As usual I have to start with a little TV thing. I know. I said i wasn’t going to. I said i was done. And then they dragged me back in! But it’s a short one i promise. Did anyone catch Boston’s Finest this week? I know, I know. I’ve been gushing a little bit about it. But here’s why: Did you catch Detective Twitchel searching the car? You should have. They made kind of a big deal about it. Did you see the way he was watching the suspect as he searched? Yeah. There was a lot of editing going on while it was happening, but where did you see that before if you’re a Tv Crime addict like me? Yeah. That’s right. The Mentalist. He does that ALL. THE. TIME. Apparently because the detectives he works with are way to wrapped up in their completely unfounded theories to pay attention to the things Jane does constantly. Or to observe.
I bring it up because we’re constantly bombarded with one-sided characters. Stereotypes. I think I went a bit off the rails with this a few weeks ago when talking about that shiny piece of prime time garbage, Golden Boy. TV Characters, as a rule, are contractually obligated to not grow or really learn anything. Ever. It must be pretty boring being a TV character actor – sticking your face into a cardboard cut out every day. I’m sure the paycheck makes up for it, though. I heard a story once where William Peterson was talking about his struggles with his show – CSI. He mentioned that Grissom is never allowed to smile. That sucks. How do you write that? I mean as writers we can’t have our characters be the same person from story to story, can we? They have to learn something. They have to live. Which is probably why TV writers are swapped out like disks on a CD player. Too bad for the actors though.
Personally I have a LOT to learn. Sometimes so damned much that it’s paralyzing. How do I grow this blog? How do I more effectively market my stories? What’s the brand name of a half way decent stylus so that I can personally design and draw cover art for my naked amazon stories? Yeah. They’re naked. Go look at them. See I’m a one man band here. So was Sisyphus. Well… maybe not a band… though I’m sure we could get a good rhythm going if we strapped some tambourines to his legs.
So I want my people to grow. They have to grow. How do they deal with the things that happen to them? The world doesn’t sit still waiting for the next episode to start. There are baseball games to watch, fight’s to have with your wife or girlfriend, pets dying, computers breaking, the little red-headed girl you see on the bus every day but can’t muster the guts to talk to. What do these things have to do with mystery writing? Well… what do they have to do with anything? Any character? You want to write? Learn how to act. Really act. Pay attention to the parts you already play and how you act in this or that circumstance. How did that little red-headed girl smiling at you make you feel when you were ten? How does it make you feel remembering it at 40?
In my unwashed opinion, understanding your own moments and such brings you deeper into your characters. You’ve already felt everything you need to feel to write. Even if you’re only twelve years old. All you need to do is put that into your characters. You don’t have to make their experience yours and frankly you can’t and shouldn’t. Do that and you become one of those pompous twits hanging out with your goatee and an au lait somethingerother bitching about how no one ‘understands’ your art. My main character, Meg, is an Iraq War veteran. I’ve never been to Iraq. I’ve never been to war. She and I have a nice agreement that I don’t even try to understand what that was for her. I don’t ask and she doesn’t tell me – except when it matters to the story and then it’s still with the understanding that I don’t try to get too deep into it. I don’t try to control it. When it comes to editing, and I can get away with it, that stuff is the first thing cut. In my opinion, your characters should be like that. They should be comfortable enough to lie to you.
Let them lie. Write the lie.
So that’s why this is called A Funny Thing Happened. A standard joke line. A lie. A funny meaningless story. But a story. And that’s exactly what all of this is all about. Telling stories. You can start any story that way. Hamlet: A funny thing happened on my way to murder my uncle. A Moveable Feast: A funny thing happened to me in Paris. Pretty much any mystery you’ve ever read: A funny thing happened to me while I was trying to solve this crime. The little red-headed girl: a funny thing happened to me on the bus ride to school. Vampire stories: a funny thing happened to me as I was trying to die. So it’s a bracket. It’s the plot. It’s the character. Who found it funny? What did they find funny? Was it actually funny?
And that’s the trick of it isn’t it? It isn’t always funny. But we try, don’t we? Even the story itself is making something out of nothing. Like an interrogation or a confession it’s about the end but it’s how you get there that makes it the end. And those moments are a stew of present, past, thoughts, reflections, rumination. It’s how we make those moments funny. It’s how we make the stories we tell ourselves – about ourselves – make us.
I once sat down – like an idiot – to write a vampire story. I pretty much loathe the whole vampire lineage of stories. I tend to think vampires are gradually overtaking pirates as the most over-used romance trope in existence. I blame Bronte’s Heathcliff for this. And Byron. Damn that Byron. Anyway. It’s here to stay, of course, and i wanted to have a go with it. So i started this character and gave him the usual back story and aged him at about 400 years or so and i sat back and looked at this feller and realized he was literally the most incredibly bored, uninspired wreck of a character ever. 400 years and here he was in an age where he couldn’t even be bored without someone thinking it was ‘his curse’. How many fatally colossal mistakes had he made that should have killed him but didn’t? I ended up coming to the conclusion that he wasn’t tortured or dark or anything – he was hysterical. Everything absolutely HAD to be a joke because only laughing it off was sustainable. Anything else was a sure-fire way to watch the sun come up.
A funny thing happened while I watched TV last night – I thought of the characters as they were presented to me – unchanging, cardboard, ignorant, and then I thought about what those actors knew about those characters that we slack-jawed viewers didn’t. And then I thought about what the characters knew about the actors who played them. Then I lost my mind a little bit and wrote a blog about it.