My play’s proposition, keeping characters in line

by | Apr 16, 2014 | Ask the Author, Forum Archives

I’m working on a two-character full-length play and need help with the proposition. I get to wrestle with my nemesis: character scope creep.

Started by Bernard Rice on 2014-04-16 at 11:22

I’m working on a two-character full-length play today. Here’s the proposition (and result):

Charles, who intends to keep his kidney, the status quo, though his close friend and business partner, Steven, needs it, and Charles, who is infatuated with Steven, is a viable donor, shouldn't strive to keep everything to himself, because success in the attempt means he'll be lonely, though safe. (Success! The audience will be disappointed.)

Any comment on the proposition appreciated.

I get to wrestle with my nemesis: character scope creep. Charles is highly intellectual and loves to hold court on all subjects, alternately engaging and boring Steven to tears. To avoid boring my audience to tears, Charles’ babblings have to work for the play, have to be “relevant” at least almost always.

The main condition of value is of course the kidney, but the kidney represents the love between the two men, which Charles wishes were more... intimate, exclusive, whatever a closeted gay man might want from a demonstrably straight companion. Charles keeps hoping that Steven's apparently permanent bachelor status suggests something that it doesn't... or does it? I have to finish writing the thing to discover the ins and outs of everything, just my way of writing.

Any suggestions welcome.

Thanks in advance.

Will Cooper replied...

Hi, Bernie. Sounds like a winner. What struck me when I read your proposition in the context of the story you laid out was that the condition of value wasn't the kidney; it was their relationship. The kidney seemed to be rather a symbol of how much value Charles put on it. "Does Charles care enough about Steven enough to sacrifice a kidney for him in order to keep him in his life?" strikes me as the central question of the play. From this perspective, Charles's inner motivation becomes far more interesting. Suppose you portray his relationship with Steven as close and loving; then what's going on in his psyche that makes him so unwilling to sacrifice for him? Steven may perceive his reluctance to donate his kidney to him as a sign that Charles doesn't love him enough or love him in the right way. You would have to decide if that's true or not. If Charles's condition of value is his relationship with Steven, I think you'd have a stronger proposition. I could invent one, but I won't. It's your story, and it sounds like a good one.

Bernard Rice commented...

Thanks, Will. I will see what develops.

Roger replied...

Bernie, Will is right regarding the condition of value. It's not the kidney, it's the relationship that Charles has with Steven -- specifically, the preservation of that relationship, which Charles finds satisfying.

From your brief description, Charles is happy with the "status quo," including his relationship with Steven. And even if he is infatuated with Steven, he is content to let things remain as they are, as he has apparently done for quite some time given that they are business partners and probably work closely together. And why not? Steven provides a ready audience for his court-holding and Charles might be the kind of person who likes to dream about "what could be" without ever taking steps to make it so.

But if something were to threaten the relationship, Charles would likely takes steps to protect it, which makes him a keep character who is challenged in the story to fend off a threat to "the way things are." In this case, the threat is manifest in Steven's medical condition, which threatens to destroy the status quo of the relationship by destroying Steven himself.

The inciting incident here is the revelation that Steven needs a kidney, which should probably come somewhere in Act I, after we-the-audience have come to understand the relationship between the two men and why it is of value to Charles, so that we can understand the implications of its threat. The revelation is what imparts to Charles his vector of intent as a keep character, and establishes the condition of value -- not the kidney but the preservation of the irreplaceable relationship that he treasures.

It is probably unlikely that the two men would know off the bat that Charles was a viable donor, and he might try to help in other ways to see that Steven gets the kidney, not even thinking of himself as a potential donor. But when the alternatives begin to become exhausted, it might occur to one or both of them to check Charles' viability, either as a last resort or by-the-by when they're in the process of looking into something else.

In any case, when they do find out that Charles is a viable donor, he is faced with a dilemma. As a keep character, he is interested in preserving the current states of things, including his own body and health. So the question for him becomes: "What am I willing to let go of in order to keep something else? What is more precious to me?" And it would also make him question whether it is Steven or the relationship that is important to him.

And even if he agrees to donate his kidney, we-the-audience might sense his reservations and know that his decision isn't final until he's lying on the operating table and that he's seeking some way out of the dilemma that doesn't involve the loss of a body part.

There's lots of really good stuff there.

The issue in that case would lie along the lines of "selfishly keeping what is personally precious at the expense of destroying another person or relationship." And if you, as author, advise against doing so, the proposition might be:

One should not attempt to selfishly keep what is personally precious at the expense of expense of destroying another person or relationship, because success in the attempt will result in the loss of something greater and more valuable than the personally precious thing.

If Charles fails in his attempt, he gives up the kidney, and the relationship with Steven is not only preserved, it is made stronger and richer, which is a happy consequence and leads to a fail/pleased story. If, on the other hand, he succeeds in keeping his own body whole and Steven dies, then you have a succeed/disappointed story.

Either would work thematically. It's just a matter of where you want to leave the audience when the lights come up at the end.

Bernard Rice commented...

Thanks, Roger. It had not yet considered when Charles would be considered as a donor, and comparing your version of the "proposition" to mine assists me in my understanding of the Soul method.

Will Cooper replied...

I've given your play more thought, and I want to encourage you to go for it. The question of how much any of us would be willing to sacrifice to preserve the people we love, is profound. Faced with a dilemma like Charles's, we would be forced to question how deep our love truly ran, how important to us our loved-one really was. The answer may not be what we expected; it might shock us, wrack us with guilt, or on a positive note, lead us to a more honest appreciation of who we are and what we value. I don't know how you've conceived the arc of this story, but it wouldn't necessarily have to end tragically. You have an abundance of possibilities, both happy and sad. I would even consider having Charles decide finally to donate his kidney but still wind up abandoning the relationship. No matter what conclusion you ultimately arrive at, a powerful, moving drama lies in the making. Good luck!

Bernard Rice commented 3 years ago

Thanks, Will. I've always enjoyed your... aura. I have a dark sense of humor, and as it happens I am tracking an interesting arc with a few of my plays lately. In the case of this one, I inadvertently wrote half of the play with obtuse Charles being the one needing the transplant, and the back half with Steven being the one in need. And, at present, for some perverse reason I don't yet understand, I have Steven being poisoned by Charles in the end, which would surely disappoint the audience. Regarding the strange mistake I made switching characters (it's perhaps not always optimal to return to a project after too long a lapse), I don't think I want to be so surreal as to have that actually happen in the play, but I do always want to write something human and difficult and... well, new. So we'll see. By the way, I joined Roger's site in part because I'm tired of not having a place to be where I get feedback... besides our wonderful Chicago Dramatists, of course. All the best, and thanks.

Will Cooper commented...

My pleasure. I think Roger has put together an effective analytical and developmental methodology for grasping the structure of narratives. It's easy to understand, and it strips away a lot of the mystery about what goes into a well-told story. I believe that it is likely that human beings have certain innate, neurologically encoded expectations for how stories should work. Perhaps we could call it a "Narrative Grammar" along similar lines as Chomsky's Universal Grammar. While the writer has a degree of leeway in how she enfolds the constituents of a classically well-told story, should she omit one or more of them, or handle them ineptly, audiences will recognize it, either consciously or unconsciously. They will find the story unsatisfying, jejune, or sere. What I have noticed over the years at Chicago Dramatists is that many of our playwrights are able to craft wonderful dialogue; they shape rich and lively scenes; but their plays fall flat. The reason for this, in my opinion, is inadequate narrative construction. So far as I know, Roger's course is the first to be offered at the theatre that focusses exclusively on teaching how to put a solid story together. I hope that many other writers will gather here to trade ideas about the elements of story-telling and discuss how to arrange them into narratives that can move audiences. It's what so many of our colleagues sorely need. Glad you're part of this, Bernie!

Roger commented...

Aristotle agrees with you there, Will. From The Poetics: "...beginners succeed earlier with the Diction and Characters than with the construction of a story." He goes on to say, "We maintain, therefore, that the first essential, the life and soul, so to speak, of Tragedy is the Plot; and that the Characters come second."
My Discovering the Soul of Your Story methods both conrradict and support the second statement by saying, in essence: "Yes, Plot is essential, but it derives from Character, not the other way around -- so really, Character comes first." In other words, Plot is the chicken but Character is the egg. The egg on its own just sits there, so it's not sufficient for a fully realized story. But the chicken got all of its features from what was inside the egg.
Bernard Rice commented 3 years ago
I woke up this morning and realized that it is indeed Steven who needs the kidney and Charles is the potential donor, which enables me to get cracking. Will, I think many writers have attempted what Roger has accomplished--I have a dozen books on plot and structure on my shelf. But none has done it so succinctly, and as far as I can tell, as accurately. I have always written in "white heat" as my dad used to say, and he was a writer all his life. I took a test once in which I successfully identified every instance of "bad"--let's say unsuccessful--writing except one. The one I missed was a poem that was nothing but a random assortment of lines. I found it enthralling. This is who I am as a writer, and to some extent as a person. So I can use a plan, especially as I'm older and have less discretionary time, at least in the aggregate. One final note: A main reason I'm here is that, even though it's just us cousins, someone responds to my posts. (Facebook doesn't count.) Have a great day, guys.

Will Cooper commented...

The ancient Greeks had a radically different view of man’s role in the cosmos than we do. It explains why Aristotle gave primacy to plot over character. The gods called the shots, and human beings merely enacted their will. The Fates spun, measured, and cut the "yarns" of our lives at moment we were born. In the present age, we think we have more personal control over our destinies. While contemporary science discredits our subjective sense of “free will”, most of us think that we exercise a substantial degree of control over the decisions we make and the actions we take. Our entire legal system rests on the presumption that individuals own responsibility for their actions. Character counts for more in our concept of narrative than it did for the ancients.

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