Sunday, July 24, 2016

Characters Are Not People and Other Aaron Sorkin Gems

By Kasie Whitener 

I got sucked into an Aaron Sorkin YouTube video and spent 41 minutes listening to him talk about writing. The time wasn’t wasted. Not only did it inspire this blog post, it helped me get some clarity on writing.

Sorkin’s topic was character and he was very clear that character is two things: intention and obstacle. Once you have those two things, you can write all the other stuff you want to write. The fun stuff: Dialogue. Sex. Violence. Ferris Wheel rides and running down a dock and jumping off the end.

He also asserted that characters and people are not the same thing. We think they are, he said, because they look alike. But they’re not. They have nothing to do with one another.

People do not proceed through life in a series of triumphs and setbacks toward a stable, ever present goal. Life interrupts. People lose interest. Circumstances change.

Characters, however, are free to doggedly pursue their goals and to climb over or destroy or crawl under whatever stands between them and their desired outcome.

Sorkin’s right. (Not surprisingly)

Thinking through his statements, I realized that characters are free because the story began a little while ago and will end a little while hence. For people the story began at birth and will linger until death. For characters, the story is finite. It stretches the length of the pages or the film or the series. It begins and ends. It has dimensions that hold it in. It is bound.

People are unbound. Characters are bound.

This idea of closing off the edges, of determining what really matters to the story, is the work of revision. Though Sorkin suggests the intentions and obstacle are the skeleton of the story, sometimes getting to it means cutting away all of the fun stuff you’ve already layered on.

If you write like me, listening to the voices in your head, then there are dozens of extra scenes and conversations and events included in the draft. Revision is determining which of those scenes are part of 1) intention or 2) obstacle and then cutting the rest of them.

Exposition is a poor excuse for including the scenes that don’t drive action in the book. And a sequel, or a series, is a poor excuse to hang on to characters longer than you should. The character’s story is finite. It has a beginning and an end.

Decide which story you’re telling and tell it. Save the other parts for something else.

Taking Sorkin’s advice to my current work is both invigorating and depressing. How to determine what my main character wants and what stands between him and it is the real work of storytelling.

The words are just a means to an end. The things my character will do to get what he wants is what tells you what kind of person he is.

Not person. Character (vampire). Persons are real. Characters are not.

Got it, Sorkin, thanks.


Buck Brinson said...

It's quite difficult to remove sections, and characters, that have required sweat and tears and numerous rewrites. Feels like you are abandoning a child that you have nurtured. Psychologically you want to defend their presence and keep them. But as you have pointed out, usually they just must go, for they hinder the very effort they were supposed to enhance. So save them and use them in another way or in a different place. My "clippings removed from the story" folder is jammed with these. And sometimes, when I least expect it, they are invaluable to another effort down the line. And sometimes, in the cold light of day, I say Thank God I got rid of that.

Kasie Whitener said...

Hi, Buck.
Thanks for reading and for commenting. I have a "cut" folder, too. When I remove chunks of text to it, I think I'll be able to use it later. Even though I pretty much never do, it makes the cutting easier.

Just Julia said...

I enjoyed this Kasie! I have a "cut folder" too! Sometimes you just can't say all you need to in the 700 words I"m allotted each week for the column! And like you, I almost never go back to it so it wasn't really necessary in the first place! :-)