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Blogs From Exile

When your characters misbehave

The studio guy told me, “Kid, you have no future in this business.”
So I asked him, “Why?”
He said, “When Tony Curtis first walked onscreen carrying a bag of groceries—a bag of GROCERIES—you took one look at him and thought, THAT'S a movie star!”
So I asked, “Weren't you supposed to think, That's a grocery delivery boy?”

—Harrison Ford describing his first screen test

I like that anecdote for a lot of different reasons, and I usually cite it when another writer mentions the topic of characters who won’t behave. You’ve met these troublemakers: Minor players who insist on acting like major players, background performers who refuse to stay in the shadows, and the grocery boy character who’s supposed to walk in, set the bag down, and walk out—but he just . . . won’t . . . do it!

Unbelievable. Why won’t he do what he’s told? After all, he’s just a figment of my imagination. He wouldn’t exist on the page if my fingers weren’t typing out his every action. I’m the director and he’s the actor. He’s supposed to do what I say. He just doesn’t.

So instead of walking in, putting the bag down, and walking out, what does he do instead? He tracks in dirt that sparks my investigator’s memory about a crime scene. He trips over something on the floor that turns out to be a major clue. He makes a wise-guy comment that’s just too good to leave out. Or he walks in, puts down the bag, and walks out . . . but not before rolling his eyes at me.

The outright disobedience is tough to understand (I am, after all, typing the character’s every move) but easy to handle—either I incorporate the unexpected action and try to figure out where it leads, or I throw it out entirely. Believe it or not, it’s the eye roll that’s an actual challenge. As with any eye roll, my initial reaction is to ask, “What was that?” and sometimes that’s all there is . . . for a time. You see, the eye roll is usually an indication that I’ve missed an opportunity to tell the tale a little better and that I have not yet recognized it. In the case of the unexpected action, I subconsciously saw a different way to improve the story and the character simply went ahead and did it. But the eye rolling grocery clerk, though clearly exasperated by the uninspired things I’ve got him doing, doesn’t provide the answer right away.

Re-reading the lines that preceded this one, I have to wonder what a psychiatrist would make of all this. A writer claiming to be unable to control the very words he’s typing because the imaginary human being he’s created is calling the shots. There’s a horror movie on this topic involving an evil ventriloquist doll, and most audiences come away from that film believing the ventriloquist was nuts. Lord knows what a trained psychiatrist would say about that . . . or this.

But I digress. Back to the grocery clerk who actually does what he’s supposed to, but gives me silent attitude the whole way. It can take a little time, but the missed opportunity in that grocery delivery scene does reveal itself—sometimes in a stunning fashion. In some instances the revelation appears only after I’ve painted myself into a tight literary corner with no apparent way out—that is, until I see the change to the earlier scene that would drop everything back into place.

There is a related experience where I’ve added subplots, characters, and even single lines to a story for no apparent reason. These tiny items come out of nowhere, and even as I type the words I’m almost certain I’ll eventually remove them as useless clutter. Later, sitting there in a corner of my own making, overcome with the scent of slow-drying paint, I suddenly realize the pointless piece of clutter included on a whim is the only—and sometimes perfect—way out. That’s what I mean by a stunning revelation.

The important secret that the grocery clerk obviously knew but wouldn’t share falls in the same category. There’s no way to explain it (even for the trained psychiatrist that I won’t be contacting) but it’s one of the great joys of writing: Unexpected inspiration that radically improves the story, unlikely coincidence that gets us out of that ugly corner, and unruly characters who sometimes take our writing to a whole new level.

So the next time your minor character starts talking like a major character, let her. The next time the opening car door allows a clue to fall unexpectedly onto the ground, pick it up and look at it. And the next time the delivery boy rolls his eyes, tell him you noticed—and that you’ll be happy to listen once he’s ready to drop the attitude and spit it out.

You’ll be glad you did. I always am.
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