We were told, in some playwriting class, that the single most important thing to decide upon when writing a character, was age. Then gender. But the character’s age would determine much of his dramatic arc.
Then the other bit of wisdom, probably from Aristotle, was that character was destiny.
There were all sorts of rules that the Greeks had about what determined if a play was effective; whether it was a comedy or a tragedy etc.
I noticed, when I was photographing people, that young children and old people were the most interesting. Young children usually hadn’t developed the mask they would wear for most of their lives, and very old people had either dropped the mask altogether, or as in an old Twilight Zone episode, their characters were now etched forever on their face.
So I’m sitting next to an old woman, who I’m not going to identify in any way, and we’re in the lobby, where the sun is pouring in behind us. I have already talked to her many times and always found her lucid.
She turns to me and says, the real problem is that we don’t get to pick any of the really important things in our lives. Something is all backwards. For example, at some point, we should get to pick our parents and DNA and all that. What era do we want to be born in?
Are your parents still alive? No. Well, you might be lucky. My mother died of cancer when I was 20 years old. And you know what, she says, without missing a beat. I was happy. No, not because she was out of her suffering. Because it meant I was free.
I could live my own life. And you know, all my relatives realized that too.
Do you remember the mother of Bette Davis in , what was the name of that – oh yeah – Now Voyager?
Remember that phony mother, that mother’s love?
That was my mother, only double.
She just wound up with a faraway look in her eyes. Was it 60 years ago? Longer, and slowly a smile formed. And she said: the harm we do in the name of love.
That story, and there are details I won’t repeat, stuck with me for a long time. And yes, it formed her character and is truly written on her face.