Understanding the motivation behind a character's actions is not the same as excusing those actions. Enjoying a character's complexity isn't being blind to their faults. You don’t want a perfect character, you want a character that you can love, get mad at, laugh at, cry at, curse at… you want them to feel real.
"Bring something incomprehensible into the world."
- Gilles Deleuze
"Man is not the sum of what he already has, but rather the sum of what he does not yet have, of what he could have."
- Jean-Paul Sartre
Ever noticed how the daily cultivation of the usual routine shrinks space and time to a manageable status quo? And how readily one's quest for predictability, comfort and safety leads to laundry, selfish sex, phone bills, coffee, and grocery lists; and how with the onset of middle-age, the character that you think you are becomes more and more preoccupied with weighing up the relative merits or what you've achieved and what it really means, and if you’re honest with yourself, how you eventually arrive at the realisation that you've probably thrown away more than you’ve managed to save?
I must've been about 22 or 23 when I started mulling over these ideas, spurred along by the death of my parents within a month of each other, an experience that I am certain contributed to a sudden and disconcerting perception that I was much more incomplete than I'd ever imagined I was - a creature of blind habits and fears for whom growing up was ironically turning into a growing smaller. And with the death of my parents I realised that the act of disappearing altogether was a real possibility. More than that, it was was unavoidable. It was an arresting thought, this notion that there would come a time when I was no longer necessary. I could already feel it creeping up on me. The world was going to go on, with or without me, no matter what I did or didn't do. The next generation was already on its way, arriving as it always does, in shoals, and it would eventually fill the space I was filling, just as my generation had filled the one left by those that had come before. Where the hell did they go? The whole thing made me feel extremely anxious. How much more easier life would be if there was a way of transforming the anxiety of our essential finiteness into a moment of inspired vision, and in so doing, find something more sublime, something that built courage, like an angel slapping us in the face, goading us with the possibility of love and selfless dedication. At the time, it didn't seem very likely, but I did take some comfort from the old, native American saying: "Go to the mountaintop and cry for a vision."
Alas, the only revelation I can put my hand on at the moment is the one I had more than a decade ago living in a mobile home park outside Santa Cruz, California, a revelation that dawned so slowly it's probably incorrect to call it a revelation at all. The more we live the closer we come to death. The more we act the further away we travel from birth, from our source, from those mystical origins where forgetting is not possible because there is nothing to forget, or so we think. But that wasn’t the revelation. The revelation came as a growing awareness that to be human is to be perpetually caught in a situation of irony. And - if one is a storyteller - one eventually realises that the same thing applies to dramatic characters.
Fixed within a world bounded by habit and routine, dramatic characters are thrust into action by a perceived need to fight for something that they care about, a fight that carries grave risk and not to mention the real possibility of failure. However, there is a difference between dramatic characters and ourselves. Most of us live lives in which the stakes are seldom if ever high enough to force us to step out of our secure routines. Nailed to the demands of work, home and appetite, we operate within a scenario that rarely rises to the level of a B-grade melodrama. Not that life doesn’t have its moments; it's just that has too few of them, and like any drug, you have to keep taking more and more of it to get the same high. For most of us, the risks are manageable and the rewards, though modest, more preferable to almost anything else we might - even in our wildest imaginations - stake our lives on. And yet there is always in the background a sense of loss, of not being there, of missing something.
The last and most important emotional remnant of the 20th century, codified and immortalised in the words of Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, is an ironic lament for a lost father - a lament that speaks bitterly to something in each of us. Sabotaged by guilt and his feelings of rejection and inadequacy, Willy is unable to overcome his feeling of temporariness, an abiding realisation that he is an under-appreciated, inconsequential after-thought in the account book of history. It is the notion of the Fall that runs through most of Miller's work - the fear and the reality of the disconnection that drives the human heart, that amplifies and gives meaning to its inherent imperfections. Willy is the consummate imperfect character, ill-equipped to live in the present because of what he has been unable to find in his past, the finding of which is a door to the present, and that which is becoming present (not yet). Locked in by his fears as well as by his guilt, he can only live moment to moment, fragment by fragment, where what might be lived loses itself in what is remembered and forgotten - the imperfection of an ontological incompleteness.
No matter how cleverly we disguise our anxieties they bear witness to the imperfect nature of the human heart. To be is to become. To become is not to be. We are a work-in-progress, incomplete, imperfect, unrealised, and by virtue of temporal actions, temporary - a verb more than a noun, an inner quest and an outward odyssey framed by metaphors, like Escher's "Print Gallery"; we make the endless journey round the pictures, retracing our steps in forgetfulness, avoiding but mindful of the space where there are no pictures, where there is no gallery, where there is nothing at all. And like flies in a fly bottle, trapped by a failure of vision, we go round and round and round the moebius loop of a print gallery of our own making, a picture inside a picture inside a picture, forever.
I'm reminded of the time the Aboriginal elder, Nosepeg Tjupurrula, came to Sydney and visited one of the galleries, accompanied by Mick Namararri and Tutama Tjapagarti. Invited by the owner/dealer to come upstairs and have a look at the pictures, the men trudged up the steps and for the next fifteen or twenty minutes Nosepeg paced round the room staring at the art before eventually settling on a large, Magritte-like scene featuring a day-time sky and a night-time street lined with prim, well-lit houses. A row of thoroughly civilised and manicured trees lined the street, each tree encircled by a wrought-iron fence. However, one of the trees was missing, and in its place, also encircled by wright-iron, was a naked Aboriginal man clutching a spear. Nosepeg stared at the man, leaning in very close, then stepping back, shakin ghis head. He called to his friends. Together, they stared at the image. It seemed to make them all very sad. "Tsk Tsk," Nosepeg frowned, "might be kurni poor bugger this one." They looked at it for a very long time, then showed no interest in anything else, apart from the tea. "So," the dealer said at last, "how did you like the work?" Biting off a piece of Arrowroot biscuit, without looking at the dealer, Nosepeg nodded, "Rrrrreeeallllyyyy." Then, after a short pause, turning to the dealer, he added: "But when do we see the pictures?"
Given our native inventiveness, we might very well have succeeded in bricking ourselves into an eternal private fortress had it not been for our love of stories and storytelling, which have as their primary preoccupation the presentation of the veritable situation of irony into which we have fallen. There are plenty of stories that serve to bolster and sustain the illusions and prejudices that entertain us into a sense of belonging, and those stories invariably find their place. However, dramatic stories when fully realised and appreciated are possessed of qualities that do much more than merely entertain. The belonging is not an addition to reality but a multiplication of meaning that enlarges and illuminates our response-ability. Indeed, a major preoccupation of dramatic stories is to imaginatively present and extrapolate upon the nature of the confines within which humanity operates, portraying the actions of characters caught up in a quest for something that they have lost, or striving to overcome some grave problem or obstacle that threatens their well-being or the well-being of those they love. Such stories have a mythic quality because they dramatise modes of thought-in-action within the context of a situation of irony. In doing so, they provide insights into the nature of what it means to be human, of what it means to be in this world, as we conceive it.
One dramatisation of this state of being can be found in the story of the so-called Fall of Man, as enacted by Adam, Eve, the Serpent, and God, in Genesis. In that story, the characters of Adam and Eve, created in God’s image, exist in a place of joyous and carefree plenty. Carefree except for the presence of desire in the human characters, and a primordial wish embodied in the form of a serpent that exists outside of any act of creation.
Two trees grow in the center of the Garden; they stand side-by-side: the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. God, who has given Adam and Eve everything, has granted them the freedom to do whatever they wish, bar one restriction; they must not eat of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. All else is permitted, but not this. This is withheld. However, so long as they honour God’s request, they will live in tranquility among the animals, birds, and plants in the Garden.
The Serpent dwells in the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil – a curious entity that seems to be the only creature God has not created – a primordial force that was there, perhaps, even before Creation Times. The pre-existence of such a creature is memorialised in the myths and legends of most of the world’s indigenous peoples – Warnampi (the Rainbow Serpent) from the Aboriginal cultures of Central Australia is a case in point.
The Serpent that nestles in the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is a wily character; he speaks the secret wish that Eve carries in her heart and tempts her to eat the fruit of the tree by making her feel that there is something God has withheld from her and Adam. He causes her to imagine something more than what she can touch or smell or breathe or understand. Far from having everything they could desire, the Serpent tells her that compared with God she and Adam are bereft. They do not know what God knows, they lack the knowledge that would make them like God, a knowledge that carries power as well as freedom – a freedom that God jealously guards.
Thus tempted, Eve eats the fruit, so that she can “be like God”, and know and experience as much as God. And when she has tasted the fruit she goes to Adam to tell him. And hearing her story, Adam also eats.
The story not only makes a profound comment about human nature, it also reminds us of our essential incompleteness, and how our incompleteness, our finiteness, gives rise to all the anxieties that motivate and sustain action. When God comes to question Adam as to why he has eaten of the fruit when he was explicitly told not to do so, Adam’s desire (or objective) is to escape blame, and his way of doing this – his plan of action – is to blame Eve. Surely this must be the earliest narrative account of the use of method to achieve one’s goal. If it is not his fault then surely he cannot be held responsible for what he has done. Eve. Eve told him to do it. But when God goes to Eve to inquire as to why she has eaten the fruit, despite his instructions not to, Eve also has a plan to escape blame, She blames the Serpent.
Here, in essence, is the fundamental drama of human life. Problem, Plan, Goal. And the stakes are huge. In a bid for freedom, Eve transgresses the commandment of the power from which she has drawn her life and freedom, and yet somehow it is not enough to simply be, to have one’s life in Garden of Eden. What is freedom, after all, unless one has the freedom to choose not to be free? Even choice is an incompatible addition to reality insofar that her disobedience whilst serving to validate the freedom to choose what she wants, negates the freedom she already has. The incompatible addition to reality heralds a situation of irony, which becomes the situation into which they – and their offspring – are eternally condemned in the land east of Eden.
Stories that command our attention and provoke powerful emotional responses are invariably stories that dramatise situations of irony. A survey of any number of dramatic stories throughout human history supports this. Consider the tragedy of the self-appointed detective, Oedipus Rex, who sets out to rescue the city of Thebes a second time by tracking down the murderer of its former king, little knowing that he is murderer, as well as the former king’s son. Or the metaphysical ironies of a place called Chinatown in the film of the same name, where nothing is quite as it seems, and whose dark magic subtly employs goodness in the service of evil.
Dramatic characters act in response to what they don’t have, and often based on incomplete information. Motivated by needs and fears, by wounds that have fragmented or undermined their view of themselves and their relationship with others, dramatic characters strive to re-connect, to bring about a healing, a wholeness that has been lost in the act of living, loving, becoming.
Given the nature of drama, the only characters that lend potency to dramatic action are imperfect characters. The quest of drama is a quest of imperfect characters for some semblance of perfection, or the approximation of some degree of wholeness. The imperfect character is a flawed character, a character that has a credible journey to make owing to an essential lack of something that he/she cares about, whether it be a child stolen by Indians (The Searchers), or a family murdered by the Nazis (The Pawnbroker), or the murder of one’s father (True Grit), or even something as unlikely the quest of “the Dude” to replace a rug “that holds the room together” (The Big Lebowski). Something is missing, or has been lost, or has been taken away, and restitution is required lest the entire world goes pear-shaped.
Imperfect characters are essential to the creation of powerful, emotional scenes and stories. But the imperfection of which I speak has nothing to do with their being superficial or one-dimensional, quite the contrary. The imperfect character is present and known to us by virtue of an essential completeness that includes what-is-becoming-present, not yet. In other words, no character is fully realised until we are able to imaginatively grasp what is unrealised in them. This cannot – for either the writer or the audience - be negotiated solely in terms of the intellect; It is contextual and sub-textual, and is - most profoundly - grasped emotionally, as one enters into those “spaces” that film can neither show nor tell but only suggest. The incompleteness of the characters meets our incompleteness and together – in our relationship with them, something more complete emerges. Their contradictions call out to our contradictions; their imperfections resonate with our own. Together, creatively, we strive to realise a truth that is framed in a story and conveyed by actions funded by the emotional energies that are present. It the exchange we are called upon to enlarge whatever judgements we are inclined to make about who and what they are or might be, as well as who and what we might be.
The writer’s knowledge of the imperfect character cannot inhabit or occupy every facet of the character’s being and becoming. An imperfect character is capable of acting in ways that are totally unexpected and thoroughly surprising to the writer, the audience and the tribe. The imperfect character brings the experience of discovery to the reading and/or viewing of story. It is their imperfections that rescue them from cliché and stereotype, imperfections that form and sustain a freshness that conjures its own, individual order of emotional meaning, an order that we discover and contribute to as we are initiated into the dynamic integrity of each character’s contradictions.
Alas, not all films are driven by the actions of imperfect characters, only the dramatic ones, and then only the ones that eschew formula or find ways of employing it in unexpected ways. The perfectly drawn character, which frequents so many mediocre films, is perfect only in their predictability. They are invariably “just like us”, passive, malleable, and frequently stale to a fault.
Hemingway’s story, “Hills Like White Elephants”, which has been adapted several times to the screen, provides an excellent example of two characters, whose inner contradictions are the source of all the drama and emotional power in the story. The scene is a railway cafe in Spain. Two characters, an older man and a young woman, are waiting for the train to Madrid. Without ever telling us what they are talking about Hemingway manages to create an intense power struggle, not so much out of what is said and one but by what is not said and not done. We take up their exchange halfway into the story.
‘It’s really an awfully simple operation, Jig,’ the man said. ‘It’s not really an operation at all.’
The girl looked at the ground the table legs rested on.
‘I know you wouldn’t mind it, Jig. It’s really not anything. It’s just to let the air in.’
The girl did not say anything.
‘I’ll go with you and I’ll stay with you all the time. They just let the air in and then it’s all perfectly natural.’
‘Then what will we do afterwards?’
‘We’ll be fine afterwards. Just like we were before.’
‘What makes you think so?’
‘That’s the only thing that bothers us. It’s the only thing that’s made us unhappy.’
The girl looked at the bead curtain, put her hand out and took hold of two of the strings of beads.
‘And you think then we’ll be all right and be happy.’
‘I know we will. Yon don’t have to be afraid. I’ve known lots of people that have done it.’
‘So have I,’ said the girl. ‘And afterwards they were all so happy.’
‘Well,’ the man said, ‘if you don’t want to you don’t have to. I wouldn’t have you do it if you didn’t want to. But I know it’s perfectly simple.’
‘And you really want to?’
‘I think it’s the best thing to do. But I don’t want you to do it if you don’t really want to.’
‘And if I do it you’ll be happy and things will be like they were and you’ll love me?’
‘I love you now. You know I love you.’
‘I know. But if I do it, then it will be nice again if I say things are like white elephants, and you’ll like it?’
‘I’ll love it. I love it now but I just can’t think about it. You know how I get when I worry.’
‘If I do it you won’t ever worry?’
‘I won’t worry about that because it’s perfectly simple.’
‘Then I’ll do it. Because I don’t care about me.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I don’t care about me.’
‘Well, I care about you.’
‘Oh, yes. But I don’t care about me. And I’ll do it and then everything will be fine.’
‘I don’t want you to do it if you feel that way.’
The girl stood up and walked to the end of the station. Across, on the other side, were fields of grain and trees along the banks of the Ebro. Far away, beyond the river, were mountains. The shadow of a cloud moved across the field of grain and she saw the river through the trees.
‘And we could have all this,’ she said. ‘And we could have everything and every day we make it more impossible.’
‘What did you say?’
‘I said we could have everything.’
‘We can have everything.’
‘No, we can’t.’
‘We can have the whole world.’
‘No, we can’t.’
‘We can go everywhere.’
‘No, we can’t. It isn’t ours any more.’
‘No, it isn’t. And once they take it away, you never get it back.’
‘But they haven’t taken it away.’
‘We’ll wait and see.’
‘Come on back in the shade,’ he said. ‘You mustn’t feel that way.’
‘I don’t feel any way,’ the girl said. ‘I just know things.’
‘I don’t want you to do anything that you don’t want to do -’
‘Nor that isn’t good for me,’ she said. ‘I know. Could we have another beer?’
‘All right. But you’ve got to realize – ‘
‘I realize,’ the girl said. ‘Can’t we maybe stop talking?’
They sat down at the table and the girl looked across at the hills on the dry side of the valley and the man looked at her and at the table.
‘You’ve got to realize,’ he said, ‘ that I don’t want you to do it if you don’t want to. I’m perfectly willing to go through with it if it means anything to you.’
‘Doesn’t it mean anything to you? We could get along.’
‘Of course it does. But I don’t want anybody but you. I don’t want anyone else. And I know it’s perfectly simple.’
‘Yes, you know it’s perfectly simple.’
‘It’s all right for you to say that, but I do know it.’
‘Would you do something for me now?’
‘I’d do anything for you.’
‘Would you please please please please please please please stop talking?’
He did not say anything but looked at the bags against the wall of the station. There were labels on them from all the hotels where they had spent nights.
‘But I don’t want you to,’ he said, ‘I don’t care anything about it.’
‘I’ll scream,’ the girl siad.
The woman came out through the curtains with two glasses of beer and put them down on the damp felt pads. ‘The train comes in five minutes,’ she said.
‘What did she say?’ asked the girl.
‘That the train is coming in five minutes.’
The girl smiled brightly at the woman, to thank her.
‘I’d better take the bags over to the other side of the station,’ the man said. She smiled at him.
‘All right. Then come back and we’ll finish the beer.’
He picked up the two heavy bags and carried them around the station to the other tracks. He looked up the tracks but could not see the train. Coming back, he walked through the bar-room, where people waiting for the train were drinking. He drank an Anis at the bar and looked at the people. They were all waiting reasonably for the train. He went out through the bead curtain. She was sitting at the table and smiled at him.
‘Do you feel better?’ he asked.
‘I feel fine,’ she said. ‘There’s nothing wrong with me. I feel fine.’
What is dramatic here resides entirely in the story’s subtext and the context in which it occurs. Each character harbours important, incompatible needs, and both characters are aware that there are aspects of their personal agendas that are totally incompatible with the agenda of the other. The underlying incompatibilities are enough - were the characters to insist upon them, and ignore the desires of the other – to wreck the relationship, a outcome that neither one wants. Even so, by the end of the story – again sub-textually – there is more than a hunt that the relationship is already over, or that it is headed that way at least. Neither character is capable of saying what they mean – or even saying what they want - because of their imperfections. And the basis of their imperfections is grounded in the incompatible additions they have made to their own sense of reality; a reality that is merely a bundle of false concepts which they embrace in the name of love, freedom, faithfulness, and generosity to name but a few. In their haste to free themselves and each other of their anxieties, they fail to grasp the nature of the underlying incompatibility of their feelings. No matter how much or how greatly they desire; the fundamental incompatibility of their personal desires and the ways in which these conflict with the desires of the other creates a situation in which one desire is continually cancelling out another. One might just as And so they are trapped by their imperfections, by the imperfections of human nature itself, whether they like it or not. And yet, at the same time, both go on blindly striving to achieve their imperfect goals with imperfect actions and words.
The word persona means “mask”, and the persons of the drama (the dramatis personae) are masked beings. In the time of Sophocles, the use of masks was a literal embodiment of the personality of the character. In contemporary film drama and indeed for as long as film story telling has been going on, the mask takes on many forms and meanings, from literal disguise to those psychological and mythical expressions of personality that we find in characters as diverse as John Foster Kane (in Citizen Kane) and Eve Harrington (in All About Eve). In the masks that a character wears or affects, whether physical, psychological, spiritual, political, mythical, cultural or societal, including class, the seeds of imperfection as well as emotional energy are sown. It is from these seeds that character-driven drama develops and grows. Indeed, it is the masks that make the imperfections possible, and it is a character’s imperfections that can rescue them from cliché, from stereotype. It is the characters’ imperfections in a character-based drama that are the source of its freshness: the unexpected shortcomings, the ironic selflessness that produces unexpected consequences, the unanticipated choice that forces the character – as well as the audience - to reassess what that character really wants and why they want it. Their imperfections are what make them both original and utterly familiar to us. In fact, their imperfections are the source of their dramatic potency. Without these – without the contradictions and incompatibilities – drama loses its ability to draw its audience into the emotional lives not only of the characters but of the story itself. Without contradiction there is no subtext, and without that there can be no creative participation by the audience in the lives and fortunes of the life that goes on in front of and behind the masks.
"The reader who is interested in liking characters is just not going to be my kind of a reader. If they can’t like a character because that character has a bunch of flaws or they’re doing something wrong, what does that say? Who are these people? Forget about characters in books. If I didn’t like humans in general, and I didn’t like them because they had flaws, or were in trouble, then I wouldn’t have any friends. Where are these mythically perfect people?"
- Paula Bomer