Friday, August 22, 2008

...and Mother Theresa, as herself

For the record, this post is really more about writing than politics.

Andrew Sullivan, among others, has been tracing the evolution of John and Cindy McCain’s adoption story, noting that, as with other stories the McCains like to tell, this one has undergone some noteworthy revision over the years. Specifically, it is only the later versions that make mention of the fact that Mother Theresa herself helped convince the McCains to rescue two girls from the Bangladeshi orphanage, one of whom they ended up adopting – their daughter Bridget.

Again, who knows? They did what they did. It’s a wonderful thing. Assuming the girl is happy and that the estate tax can be abolished, I wish them all the best.

What’s curious to me is the idea that Mother Theresa’s role in the McCain’s decision somehow makes it a better story. And I’m not denying that most people would agree it does. Juicier, anyway. But really it just goes to show what a bunch of hopeless suckers we all are for celebrity, even sainted celebrity.

Because from a pure storytelling perspective, the McCain’s revision is a mistake. It’s actually fairly common, in the course of conceiving a story (and I’m not suggesting that the McCain’s made this one up, I’m just speaking from the perspective of someone who does make stories up) that quite often you want for your protagonist to do something – say, get off the bus. The plot requires it. The question is, how do you get them to do it? Well, the easiest and least imaginative way is to have another character - a friend or a sidekick - urge them to: say, “buddy, get off the bus.” (The entire Academy Award winning screenplay of GOOD WILL HUNTING is nothing but this, so far as I can tell: one scene after another of girlfriend, friend, and therapist imploring Will to stop diddling and do something with his brain, which finally in the end he does).

So you create the sidekick and write the scene, and oftentimes the scene helps you figure out why the protagonist should do this thing (as in “get off the bus or you’re going to be late for school” or, alternately, “adopt the child, you’ll make her life much happier and you’ll feel better about yourself.”) And then the protagonist goes ahead and does it.

Something you come to learn as writer, however, is that more often than not, now that you’ve gone and written in that character, you’re actually better off without it. Now that you know the motive, all the sidekick is doing is taking power and initiative away from your protagonist, making him or her seem like a passive follower of advice. Far better to just go ahead allow your protagonist to do the thing you wanted him or her to do in the first place – get off the bus, or adopt the child. He or she will instantly become a much more dynamic, potent, and powerful character; one worthy of telling a story about.

Obviously, this is not hard and fast rule. Sometimes advice plays a role in our lives. Not all protagonists need to be dynamic and decisive. I’m just saying, it’s a natural part of the creative process, making up characters or situations that help you understand what your protagonist should do and why he or she should do it, and then cutting them in order to allow your protagonist to proceed thusly and heroically and compellingly. (Why did she get off the bus just then? How intriguing. I must find out!)

So the weird thing with the McCain story is that they added the sidekick in the revision. Now, obviously we know why. Mother Theresa is an excellent character. It testifies to the McCain’s own celebrity and importance that they actually got to meet her, and frankly there isn’t a producer in the world who wouldn’t go with the “Mother Theresa” version, provided her agent doesn't “bust my balls.” The downside, however, is that McCains actually come off as less powerful, less interesting in the Mother Theresa version than if the story had simply been, “we went to Bangladesh, we saw the child needed us and that we needed the child, and we knew what we had to do.”