This week while teaching theatrical summer camp, I asked a group of fifth graders if they knew what an objective was.
The answer I received: “A person, place, or thing.”
To which I responded: “Close.”
Then: “No, actually. Not really close at all. But good effort.”
As a student, I never understood the phrase, “Every character should want something, even if it is just a glass of water.” This seemed like one of those arbitrary rules that teachers forced on us because it was easier for them if we just obeyed and did extra work. Being a lazy actor, writer, student, person, I was always looking how to best be efficient (i.e. cut corners) and so I wasn’t about to commit to something that seemed bureaucratic and inane.
And to be fair, I wasn’t entirely wrong. Teachers can make their students go the extra mile by asking them to do things they never even considered doing themselves. Some of these activities are only theoretical—an idea the professor came up with while driving to work. They haven’t been tested, and there really is the possibility for them to be useless or even, on some occasions, detrimental.
Since, however, I have passed from being Head-Up-My-Ass Teen to Brown Nosing Adult, I have finally come to understand some past advice I never expected to really get.
First is that many exercises are problem-solving tools to be used contextually, not universal rules only meant for the obscure, crappy amateur.
When I first started drawing, I looked at the faces with little Ts sketched across them, and I remember thinking, “You expect me to believe the experts do that every time?”
And they don’t. And so I didn’t. And I didn’t, and I didn’t, and I refused and was stubborn until I started making a weekly web comic about two years ago, in which the exercise’s point was delivered to me through necessity. The reality is that there are times when I struggle drawing well, whether it be because of position or mood, and in those times I pull out the Ts.
Or I lose them. I consistently switch back and forth because sometimes the exercise is exactly what I need to keep moving ahead, but sometimes it may screw me over, making creations far worse than what freehand would do. It just depends on the context, and I use my understanding of that to overcome problems that I might otherwise only be able to tiptoe around.
This evolution of thought process is not just mine; I recognize it in my students. A few weeks ago I couldn’t stop laughing when a young girl reminded me of this in the most honest manner possible.
I was sitting, trying to write my fourth story in A Year of Writing, and I was completely unable to find any sort of idea to inspire me. So I do what I do in these situations and I started to outline, to plot out, to mull around themes and conflicts until I came up with something that excited me. As the students ran about for their free play, one came up to me and sat down to see what I was doing. Not understanding immediately, she asked. I explained. She blinked and said, “Do you do that every time?”
And I laughed.
“No,” I said. “I really don’t.”
I’m always surprised by the kids’ surprise at how I operate. I try to write whenever I can, and I’ve had several students express alarm that I am “writing outside of school,” “doing homework during lunchtime,” and, God forbid, “outlining.” They would never do that, but, after years and years, it has become an assumed part of my life. I forget that I was once of the Never Doing That Party, and that not everyone understands why someone would want to tackle things in that manner.
When I was young, I didn’t get the Gray Area of context, and this meant that I couldn’t decipher advice passed my immediate interpretation. It was either wrong or right, period. No matter how many times someone repeated (parroted) the “everyone should want something,” advice, I didn’t understand it. They just kept saying it, didn’t bother to explain it, and I’m not entirely sure most of my teachers even could explain it. So I heard it once, decided it was wrong, and no matter how many different people said it again, it had already been denounced; nothing could change that.
It wasn’t until years after having had it told to me that I finally figured it out—by reinventing the wheel. I came to a separate theory on my own before finally linking it to what I have been told over and over again. Suddenly, I got it. I knew how I got there, and so understood why it was true. Not only did I finally get what was important about objectives, but I learned to recognize why I didn’t get it before.
The issue? I believed that they wanted me to add an objective. The reality is that I needed to find it.
A character always wants something, even if she’s not actively seeking it, even if it’s being overshadowed by what the author wants. The problem is not that the writer needs to jam in an artificial desire, but to sift through a crap-encased muddle until he understands why the character said or did what she did. There’s a reason why the writer put the words he chose. The question is what that reason was and why it felt false. We don’t think about objectives in real life—few consider what motivated them to do what they did—but our subconscious will always have its reasons in any case. So no matter how bad the dialogue, false the action, or seemingly irrelevant the information, the objective was there; it’s just a question of if it’s important to the story, suitable to the situation, or all that interesting.
Instead of telling me that a character should want something, even if it’s just a glass of water, (which is clever if not that clear), had my teachers put it in their own words and mixed it up a little (and had I gotten my head out of my ass) I would have been led to understand instead of having it placed in front of me with the belief that I should just get it or have faith. I was 12-22, an age where not only was head in assery an unexceptional feat, but where I was being lied to (or simplified to) constantly and didn’t have enough information to understand when or where. For that matter, I still don’t. I couldn’t commit to every “clever” idea being thrown at me, and I had (have) no way of telling what was bull or just over my head. It’s a lot like abstract art in that manner.
I too tell my kids everyone wants something. But then I say, “even if it’s just to make the teacher shut up already and go back to playing games.” Suddenly, they seem to get it.