Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman
In The Devil’s Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce defines “edible” as meaning “good to eat and wholesome to digest, as a worm to a toad, a toad to a snake, a snake to a pig, a pig to a man, and a man to a worm.”
His humor’s not for everyone, but it does, in this case, at least, suggest something important to writers, whether of horror fiction or otherwise: We are either who we would have ourselves be or what others would have us be. To a hungry lion, we are perhaps viewed as food. However, were we armed with a spear (or, better yet, a rifle), the king of the beasts himself might become our prey. To Christians (in the old days, at least) and to Moslems (even today, in some cases) alike, those who were not of the faith were pagans or infidels, although, from their viewpoint, the pagans and infidels, not the Christians and the Moslems exercised the one and only true faith. To Republicans, Democrats are the opposition; to Democrats, it’s the other way around. We either define ourselves or we are defined by another.
We may also regard ourselves one way while another regards us in a completely different manner. A man may consider himself to be a suitor, whereas, from the perspective of the object of his affections, he may be considered a stalker. The use, in the last sentence, of “object,” in describing the woman whom the man (depending upon one’s perspective) either woos or stalks, was intentional, intended as a segue to the concept that Jewish theologian Martin Buber introduces in I and Thou. In this profound book, Buber points out that we can consider either ourselves or others to be either a person (an “I”) or a thing (an “it”). We will then treat ourselves or others accordingly. Employers, for example, often think of employees as “human resources,” rather than as men and women with attitudes, beliefs, dreams, emotions, ideas, imaginations, morals, motivations, needs, principles, values, and wisdom of their own--and treat them as such. (Employees seldom forget that they are, in fact, as human--or more so--than their bosses, whom they may regard as tyrants--and treat them as such.) As the Bible says, “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.”
A philosophical adage has it that “to be is to be perceived,” but it seems equally valid to say that “to be perceived is to be,” for we assign both ourselves and others roles to play, thereby perceiving ourselves and others to “be” this or that or, perhaps, to “fit” a particular type of work, as being “suited to” or “suitable for” a certain activity. Writers should never forget that it is just as true, perhaps, that we are perceived to be certain things as it is true that we exist because we are recognized or understood.
We assign meaning, just as we assign value. In doing so, we construct reality. Both for ourselves and others. We do this every day, whether we are writers or not, but writers also do it every time they write a story. To Beowulf, Grendel is the monstrous troll who is killing Danish warriors and terrorizing the people of their village and mead hall. To his mother, Grendel is a beloved son whose death at the hands of the murderous Beowulf must be avenged. It is clear that how characters see one another can be, and often is, the basis of narrative and dramatic conflict.
Perceptions can also be the bases of ironic reversals. Indeed, such a reversal is the very foundation of Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer. He imagined a young woman entering a dark alley, where she was attacked by a monster. However, instead of the monster killing (and possibly devouring) her, it was she who emerged victorious from their battle. The monster, a vampire, no doubt, saw the teen as prey (and, possibly, a meal), as would someone watching such a scene play out in a movie or a television episode (Buffy was a movie before it was a TV series.) Likewise, the typical teen would regard the vampire as a threat, as a predator. Both would act accordingly, the vampire actively, attacking, killing and consuming; the girl, passively, being attacked, killed, and consumed. (Acting upon the instinct for self-preservation, she might put up some resistance, of course, but it would be futile.) In Whedon’s ironic version of the scene, though, the vampire’s perception of himself as the predator and of Buffy as the prey worked against him, for it was Buffy who, as it turned out, was actually the actual slayer in their (brief) encounter.
Playing with roles can have other interesting effects, too. A boy or a girl, transitioning to adulthood, can leave childhood behind, seemingly in a moment, either because of an external event or because of an internal incident. For example, if one encounters child abuse, perhaps seeing a father bending back the fingers of his son’s hand, by way of “punishment,” will the witness become involved? Intervene? Pretend nothing unusual is happening and ignore the abuse? Whatever he or she does, the adolescent characterizes him- or herself, perhaps in several ways. Will a teen participate in the bullying, intimidation, and humiliation of a classmate simply because his or her “friends” are doing so, speak out against the harassment, stop the abuse and find new friends (perhaps starting with the bullied person), or ignore the situation altogether? Again, whatever he or she does, the teen characterizes him- or herself. The response shows maturity and independence (and compassion) or the opposites. Often, we are more revealed by what we say or do (or do not say or do) than others to whom we say or do whatever it is we say or do. (Yes, that is a sentence, of sorts.)
Dynamic characters (those who change by the end of the story) necessarily reverse the roles they played, as it were, at the beginning of their narratives. The Wizard of Oz’s Dorothy Gale is disappointed in her home, dependent, and complaining at the beginning of the movie, but, at the end, as a result of the experiences she’s had in Oz, she is appreciative of her home, independent, and glad to be surrounded by the family and friends whom she’d taken for granted before. Tested, tired, and resigned to her fate at the end of the series’ seventh year, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is no longer the unproven, perky, rebellious teen she was at the start of the show. Dynamic characters end up as the opposites of themselves. Arguably, even for a vampire, Buffy would be hard to mistake as a victim at the end of the series, just as it would be difficult for the Wicked Witch of the west to cowl Dorothy after all she’d been through in the wonderful land of Oz.
As far as others know (and can know), each of us is what we say, what we do, and the various roles that we play. For good or for ill, because we can think differently than we speak or act, we are able to deceive others, just as they are able to deceive us. We can also be hypocrites, acting at odds with what we say we believe or endorse. The possibilities of deceit and hypocrisy are important to writers, because they allow subterfuge, betrayals, treachery, treason, and the other violations of trust upon which intrigue, suspense, irony, and plots are built.
Speech (dialogue), behavior (action), and role playing are the bases, along with nonverbal communication cues such as facial expressions and gestures, of characterization and its exhibition to readers and audiences. It is, therefore, a good habit for a writer, in studying people (as models for fictional characters) to not only observe what and how people say and do things but, equally importantly, to imagine the various ways in which the same things might be said or done, both by the present and by other people, and both in their presently adopted or assigned roles and in other possible ones. Who might have imagined that a man, through technology, could become a mother of sorts? Mary Shelley did, in the fictional person of Victor Von Frankenstein, and, if Joss Whedon hadn’t imagine a reversal of roles between the teenage girl and her supernatural attacker, Buffy the Vampire Slayer never would have been born.