Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Dream Joss

I had the most bizarre dream last night. In it, I attended a seminar given by Joss Whedon, the creator of one of the best televisions shows ever aired, Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

In this dream, I put on my very best professional outfit (an outfit that I don't actually own, proving how creative my dreams are). I got to the presentation venue early so as to nab a great seat. And I listened intently to hear what pearls of wisdom Joss would impart.

However, I'm not so creative in my dreams as to actually invent an entire seminar given by Joss Whedon that would involve any real insight I don't already have. My out for this particular problem was having dream-Joss tell us all a bunch of stuff that he'd already written in a book I'd read (again, another invention of my dream-self since no such book exists that I know of), so none of it was really new but rather a rehashing of old material.

Naturally, my dream-self wasn't happy with such short-cutting and proceeded to harass dream-Joss during a break. I cornered him with the chicken-and-egg dilemma: does character archetype dictate actions or do actions define character archetype? And just because you know a particular character's archetype, how do you necessarily know what he or she would do in any given situation if you, yourself, are not that type? I even went so far as to give him the example of a person getting on a bus without exact bus fair - only $.40 when fair was $.50 - and how would he or she react differently based on different archetypes. I don't recall Joss's answer. I think this is when I woke up.

But that question has stuck with me. When creating a character, which comes first? Do you determine that your hero is the Bad Boy archetype, then base all of his actions and reactions on what you imagine the Bad Boy would do in any given situation? Which is kind of hard to do if you a) aren't a Bad Boy yourself or b) don't know a Bad Boy to study 0r c) the only Bad Boys you've ever come across are caricatures from television shows or movies.

Or, do you determine how your character acts and reacts throughout the story, then use this as evidence to say "Wow, my hero is a Bad Boy. Who knew?" But, again, you must have the ability to make your character act in ways that aren't necessarily in line with your own sensibilities. That, surely, is the hardest part about being a writer.

When I'm creating a new character, I fill out a fairly extensive bio sheet for him or her. Usually, I've got an overall sense of what kind of archetype I want this person to be; the Bad Boy, the Spunky Kid, the Waif, the Chief. But I also have little tidbits of information about them that have nothing to do with their archetype. Pieces of their history that give them motivation to act the way they do. Certain likes or dislikes. Expressions they use, or regions of the country where they are from.

But sometimes I fall into the trap of answering bio questions based on archetype. What kind of music would a Bad Boy listen to? What would the favorite food be of a Seductress? Would the Crusader prefer wearing jeans and sweatshirts or cargo pants and hemp tunics? Because many times, my immediate answer to bio questions have to do with my own personal tastes and preferences. It's really hard to break away from these, to imagine why in the world anyone would prefer Jazz over classic rock or would choose to eat Sushi when he could pick Chinese food. It's hard to give characters likes that aren't in line with my own.

Not only is it hard, what tends to happen is that I ignore the facets of my characters that are so in opposition with what I hold dear. I allow them to have likes that differ from my own, but then I don't incorporate those differences in any significant way because I have no interest to explore them myself. So my heroine loves to go to blues bars. I don't. And I have no desire to go to one to see what it would be like. So it shows up on her bio sheet and nowhere else. What was the point, then?

All of this isn't really going anywhere, necessarily. Sometimes my dreams are so vivid, I need to take time in the waking world to work through them and figure out what they are trying to tell me. I think, in this instance, dream-Joss was getting me to think about ways to create more three-dimensional characters. To tell me that you can't rely on one method over another but rather need to combine several in the hopes of ending up with someone multi-layered and unique. Otherwise, you end up with a Bad Boy just like all of the thousands of other Bad Boys already out there.


Larissa said...

Joss is mine! MINE! (Read that as having an insane, screeching tone.) Stop dreaming about him! *g*

I feel better now. ;)

Lynn M said...

LOL! It's okay, Larissa, you can have him. As long as you let me borrow him so he can brain-dump all of his brilliance for me and I can suck it up like a sponge.

And while you're keeping him company, could you maybe convince him to write a few more Buffy episodes, to, you know, tie up some loose ends?