Thursday, March 17, 2011

Story Notes: So... Who's The Protagonist?

(Continuing the Story Notes posts on the three microfiction stories from Sunday. This time we're talking about "A Duck Walks Into a Bar.")

In grad school I had this really awful creative writing instructor. When P. G. Wodehouse wrote stories featuring a stereotypical narcissistic poet with an ego run amok, this was the guy he was thinking of. (Next week I will talk about this guy again, actually, in a series about the uses of wish-fulfillment.)

But this instructor had one brilliant teaching strategy. He always started every critique session by asking one question:

Who's Story Is It?

There isn't always a right answer to the question, but it's a great way to examine a story. And I think it's the key to understanding how the Duck Joke works.

I generally think that the bartender is the protagonist. His motivations are understandable. We know what he wants: he wants to run his bar -- not a farm. He doesn't have any duck food, and is not interested in serving it. From his point of view, the story consists of his attempts to get rid of the duck, which don't work, then a desperate ploy, and failure. So you could say, this story fits the "tragedy" or "villain" model of storytelling.

The bartender failed because he didn't understand the duck (and who does?) but also because he didn't care to learn. It's another story where the main character was unable to change.

On the other hand....

We have no idea what drives the duck. We don't know why he doesn't go someplace else where they do have duck food. He never gives a hint as to why he keeps coming in to that bar: atmosphere? convenient location? there is no other place?

All we know about that duck is that he displays the qualities of a hero. He's patient, polite, and persistent. He doesn't escalate the situation when he doesn't get what he wants, and he's always cooperative -- saying "Okay" and leaving when the bartender turns him away. He's also smart enough to overcome the obstacle put in his way.

He feels like the hero of the story. (Which doesn't preclude him from being the antagonist. As I mentioned, in a "villain" story, the protagonist may well face off against someone good -- a MacDuff, a Columbo, or a Tweety Bird.)

So we have two characters who have desires in conflict. Both want to keep a kind of status quo. The bartender wants to keep his bar as a bar, and the duck wants to, apparently, just come in and ask for duck food, whether there is any duck food available or not.

So this brings up two more things I learned in grad school. The playwrighting instructor wanted us to stop thinking in terms of a central hero, but in terms of conflict -- both characters in equal battle and as long as that battle remained, there was drama. I have always liked that as the core of a scene or story. So we could think of this as two equal characters in a drama. But if we do, their conflicting motivations are key.

The other definition I learned was in a literature class, rather than a writing class. We were reading The Great Gatsby, and the professor felt that the protagonist/hero of the story was the narrator rather than Gatsby. His reason was that he felt the real main character of a story was not necessarily the focus of the story, but rather the person who learns the lesson of the story.

And that seems relevant to our Duck Joke, because the duck wins how? By asking the bartender for more information. The duck is willing to learn, and the bartender isn't. So the duck is able to crack the tension and win.

On a higher level, jokes work well as microfiction is because they build tension out of character. It doesn't matter that the characters are broadly drawn cartoons. They have motivation. Even when you don't know the motivation (as with the duck) you can feel that he has got motivation by his actions.

I've always thought that studying jokes is a great way to learn about drama and human nature. I am reminded of Chuck Jones, the great animator who was responsible for so many brilliant Warner Brothers cartoons. (Coyote and Road Runner, some of the most famous Bugs Bunny toons, and of course, the original "How The Grinch Stole Christmas.")

The thing that Jones did, more than any other cartoonist, was to recognize that he was creating for children, and that children are fascinated with certain realities of life they only just got a handle on -- what do facial expressions, and body language, mean? How do you read them to understand others? And how does physics work? Do things always fall down and not up? Jones reduced each of these basic questions to their essence and played with them the way a child plays with blocks.

Jokes are funny because they play with an elastic reality -- and what is elastic but something which stretches (creates tension), and snaps back into place when you release it?

Take your jokes seriously, folks!

Tomorrow I'll talk about another common kind of microfiction - the dark twist story. Then for Sunday, rather than post a "sample sunday" story, I'll post the details on my "Hemingway's Baby Shoes Challenge."

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