Specific players, specific roles

It’s been almost thirty years since cartoonist Ruben Bolling published perhaps my favorite single-panel comic ever, which he called “Human Morality Made Simple.” It was based on “one simple rule: THE MORE A LIVING BEING IS LIKE YOU, THE NICER YOU MUST BE TO IT.”

The form of the comic is wonderfully elegant. It’s set up as a table, with nine rows. “Immediate Family Members” are at the top, “Outsiders” partway down, “Other Mammals” below that, and “Plants” at the bottom. The columns are the four ethical questions:

  • Should you help it?
  • Can you harm it?
  • Can you kill it?
  • Can you eat it?

I was reminded of this comic through an email conversation that I had with Aimee over the weekend. She forwarded me an essay from LitHub by Brandon Taylor, called “There is No Secret to Writing About People Who Do Not Look Like You.” It raised all kinds of questions for me about the different relationships I have—and should have—with characters who reside at multiple layers of my stories.

So as an experiment, I spent a couple of hours today going through the manuscript I’d just completed last month, to see if I could identify the nested circles of characters in the book. It turned out to be a fairly easy task.

At the very center, there’s high school senior David Coogan, the protagonist. The book is about him, and because the narration is first person, the book is also by him, and he inhabits every single one of the 240 or so pages. Wrapped immediately around him is his best friend-turned-girlfriend, Gwen Cooper (they met in 9th grade because they were in alphabetical order in homeroom). Both of them are driven endlessly by their demanding parents, and their mutual understanding of the sacrifices they make for excellence is at the heart of the book’s themes. Although she appears on probably half of the pages, she inhabits every cell of the book. They would be played by the two lead actors of the movie.

Three different actors would qualify for nominations for Best Supporting: David’s father, who appears about 20% of the time; his mother, who appears about 10% of the time but plays a crucial role in Gwen and David’s understanding of their lives; and their friend Park Min-Seo (or “Miss Park”), also at about 10% of the scenes but having an outsized impact in freeing themselves from family. 

So those are the five characters you’d most remember. There are another five who play meaningful and recurring roles in redirecting the action of the book, who act as the external forces who shape different moments.

Aside from those, there are 28 other speaking parts, characters with personalities strong enough to color one or two scenes. Another 42 non-speaking actors: mostly competition opponents, or the managers of some setting.

That’s 80 people to cast with some degree of intention and care. Surrounding all of them… the crowd scenes, the hundreds of people at a Las Vegas national tournament or hanging around outside the tournament in the casino, the thousands of other kids in the high school. Some of those are just wallpaper, a photo drape behind the characters, but sometimes they carry emotional gravity as well, their collective energy and interests usually as a contrast to the characters at the center.

What do I owe to all of these layered lives? Bolling’s questions—Should I help it? Can I harm it? Can I kill it? Can I eat it?—are a starting point, but they’re not quite right. Here’s some alternatives that I’m not fully convinced by yet, but that feel like decent starting points.

Do I love them? Do I want the best for them? Do I understand them well enough to know parts of their story that wouldn’t make it into the book? Would I be able to speculate about their future beyond this story’s boundaries?

Would I recognize miscasting? That is, if an actor tried out for the role, would I know by personality and attitude whether they matched my thoughts about the character? Or would I only know by demographic characteristics, by age or sex or ethnicity? Or would it not matter much at all?

Do they have names? The important people in a story usually have multiple names, because they interact with different people. So David’s father is sometimes Dad (in dialogue), sometimes “my father” (when addressing the reader), sometimes Mr. Coogan (when Gwen talks to him), sometimes Gary (when Gwen’s father talks to him). Other characters only have names as required to suggest the specificity of the place or time or setting.

Are their motives personal or situational? Are they complicated or confusing people, or are their actions fully understood because of the role they play in the setting?

Do they have the power to change others’ thinking? Do they have enough personality or moral force to ask our central characters to reconsider some idea? Or do they only interact in a functional way?

So here’s my current version of Bolling’s simple moral test as applied to fiction. I’ll have more to say about this soon, and I’m sure it’ll change some. (If you’d like to help me change it, tell me what you do and don’t feel is right.)

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