Sunday, March 20, 2011

Building Characters, Building Meaning

I'm not sure when my writing blog became a platform for philosophy, but here I am yet again with a few thoughts in that realm. This blog comes to you in three parts (as John Green would say): Part 1, General Writing Update. Part 2, Thoughts on Groups of Characters as related to Skins, and Part 3, The Less Obvious Downfalls of an Obsession with Hedonism.

Heady stuff ;)

Part 1: In Which Mack the Writer is, Once Again, Writing.

Recently I told someone that I will always come back to writing, even though I sometimes get completely and thoroughly frustrated with it, because I am the kind of person obsessed with figuring out the root causes of things. I'm very analytical and when I am obsessed, it takes a long time for me to let go (unless I've decided to let go, in which I usually can). Certain things I have been obessed with other than writing include friendship, both specific relationships as well as the topic as a whole, and various ideas and theories, which I usually work out quite quickly (compared to friendship and writing).

So, what have I been doing with my writing, then? Well, I have discovered that when it comes to outlines, I must have one when noveling, but when writing short stories, having an outline kills the actual writing process. So it's a funny distinction, but there you have it. I've been outlining my novel with great success and moving forward once again. Stop and start, stop and start. Eventually I'll get the hang of this.

Part 2: In Which Skins Works Best When There's an Obvious Villain

It's no secret I like Skins. A better question might be why I like it, and, if you were to ask me that question, I'm not completely positive I would be able to give you an answer that satisfied you. To say “I just do,” seems to be cheating, right? Perhaps it doesn't matter too greatly, but sufice to say I think that it is interesting both as an examination of modern hedonsitc kids let loose to explore their desires (both base desires as well as desires for meaning and greatness and friendship), and it's also a dang fine story in terms of realistic portrayal. Writing is so difficult because it is fiction. It's not real. I think everything we do as writer's is about erasing that sentence “it's not real,” and erasing and erasing until the line is so blurred that another person can experience it as if it was, indeed, real.

At its best, Skins does this very effectively. The how, of course, is harder to explain, but I think it has something to do with organically taking the mundane and finding the extraordinary within it. For example, when you read a fantasy story, there are literally fairies in the backyard, or unicorns in the forest. In Skins, the mundane is obvious: waking up in your bedroom, going to school, ignoring your parents. The extraordinary has to do with the relationships.

In much ametur writing, the dialogue is generally the part that stinks most, cliche or just plain bad description aside. The trouble often is that the writer isn't giving the characters a conversation, he or she is putting words in the character's mouth. A forced conversation between two characters might go “Hello, how are you?” “Good, I was just putting the kettle on.” “How nice, how has your great uncle been?” “Oh, he's still in the hospital, but it's looking better.”

Objectively there's nothing wrong with that (that's one problem about writing, often the problems with things occur because a writer has combined them improperly, or is using a tool that they don't yet understand). The question is, why do we care? Or, more importantly, why do these characters care? Why are they talking about this? Why are they talking about this in this way? Why isn't one character angry, for example? Just some of the many questions that can be asked to explore ways of adding depth.

So how does Skins do relationships? Skins doesn't just do relationships. Skins does interesting individuals, which leads to interesting relationships. Now, it might be easy to assume that good characters are easy to create. Just give them some unique traits and there you have it. Not so much. I'm not going to go into every facet of creating good characters, but personally I think that an extremely important part of character creation is asking yourself, what would this character do? It's the difference between thinking “How does my mom act?” and “I want my mom to act this way.” Too often, we want our characters to act a certain way so that's how we write them.

This is where the heading for part 2 comes in: the villain. The best thing about Skins villains is that they're not villains in the traditional sense. What do I mean by this? Okay, so there's about eight kids in a Skins cast. In the first season, you had several different “types” of characters. First you had the smart, manipulative character. He was the villain, because he caused lots of problems, but he wasn't specifically acting with villainous intent. He was simply using his intelligence and manipulative skill to create situations in order to entertain himself. In other words, using his power for evil :P Anyway, beyond him you had those people immediately concerned with him (his girlfriend and best friend), then other friends who occasionally were directly concerned with his friends. It's like a pebble thrown into a pond—one character is the pebble, but the others, the ripples, are all connected to that pebble, one way or another.

This works really well. The possibilities for dramatic conflict almost create themselves because everyone is so connected to the villain (who's not a traditional villain). Season 5, which I've been watching as you know (and which just finished on Thursday), did not have a specific villain. The funny thing was that one of the characters was masquerading as a villain in the first episode, but that person has not exhibited any true villainous intentions. Rather, they were rejecting the main character on grounds she was different, therefore casting them in a cliche bully-villain role. Instead of a villain, the main conflict this season has come from intense triangles. Generally love triangles, but also friendship triangles. This is interesting because it's essentially a case of “pick your villain.” You, the viewer, get to decide who you think is the least likeable based on their actions in the pursuit of their goal, whatever that may be.

So yeah. Haha that was a lot. I think those are my thoughts on that.

Part 3: In Which Mack Might have Run Out of Steam, or, a Look at Meaning

I think most people understand the problems with hedonism. Well, the people who aren't hedonists, that is :P But I think the interesting thing is that, even if you are not a hedonist, there are elements of hedonism that strongly appeal to people. We are very geared towards immediate satisfaction, yet we are generally told to structure our lives around long-term satisfaction. I guess hedonists reject this and just go for the moment, using whatever means necessary to find that satisfaction, happiness, pleasure, or whatever it may be.

Most of us deal with the balance between desire for short-term pleasure and devoting work towards long-term satisfaction quite regularly, allowing procrastination to win sometimes and conentration win other times.

I guess it comes into play because I was thinking about all of things I would *like* to do but really can't, and how for a long, long time I will be doing things that I might like but that ultimately, will not be what I *want.* These things that I want to do are not bad things. Some of them involve travel, or designing or even just decorating a home I could live in, having a pet again, having my own car, going on a train ride, living in a big city, being exposed to many asthetic experiences that creatively inspire me, etc.

However, our world does not work in such a way that I can sit back just have all of these things, one after another. Most of these things I can get in time, yes. The point is that if I want to have them *right now,* then I am going to be disapointed. There's always going to be something you want that you can't immediately have. There's always going to be something you want that's *almost* in reach, but that you can't have. So what's to be done? A shift in focus. Instead of constantly thinking about immediate wants, you can spend your time defining a purpose. Instead of a life spent constantly chasing, you can spend a life building.

What is the meaning of life? It's the cliche question. There's actually a nice book on it by Viktor Frankl on this very topic of having purpose. The excellent thing about life is that you get to making your meaning. You get to decide what ideals are important to you (instead of what material objects appeal to you) and basically spend your time exploring them and growing with them.

Just a few thoughts.


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