Characterization in Two Acts

"Characters take on life sometimes by luck, but I suspect it is when you can write more entirely out of yourself, inside the skin, heart, mind, and soul of a person who is not yourself, that a character becomes in his own right another human being on the page."
-Eudora Welty

The blank page stares back at me, a mocking challenge. You've got something to say, so say it already. Stop looking at me like that. And you call yourself a writer. So write already. So I oblige, feeling I have little choice in the matter. Start with a character, they have always told me. So that is what I will do. And before I know it, the blank page becomes and empty stage, lit by a dim spotlight, houselights up, curtain waving, expectant, waiting. I find myself in a clunky red seat in the rear of the theater, clipboard in my lap. I scribble a few notes on the back of a few manhandled resumes and Character Possibility #1 is born. Barely looking up, in a voice infused with a practiced apathy, I mutter, "You may begin when you are ready." And just like that, the first rounds of auditions for the character that will be my story have begun.

…Then there is a silence. Perhaps he did not hear me the first time, out of nerves or distracted arrogance. Those theatrical types. He would not be the first or the last to test my patience.

"You may begin when you are ready." Louder! Crisp-pur enuncia-shun… still silence. Perhaps it is a planned silence for dramatic effect? The only dramatic effect it has, planned or otherwise, is my dramatically mounting irritation. No out-of-work character is going to consume my patience before I've had my coffee.

"Well?" I take it black, no sugars, no cream, shot of impatience.

"Well, what do you want me to say?" A response. It shocks me out of my thoughts and my habitual irritability, an ice cold finger on my spine that chases away all mental imagery of a steaming mug. The voice is so thin, so chillingly insubstantial, I am forced to look up from my clipboard for the first time. I regret it immediately as my breath catches and my stomach heaves.

The "person" on the stage is no person at all, but a mass of dark nothingness stretched into a vaguely humanoid profile. No eyes. No face. No features. No expression. Only an appeasing Cheshire Cat grin suspended eerily in the empty space where the face would be. What's the only thing worse than something? Nothing. I master the urge to gag, slap my professional mask back on, and try again.

"Who are you?" I ask my knees, avoiding meeting its black hole of a gaze.

"Who do you want me to be?"

The question is not who but where, and the answer is gone and far away. And how? Fast. "You're not answering my questions. If you still wish to audition, I want you to be whoever the hell you are and tell me a bit about that person."

Again, an empty silence, except now the emptiness is fitting. Then, "Well, you tell me, who am I?"

Fuming, I dig through the pile for its resume in the interests of time and sanity. Finding it is no huge challenge, for it is blank. Of course it is. My initial nausea is gone, replaced by unadulterated irritation.

"Not only do you refuse to answer any of my questions, but your resume is blank. I'm not quite sure what you're doing here, but there are people standing in line for the chance to play this part. And you, sir, are wasting my time."

The pretentious disembodied smile stretches hugely, grotesquely, all white teeth and empty spaces. "Well, what do you want my answers to be? What do you want me to do with your time?"

"You listen to me, buddy. I have already told you that I have no time for your facetiousness. I am holding auditions for a character. Are you or are you not going to audition?"

"Oh, I see," says the grinning mouth. "Do you want me to be a character? Because if you want me to, that's what I will be. Do you want real? I can play real. Sincere? I can do sincere. Now just tell me who you want me to be and that's who I will be." A smile, saccharine sweet. I could gag on such a smile and such words.

"Get out," I choke.

"By the way, that's a very nice sweater you're wearing. I so admire your taste in clothing—

"Stop now," I demand. "Simpering suck-up auditions are down the hall."

But to no avail, I want the silence back. "—and I just know you are the best writer who ever lived and I will be your best character, mimic your every action, praise your every bad quality, obey your every command, be everything you want me to be, created in your own image. I will be…'

I can't take it anymore. I grab the blank resume crumple it into a ball with a shaking hand, until it is as distorted as its owner. "Next! Next!" The "character" dies deformed, vanishes into the desolate stage without ever having truly existed. The Cheshire Cat smile blinks like an old neon light, flickers once, twice, then is gone, in a death that is all at once beautiful, terrible, and necessary. My throat is already raw from yelling the word. My mind already numb from wrapping itself around the word as it casts around for another potential character to bring into the world, praying it will not be another miscarriage. However, the word needs to be said aloud again to save me from the only thing worse than something: nothing. It reverberates in the empty theater, in the chambers of my mind.


And as a door opens in my mind, there is a knock at the stage door.

"Come in. It's unlocked."

My next idea strolls into the room with a creak of the heavy hinges and a polite hello and stands center stage. She is extraordinarily ordinary, a woman of the all-American, former small town prom queen stock with blond hair, brown eyes, an average frame, and a Gap wardrobe. I scan my resume for a name.

"You're Mary Sue Jones?"

"Yes, I am."

"And you are here for the character auditions?"

"Yes, I am."

Well, this is a welcome change from my previous experience already, so I continue. "The demands of this part require that I have a solid idea of who you are as a person. So, please tell me about yourself, Ms. Jones."

She seems to consider the question for a second then responds, brown eyes moving as if reading a cue card. "I am 29 years old, 5 feet 6 inches tall. I weigh 135 pounds. My hair is blond and my eyes are brown. I was born in California. I have two children named John, who is three, and Jane, who is five. I work as a secretary. My husband is a doctor. We live in a house in the suburbs. We are all healthy and happy and love each other." Her voice is pleasant, cheerful, but it never changes tone. Her agreeable smile never flickers, and her expression never changes. I make a note of this on the back of her black and white headshot and press on.

"What do you like to do in your spare time?"

"Well, I like to cook and clean and spend time with my family."

Still, we were skimming the surface, her expression still courteous and controlled. This wasn't getting me anywhere. I skim the "About Me" portion of her resume for inspiration.

"It says here that you met your husband in college. How did you know he was the one?"

Mrs. Mary Sue Jones's brow creases. "I don't know. I just did."

"I mean to say, how did you feel about him when you realized he was special?"

She pauses and looks around as if she believes the answer is written on a seat in the house, frowning more deeply all the while. "Feel? What do you mean?" She seems genuinely confused by the question. "I don't know. I just married him because I did. I was supposed to. That was just what happened in my life."

"So you don't believe you are in control of your own fate?" I can't help but feel morbidly intrigued by her lack of substance. Perhaps a characterization element I could focus on.

"Well, I'm just here because I'm supposed to be here," she explains mechanically. I now notice that her voice has an oddly canned quality. "Where am I anyway?"

So, Mrs. Jones is to be another trial of my patience after all. But I'm determined to hold on to my professional persona this time around, so I take a deep breath and make an attempt at an affable laugh. "If you don't know where you are, then how did you get here?"

The normal-looking woman of clearly abnormal mentality studies me as if I was the one demonstrating mentally subnormal symptoms. And as if it was the most obvious thing since that advent of one plus one, she tells me, "I followed the plot here, of course."

"I'm not sure I understand," I assert, although of course, I understand perfectly. I just don't want to. "What do you mean by that Mrs. Jones?" In their second level of meaning, the words translate roughly to please prove me wrong. A silence falls. "Mrs. Jones?" No answer. Perhaps that is because there is no answer. It hasn't been written yet. "Mrs. Jones?"

Alarmed, I see that she has stopped moving at all, her smile frozen in place as if never hers at all, her body stiff as if posed, her eyes empty and flat as if painted on. I hurdle the rows in front of me and climb the stairs to the stage two, three, four at a time. Please be alive. Please leap out of my vaguest ideas and onto the page as clear character. Please be real, real enough to jump off the pages at me. Please don't be what I think you are. I reach her side, only to find that she has no sides to reach. She is literally as flat as her eyes are metaphorically so, cut from cardboard. Her crooked crayola smile drawn on like an afterthought, she is taped clumsily together at the seams, as if by a five-year-old child playing pretend. Mrs. Jones is not, was never a character at all. I just wanted her to be.

I stand there alone, suspended in time and thought, frozen as she until I am unable to look at my stillborn idea anymore. The face of my failure has brown eyes, a short nose, pale skin, and no soul. I memorize that face as I haul its cardboard cutout of an owner through the back stage door and into the dumpster, even as I am determined to forget it forever. But if I forget what failure looks like, I will not be able to avoid seeing her again, running into her on the street outside the coffee shop, watching her pass my table as I sit with my laptop, and being introduced to her again right then and there.

"Thank you, Mrs. Jones," I murmur wryly to the someone I know can't hear me anymore than I can see her. "Don't call us. We'll call you."