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10/08/2006: Nothing But De Tooth
I have just finished reading the oddest little novel. "As She Climbed Across the Table" by Jonathan Lethem. It's a nifty little scifi/philosophy/humor/physics love story. You know the kind.
I want to call your attention to the following character introduction: "Georges De Tooth was our resident deconstructionist, a tiny, horse-faced man who dressed in impeccable pinstriped suits, spoke in a feigned poly-European accent, and wore an overlarge, ill-fitting, white-blond wig." Holy cow. Talk about painting a picture. What I love about this description is that other than the information about field of study, all these things are observable. And yet, they tell you so much about his nontangible qualities.
This man clearly cares deeply about appearances, about hiding his true self. But he also isn't interested in appearing especially normal. He wants to wear a metaphorical mask, but an unconventional one. And, since the accent is apparently transparent, and the wig is ill-fitting, this man, who is all about the masking, clearly isn't very good at it. Even before he speaks, I expect him to be pedantic, defensive and self-consciously outrageous in his opinions. But how cool is it that I never had to read any of those words? (I do wish, however, that I knew how the wig was styled. I keep imagining a page boy, but I don't know. I feel like it would help me understand Georges even better. Don't you think?)
So I've started to think about how details in a character description can be better than piling on the abstract adjectives. A breathless woman in high-top sneakers, a twitchy boy with his shirt buttoned all the way up, an old man with a bandaged ear, a girl who giggles and tugs her sleeves over her hands, a college boy with hair over his eyes, a man with a thin smile and James Bonds' wardrobe… all these details make us start inferring things about the characters, without ever having to write words like "nervous," "dangerous" or "shy."
I've been thinking a lot about this lately, because I'm writing a pilot. Those of you writing spec pilots are probably thinking about it, too. How much should we describe these new characters were creating?
Out of curiosity, I looked at the Twin Peaks pilot script. Some amazing characters were born there after all, I was curious about how they were introduced. I found that some were barely described at all. The series lead is merely:
FBI field agent DALE COOPER, mid-thirties, handsome in an unremarkable way.
Or course, he immediately begins talking into his tape recorder, making his character unique instantly through dialogue. Other characters are given more of a picture:
JAMES HURLEY, a handsome, clean-cut young man with intelligent eyes, in a black leather jacket, seated in the back corner, his motorcycle boots up on the back of the chair in front of him.
GIOVANNA PACKARD, wearing a coat over a brocade bathrobe, her beautiful hair and make-up in stark contrast to the harsh surroundings...
AUDREY HORNE, a delicate, Botticelli-like beauty, with a halo of wavy black hair and dark, haunted eyes.
Look at the last one. When you look at the literal meaning of this apparently physical description, all he's really saying is that he hopes to cast a dark-haired, dark-eyed girl. But the poetry of the description tells the reader a lot more than that. Does she sound peppy or languid? Vapid or deep?
Scripts are a unique form of literature. Even a spec script has to behave as if the roles in it will be inhabited by actors. So you can't create every mole on their shin, as a novelist can. But that doesn't mean you can't find clever, poetic, visual ways to start building their personalities in the readers' minds. I'm going to try it in my pilot. You can give it a try in yours, too.
Lunch: A veggie sandwich on a crusty Italian roll from Bay Cities Imports in Santa Monica. Wonderful!