Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Born Again

There's an old saying that "everything old is new again".

On his blog, Charles Gramlich wrote a posting about characterization, noting that Morrell argued it was harder to write stories around types than around three dimensional characters. Charles, of course, took the opposing point of view.

This made me stop and consider, which of course led me to a totally different topic: why should the two be mutually exclusive? Why can't one be the foundation for the other?I would argue that types are actually a great foundation or starting point for development of a memorable three dimensional character.

As some people may have seen, I enjoy taking something old and rethinking it. I have written and posted on this blog retellings of The Frog Prince and King O The Cats, both timeworn fairy tales. Why not? Why not take a stereotypic or one-dimensional figure, such as Robert Howard's Conan and use the character as the jumping off point for something new. Why not reinvent the character?

Some will argue that to do so is to steal someone else's ideas. I don't agree. Recently I was watching Showtime's "ROME" and thought: What if I retold the story of Julius Caesar by making him a corporate figure who has just succeeded in clawing his way to success over the body of Pompey. Why not reinvent Brutus as a hungry vice president, formerly loyal to Pompey, perhaps even related to the fallen CEO through marriage?

Borrowing characters and reinventing them is done all the time. Look at "Jaws" by Robert Benchley. The great white shark and Peter Quint are a reinvention of Moby Dick and Ahab. And I hate to pull this motheaten example from the high school curriculum, but how many of you had to sit through "West Side Story" as a retelling of "Romeo and Juliet"? What about "Apocalypse Now", Coppola's masterpiece of Vietnam? It's a brilliant reinvention of Joseph Conrads' "Heart of Darkness". Give me a few more minutes and I could come up with at least a dozen more examples.

There are only so many stories that can be told by a writer. One should find inspiration where they can? I know Charles was thinking of something entirely different when he wrote his posting, but one thought leads to another and to another and here I am. I completely agree that three dimensional characters are the stuff of classics, but the type, or the archtype, has a place. And at the heart of all three dimensional characters, peel away enough flesh and bone and you'll find the type anyway.

14 comments:

SQT said...

Sometimes I feel as if authors are trying too hard to find something new. I read a lot of fantasy and sometimes the stuff they come up with is just a little too far afield.

I think it's absolutely okay to base a character on a type or even another well known character. The author can always add to the character's personality and change the story up to make it fresh.

avery said...

I guess it's like Gregory MacGuire, how he made up the history of Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West. That was a terrific book that happened to be based on someone else's work.

Sqt's right, everything has already been told. There are no new ideas anymore, just fresh perspectives. It's those new views that can breathe fresh life into even the most rigid 1-D character.

Lucas Pederson said...

This may or may not fit into the subject but,you know, out of all the slasher flicks: Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween; I think Halloween has bot to be the better of them. A Nightmare will always be a close second, but I liked the Halloween movies. Just something about them that grabs my attention, as does A Nightmare.
I saw Rob Zombie has made his version of Halloween. I saw the trailer when I went to see the movie/movies, Grindhouse. Rob Zombie looks to be telling us more about the infamous Micheal Myers. More detail why he became what he became sort of deal. Pretty cool.

Stewart Sternberg said...

SQT, I think anything can be fresh if approached with a fresh perspective. Avery's example of WICKED is wonderful. Twisting what is known and refashioning it can give extra miles to anything. Hey, Shakespeare did that. Many of his plays are based on other works.

Lucas, if you examine why Michael Myers is the most frightening of the three, I would bet it is because he the one with whom you are able to identify with the most easily. A young boy in a quiet surburban neighborhood, donning a mask that in some way represents the anonymity of his presence and his struggle for identity. Compare that with Kruger, a pedophile who seems to just indulge in evil for the sake of sadomasochistic. Micheal Myer never laughs, never shows emotion, but who he is and what he is stands reflected in the responses of the people around him.

Okay...well...I'll just go over here and give my dead rat CPR

Lucas Pederson said...

Stewart, are you calling me a young boy that wears a mask and goes around killing people in a small town? You saying I don't show any emotion, and that I'm struggling to find an identity for myself? Is that what your saying?
:-)........
Wait a tic...
Are you calling me a pedophilic maniac too?
Now dem fightin words mister!
Okay, I have no idea what I'm talking about here.
In a sense, I think you're right. Although I hope I show more emotion than Myers and just becasue I'm 24 doesn't exactly make me a young boy, does it? Well, to you and others maybe, but damn it, it's not like I'm twelve! :-)
There's just something spooky about the Micheal Myers character that I think is great. Freddy scares me too, but on an entirely different plain.
And what's with the dead rat?

Reflecting Pool said...

I like your take on this. A fresh character is one that is unexpected in his role and well written enough to be believable in the role.

avery said...

I always liked Nightmare better. Freddy was funny. Plus, I used to always wonder why someone didn't just chuck a knife at Michael, as slow as he walks. Then Jamie Lee Curtis did it in the last movie and they all bounced off handle-first. Kind of shot down my whole 'defending-myself-against-Michael-Meyers ' scenario. Not that I'm scared of him. 'Cause I'm not.

Stewart Sternberg said...

You know, Avery, I wonder..If you were a woman, which of the terrible trio would you most like to date? Sort of a Dating Game for serial killers.

"Okay, Pam. We've put your suitors behind a screen so that you can't see them. Bachelors, go ahead and introduce yourselves.."

Jason: (no sound)
Michael: (no sound)
Freddy: "Hel-l-l-l-l-l-o Pam!!!"

Donnetta Lee said...

Hi, Stewart! I think you make a very good point about the archetypes. Of course, Jung might turn over in his grave if he faced Michael Myers. Or not. But I think there is certainly something to be said about peeling those layers away--yep, you are left with the archetype. And so it is repeated with various trappings throughout time. Kinda takes us back to the old--boy meets girl scenario,doesn't it? Or maybe--man against man, man against himself, etc. Oh, you get the idea!
Donnetta

Stewart Sternberg said...

Donetta, I think peeling away the layers and letting the reader discover the subtlety of character development is what makes for good literature. Not a lot of subtlety in writing type..that limits the author. Perhaps that was what Morrell was driving at in his interview with Charles.

Anonymous said...

p.s. "Jaws" was written by Peter Benchley, not Robert. Robert was the famed humorist who died in 1945. His son was Nathaniel, and his son...was Peter, of fin-flapping fame.

Stewart Sternberg said...

Thanks anonymous. My face is red.

Charles Gramlich said...

I think you're right. The two don't have to be exclusive. Although they too often are, it seems. I think we all think types when we were first create a character, but then we hope it develops more, and we work for that.

avery said...

Okay Stewart, I'll play. As funny as Freddy is, I think he'd start getting on my nerves with those one-liners after a while. That leaves to two strong, silent types. There's no telling what's behind the masks, but, Jason did spend a good deal of time submerged in a lake, so I'm guessing he's not looking so hot, anymore. Besides, he most likely smells like marsh mud.

So, the winner is (by default):

Michael Meyers! Ding, ding ding!

At least it wasn't Mike Meyers.