Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Men of Mystery

I may not have been too terribly upset with the actual writing on this resurrected project, but then it occurred to me that I was showing signs of a bad habit that I think I've broken since I wrote this thing -- having people talk about stuff instead of doing it. I had pages and pages of dialogue with no action -- really, lots of "sequel" with people talking about what to do next and next to no "scene" with them actually doing anything. There were moments when I wondered if it would have just been faster to scrap everything and start fresh, but then I reminded myself that I'm struggling to figure out what should happen either way, whether I'm starting from scratch or revising what I have, so I may as well use the pieces I have that still work. No matter where this goes, it's turning out to be a good analytical exercise, and while it is discouraging to see how clueless I could be, it's reassuring that I noticed this now, which means I've learned and grown, so yay.

I've been reading some of the descriptions for potential new TV series, as the networks announce their pilots and fall seasons, and it's occurred to me that there's a character trait that comes up often in these descriptions that sounds good in that context but that seldom works as a defining character trait in practice. In fact, I now find myself rolling my eyes at any character who is described primarily as "mysterious."

That's because "mysterious" mostly means that we don't know much about him, and that comes dangerously close to looking like a boring character who isn't well-defined -- do we not know much about this person because he's mysterious, or do we not know much about him because there isn't anything more to know? Either way, if we don't know anything about him, we can't care much about him. But then if the character actually acts mysterious so that it's obvious he has something to hide, that's also a problem. It seems to me that someone who really is mysterious, who has a deep, dark secret or something to hide, wouldn't actually act mysterious. Acting mysterious -- pointedly refusing to answer personal questions, going by an initial or an obvious fake name and not using your real name, looking shifty and suspicious when things get personal -- is pretty much like wearing a giant yellow button that says "Ask Me About My Mysterious Past!" (I'm looking at you, Thirteen on House -- you weren't being mysterious. You were practically begging for people to investigate you.)

Someone who really has something to hide would act in such a way that people wouldn't want to know more about him. He might be a bit of an obnoxious jerk so that people wouldn't care much about who he is (another good reason for the Jerk with Layers character type). He might adhere to a stereotype so people would assume they already know everything that matters about him. He might bombard people with way too much information about himself so that no one would want to ask him further questions -- and it would take someone who's paying attention to notice that there's nothing of real substance in all that information he gives.

In other words, any character who really has a mystery isn't going to look like a character with a mystery. I think one of the best examples of a TV series pulling this off was with Dr. Bashir on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. He acted like the stereotypical obnoxious recent med school graduate who thinks he knows everything, and was prone to going on and on about papers he'd written or research he'd done. Nobody would have dared ask him about himself because that would have meant an hour-long discourse. He was so eager to talk about himself that everyone felt they knew everything there was to know. And then late in the series' run, we found out that he was actually hiding a huge secret about himself. His very existence was illegal, and he had to hide what he was. I don't think it was planned from the start, but I don't think it would have worked if it had been because they'd have been too tempted to sneak in hints or show him acting suspicious or mysterious. As it was, the character was a great example of the way someone who had something to hide and was smart enough to know how to hide it might behave, so the revelation worked for me. Come to think of it, they used that trait earlier in the series when he was replaced by a Changeling for months and no one noticed. In general, if you're going to pull out something big, huge and hidden about a character and the audience sees it coming because the character acted like someone with a secret, then you're doing it wrong.

But what do you do if you want your character to appear mysterious to the audience without the character looking too incompetent to keep a secret? I think the main thing is that you can't define the character by his mysterious nature. There has to be some other defining characteristic to keep him from looking boring, with the mysterious part layered around it. The series Remington Steele was built around the idea that a man with a mysterious past stepped into the role of a fictional company figurehead, but the character of "Steele" wasn't defined by his mystery. He was mostly defined by his charm, his ability to talk his way into and out of any situation. No one knew anything about who he was (not even his real name until almost the end of the series), but he was glib enough to deflect any questions (and didn't it come out that he didn't even know who he really was until near the end?).

You could also use point-of-view so that the audience/readers are in on information that other characters aren't or so that different characters all get different pieces of information and the audience/readers can put together those pieces and see that something doesn't quite add up. The character might be different inside his head than he is with the world, or he may drop his guard more with some people than with others. I think there might also be traits that could show up in someone who is feeling the weight of hiding things. He might be nosy about other people and suspicious by nature if he's projecting the fact that he has something to hide on other people -- if he's hiding something big and no one knows, then what is everyone else hiding? He might be good at spotting other people's secrets, since he knows where to look. Or he could go the opposite way and be obsessed with privacy in general, going with the Golden Rule approach with the hope that if he didn't dig into other people's lives, no one would dig into his. He might have definite boundaries, like where he's friendly and outgoing at work, goes to lunch with co-workers or even out for drinks after work, but doesn't at all blur the lines between personal and professional or incorporate his colleagues into his off-duty hours.

I'll have to think more about this. I've hinted that there's a mystery about Owen, but I don't think he's all that mysterious because even he doesn't know what it is, so he has nothing to hide. That's certainly not his defining trait, and the fact that he's pretty open about not knowing his origins may mean that others don't feel all that compelled to investigate. Until things got crazy (the period before the books start), I imagine he mostly just kept his head down and did his work, so he was the kind of guy no one cared to know more about.

And now I guess I've given away all my mysterious secrets. If I ever write a chatty character who's always talking about himself, you'll know that he's probably hiding some deep, dark secret.

1 comment:

Carradee said...

On the Deep Space Nine tack, Bashir often hung out with Garak--the Cardassian who nobody was quite sure who he was and what he was doing on the station. Everyone knew he had/was a mystery, but people knew they'd never get the truth out of him and live. (Take that episode--was it "The Wire"?--when he gave Bashir a few conflicting stories for why he was expelled from the Order.)

Seems to me like those two demonstrate two methods of handling "men of mystery."