Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Deconstructing Humphrey

A handful of bookkeeping notes first.

There've been two additions to the right side of the page. One is Virginia on the state nomination list for Life As We Knew It. As always, I am pleased and delighted.

I also added a visit to the West Hartford, Ct. library on my upcoming dates. They will be using LAWKI in their summer reading program, and were nice enough to ask me there to talk with the kids.

Speaking of kids, I had an excellent time on Monday, doing a library/afterschool visit in Goshen, NY (one town down from where I live). I read the Yankee stadium scene from the dead and the gone and didn't giggle once (I gave it a test run on Sunday, and was accosted by giggles).

Between spring cleaning, Passover, and my upcoming trip to Maine, I may not blog until the end of next week. Of course if something fabulous happens between now and Monday, I may slip something in, but my current plans don't include blogging (or anything fabulous happening). For any of you for whom this wish is appropriate, have a great Passover.

Now onto literature. Yesterday, my friend Pat called. I hadn't spoken to her for a while, so I let her tell me everything that was going on her life before I started my monologue. She seemed satisfied with the 3 minutes 12 seconds I allotted her (I choose my friends wisely). Then after I completed my aging mother rant and meaningless gossip about people Pat hardly remembers, I told her about the third book and Dawn's comments.

Pat and I had an excellent talk (I wish you'd been on the extension so you could have heard it). We talked about Casablanca.

I pointed out that without the flashback to Paris, the audience would have no reason to care about Rick, who is portrayed as unfeeling and not very nice. I realized that even Bogart's movie persona at that point wouldn't have helped, since until Casablanca, as he moved his way upward at the Warner Bros. lot, he mostly played bad people. Lots of dead in the end, name below the title, gangsters.

Pat said that Rick wasn't that bad, because he'd been nice to a woman who was desperate and willing to trade sexual favors to save her husband and herself. I said the only part of that scene I remembered was Rick telling the woman, "Go back to Bulgaria," and since Bulgaria was the only country under Nazi rule that didn't lose any of its Jews, this might not have been such a bad suggestion. Pat didn't remember the line about Bulgaria and I didn't remember Rick being nice, but either way, this is a very minor part of the movie.

Pat said the other reason people care about Rick is that Rick cares about people. He clearly likes Sam and the rest of the Rick's Place waitstaff (one of whom is played by Marcel Dalio, who features in the absolutely most difficult trivia question I ever invented). I said that it wasn't important whether Rick liked them, what mattered was that they liked Rick. Showing that someone is liked is one of the great cheap and easy tricks to making a character likable, just as showing that someone is loved is one of the great cheap and easy tricks to making a character lovable. I used the latter trick once with a character I hadn't even liked. I gave her a boyfriend I loved, and by golly, I ended up loving her as well.

Pat also asked if the third book (whose working title is The World We Live In) was going to start with the deathmatch, and I said yes, that I wanted the book to start with pure testosterone, to compensate for the estrogen that was bound to slip in later. Which means, of course, that I can't start with a scene that shows Luke being liked. I also refuse to have a flashback; no cheap and easy trips to Paris for my anti-hero.

But the point Pat made (when I let her) was a valid one. She said I had to show Luke doing something that would make him sympathetic to the readers. And she's right. I've been figuring I could get away with a lot because the book starts with Luke in an underdog situation, and then shows him as a fugitive. America loves its underdogs and loves its fugitives (one of the more endearing things about Americans is we don't much care whether the fugitive is guilty or innocent; we root for him regardless, like D.B. Cooper).

So while I dust and mop and vacuum, I'll concentrate on things Luke can do in the early sections of the book that will show him as having a core of decency. Standing up to a bully. Saving a puppy. Reading a book. There's got to be something that will feel natural and will build up audience sympathy, so that when Luke does various cold and heartless things, the readers will know that deep down Luke is someone they're right to care about. Not a saint, not a sinner, just a survivor.

That, and spring cleaning and Passover and Maine, should definitely keep me busy for a week!


Marci said...

I seriously hate to mention this, but the hero of the first Star Wars movie is Luke and there will be some who will see this as derivative, even though it isn't. Might want to rethink the name. I realize it was also the name of The Rifleman and is a book in the New Testament, but the audience for the book is going to know Luke the Star Wars character and make a connection somehow. Especially with a Deathmatch.

Violet said...

Regarding Rick and the "Go back to Bulgaria" scene: He's somewhat dismissive-sounding to her face, but I recall him later on finagling something at the gambling tables so this woman and her husband would "accidentally" get the money needed for the visa fees/bribe. That seemed perfectly in character with a guy who keeps declaring "I stick my neck out for no one" while actually stepping up to the plate for them, so maybe something else to keep in mind re Luke. (And if he actually is a younger version of Casablanca's Rick then I like him already.)

Anonymous said...

I agree with violet 100%. Rick's gambling table scheme says it all.

I have NEVER understood the need for the Paris flashback.

Susan Beth Pfeffer said...

Hi Marci and Violet and Anonymous-

I'm afraid Luke's name is going to stay Luke. I spent a lot of time reading the thousand most popular boy names for 2006, and none of them worked for me the way Luke did. I considered Zach for a bit, but couldn't see myself typing all those Zs. So Luke it is.

I probably remember the Go back to Bulgaria line better than I remember Rick's act of protection because it's such a great line, just comedic enough (in a way that Go back to Yugoslavia wouldn't have been)to show off Rick's callousness. But by the movie's end, Rick's done things far more generous (like sending Ilsa off with Victor) so his kindness to the young woman is more of a throwaway (and apparently I threw it away).

Warner Bros. loved their flashbacks, almost as much as they loved their rain machine. I give special credit to any Warner Bros. movie that doesn't have a flashback. They are such an easy narrative device, especially, as in Casablanca, where you want to establish Bogart as a romantic, sensitive lead (as opposed to his Sam Spade).

Meanwhile, I woke up this morning and decided to write The World We Live In in third person omniscient. I think that's the right term- I want to show the action from many different characters' viewpoints. I've been hearing dialogue that way, things Miranda's said (for example) that there's no reason for Luke to hear.

If I use that approach, then Luke becomes one of many characters, and while the story is still essentially his, the readers will have other characters to care about, and will see Luke through their eyes as well. It also works nicely for the LAWKI/d&g characters, since readers will really see how they are, as they react to Luke. And it can set Rachel up as an alternative main character, which increases the estrogen, while not overwhelming the book with same.

I'll play with the concept some more while I clean the living room, etc. and on the trip to Maine. But for the moment, I think it's the best way to go.