To the casual observer, I was staring out the window. But, for writers, there’s a fine line between “loafing” and “research.” I was actually working very hard pondering how to improve some characters I created decades ago. That led me to think about how characters in a book or play are different from humans we meet in life, or from ourselves for that matter. Which led me briefly into politics, of course. Obviously, writing a blog about such a daydream is much easier than rewriting a novel, so here you go.
You are in a room full of people at some social gathering. Party, funeral, church, convention– it doesn’t really matter. Every member of that group views everyone in the room (including themselves) through the prism of their own experience, prejudice and wishful thoughts. No two see exactly the same thing. We all float through a cloud of characters that shifts like smoke in a breeze. It’s easy to get locked into our own viewpoint and forget that, either when we write or in real life.
For example, I’m currently wearing my older-fellow disguise; thin white hair, with a forehead that stretches nearly back to my shirt collar; a belly I pretend is smaller than it is, scruffy clothes, probably with lunch spilled on the front. I move slowly and awkwardly, more careful than graceful. Having tripped more than once, I watch the sidewalk in front of my feet more than a younger fellow would. I stutter to recall the exact word my current sentence requires. I’m not “nursing home old” but I’m more than old enough to be invisible on a college campus. Even on parent’s night. In that setting, I’m background music; part of the environment that needs no description.
Oddly, from this side of my bifocals, I’m still the barefoot kid who outran a pack of wild dogs through weeds and cactus and slammed the porch door on them an instant before they lunged for that final bloody tackle. I’m the weird kid who invented a sort of microscope/ projector out of an oatmeal box and a flashlight so I could spend hours watching huge amoebae and daphnia whirl across my closet ceiling. I’m the teenager, proud of his fitness, who stood in a windy fog reveling in the cold rain that pelted his cheeks and said out loud, “Wow! I’m alive!”
But I’m pretty sure everyone else in the room just sees the old guy with soup on his shirt.
As Edward de Vere wrote, “All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players.” Of course he was disguised as “William Shakespeare” when he wrote it, so no one knows how Edward really felt. And in his playwright’s disguise, he was writing words for Jaques to recite in “As you Like It.” He was imagining what Jaques might have thought, not what the writer himself thought. Jaques was a character being performed by some actor from Avon. We have no idea what the actor in the pantaloons onstage really thought. Plus, in the course of that particular play, nearly every important character takes on the disguise of someone else, causing much confusion, hijinks and hilarity while proving Jaques’ point. But the point wasn’t the literal meaning of the words.
The point is this: Jaques, a bitter and depressed nobleman, sees the rest of us as mere costumes that dance on stage. For the audience, his speech is a test. To pass the test, we need to understand that the words are wrong and only children believe them.
Every person in our imaginary room is not merely a player reciting lines. They each see themselves as more than the stained shirt they wear, or the limping walk. They’re the barefoot kid, the soldier in Vietnam, the princess of a ball that most have forgotten. People who write immortal characters remember that little tidbit. Jaques said words that Shakespeare didn’t believe in order to create a reaction in the audience.
Election season provides a free master class in character development. Year after year, the Republican hopeful plays the part of a “severe conservative” to survive the primary. The Democrat plays the part of an NPR liberal. Once nominated, the two who pass this audition rush backstage to change costumes. Now they perform as “moderates.” One becomes a “Compassionate Conservative” the other a “Pragmatic Progressive.”
As voters, it’s easy to believe we’re hiring the character, not the actor. We think we’re above the stagecraft, immune to the lighting and sound effects; on some level we’re voting for the Gipper or Jeb Bartlett. We hear the words that resonate within us and believe we’ve listened to the actor’s heart. Hardliners on both sides remember the words they heard last Spring and believe their guy is only playing a part now, just to get elected. On the other hand, during the general election, moderates relax as they realize that neither candidate sounds so bad after all. Their guy was just playing a role for those crazy primary voters.
Obama gave us stirring campaign speeches. Because they moved us, we assumed he could likewise move Congress and North Korea and Iran. It turns out the phrase “campaign in poetry, govern in prose” could not describe anyone better than it does Obama. Supporters on the Left feel disappointed. On the other hand, his actual stated beliefs have remained fairly consistent, if nuanced. He did not shed the costume of a moderate and reveal a clown-suited liberal. The character we voted for is about the same as the actor who played him. The actor is just a lot more subdued without a prepared soliloquy and teleprompter.
Romney played a near-liberal to win in Massachussettes, declaring he was to the left of Ted Kennedy on some issues. He claimed to be pro abortion, in favor of gun control, in favor of increasing government revenue etc. When he decided to run for President, he reversed all those stands and adopted deeply conservative positions. He’s been reading those lines for over four years now. This week, he switched to playing the role of a moderate.
I think it’s safe to say Obama is a more inspiring “performer” and Romney is a better “actor.” They’re both interesting “characters.” Voters find themselves in the novelist’s role, trying to understand the folks who populate our national book. How do we advance the plot? Who should lead us into the next chapter?
Maybe it depends on our reaction to Jaques. If all the world really is a play and all the men and women merely players, we probably want the guy who’s the best actor. Romney has proven that he can read any line with conviction. He can go onstage and become whatever character the situation or his advisors tell him he should become.Today Henry IV, tomorrow Iago.
If Shakespeare delivered his words through a jaded and depressed fellow so we would understand their irony, maybe we’ll choose the guy whose convictions don’t change with his costume.
We writers step back and notice the drama before us and the crowd’s reaction. Such powerful emotions on both sides, such intrigue, such confusion! Wouldn’t it be cool if we could figure out how to recreate that wild storm within our books? Just as the play can change reality, so can reality can inform literature. It’s just hard to step back and watch it objectively when the play swirls around us and the actors surround the audience. Especially when the play can change our own lives in real ways. It can send our children to war, it can foreclose on our home.
Luckily, the characters we write are merely puppets; they don’t realize they are in a play. If we write them well, they may survive for years in this near-life state, sparked into vicarious movement within a reader’s mind. Only puppets believe that all the world’s a stage.