Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Life Imitates Stanislavski

The Art of Character: Creating Memorable Characters for Fiction, Film, and TV, by David Corbett, may be, and certainly is, a book for actors and writers to consider reading, but this particular excerpt about the founder of "method" acting gives us all, creative or not, a point to ponder.

One of Constantin Stanislavski's key innovations was recognizing the central role of desire in our depiction of the human condition. The fundamental truth to characterization, he asserted, is that characters want something, and the deeper the want, the more compelling the drama.

Desire is the crucible that forges character because it intrinsically creates conflict. If we want nothing, then nothing stands in our way. This may lead to a life of monastic enlightenment — or habitual evasion — but it's thin gruel for drama. By giving the character a deep-seated need or want, you automatically put her at odds with something or someone, for the world is not designed to gratify our desires.

And a profound, unquenchable longing almost always forces us to do things we normally would never imagine ourselves doing -- even things seemingly contradictory to our natures. When confronted with overwhelming obstacles of a kind we've never faced before in pursuit of something we cannot live without, we are forced to change, to adapt, to dig deeper into ourselves for some insight, passion, or strength that will give us the power we need to keep going.

In a sense, Stanislavski's desire took the place of Aristotle's telos (meaning an end or purpose). Where once man lived to fulfill his basic purpose, he now, in Stanislavski's interpretation, lived to fulfill his most basic ambition, craving, or need.

Peter Brooks put it somewhat differently in his book Reading for Plot, remarking that, in the absence of desires, stories remain stillborn. This reflects a simple truth: Desire puts a character in motion.

There may be no more important question to ask of a character than: What does she want in this scene, in this chapter, in this story? Thinking more globally, one should ask what she wants from her life — has she achieved it? If not, why not? If so, what now?

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Truth is...If we want to keep the storyline of our own lives from being dead in the water, perhaps we could all benefit from asking ourselves the questions in the last paragraph. 

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