to prove what kind of hero he can be, he surprises everyone, and not necessarily in a good way. He’s definitely a bad guy. He carries a death ray, wears secondary colors, and robs banks (well, he tries). But he doesn’t think he’s a villain, and that makes him interesting when he runs up against people who think he is.

Honestly, don’t we all want to believe we’re the hero of the story? Don’t we like to secretly tell ourselves that the movie must be about us—after all, our mental camera is focused on us all the time? Imagine for a moment what happens when two mental movies collide. Is it any wonder so many of us drive each other up the wall?

So next time you’re stuck on a fic or a story or a script or whatever you write, ask yourself—what scripts do my characters have? What kind of heroes do they think they are? What happens when their epics collide? It may not be pretty, but it’s certainly interesting …

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