Vincent Cassel and Natalie Portman, Black Swan 2010
Thomas Leroy: Really? In 4 years every time you dance I see you obsessed getting each and every move perfectly right but I never see you lose yourself. Ever! All that discipline for what?
Nina: [whispers] I just want to be perfect.
Thomas Leroy: What?
Nina: I want to be perfect.
Thomas Leroy: [scoffs] Perfection is not just about control. It’s also about letting go. Surprise yourself so you can surprise the audience. Transcendence! Very few have it in them.
Nina: I think I do have it in me.
Today I watched Black Swan. It had me transfixed. Within minutes of the movie I was lost in this world of hallucination and ballet. But for me the whole crux of this movie’s message is contained in the above conversation between Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) and Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman). Nina (a ballerina auditioning for the principal part in Swan Lake) wants to be perfect. For her,perfection is all about keeping tight control of herself and being technically flawless in her dance. Thomas instead tells her that perfection in art is the opposite. It is all about losing control, letting go, losing yourself and letting the character in the dance transcend the dancer.
This is a movie and a script that polarized movie audiences. People come away from this film, either loving it or hating it. Yes there is no denying there are many disturbing scenes in this film. But are any of them unnecessary. No, in my opinion every single scene was necessary.
But today I want to use this film as a symbolism for writing. When we write fiction, we are creating something that is not true. It comes from our imagination. The characters are the writers’ creations unless they are based on someone in real life. In just the same way Ballet is a form of artistic creation in dance. The audience is expected to be transported to a fantastical world where art transcends reality. In the movie, the Ballet of Swan Lake is the subject. The dancers are supposed to be swans. They do not wear swan costumes but through the movements of the dancers the audience sees swans on the stage. As writers we use our words and our skills to create an image of a character. Sometimes the character is literally described in their physical appearance. But a lot of times we allow the image of the character to come about through sensory language and dialogue. If the writer is skilled the reader (our audience) believes it.
Writers are creatures of imagination one would say. But most writers I know are also creatures of control. We like creating a world that we can mold and control. We like knowing the direction our story is going in. None of this is wrong. In fact at the editing stage this characteristic of controlled perfection can come in very handy. But can a writer be too controlled? Can a writer be too focused in technique and skill? Do we want the reader (audience) to see us (the writer) or do we want them to see the characters?
I think that if I want a reader to be lost in my created world of fiction and to believe the characters I have created are real and make them feel emotions then I need to lose myself. I need to let go. I need to lose control. It is only then when I start truly living,thinking and feeling the character that I find the character. That is when I can breathe life into an ink and paper character and flesh them out into someone living, feeling, breathing and real. I must allow the story to take over. I must let the character speak through my writing. My words and my tone should not be in their mouth. If my character is a forty-year old gypsy man, he needs to talk, move and think like a forty-year old gypsy man. I have to make him real in order for a reader to believe they are listening to a forty-year old gypsy man.
The best art transcends the artist. Story is a writer’s art. In Black Swan, Natalie Portman’s character only starts embracing the role she wants when she starts letting go of herself and she loses all her control. You watch as she battles to tell the real from the make-believe. So the question I have been asking myself with my current WIP is: Have I lost control yet? Have I let my characters transcend me on the page? Some stories are easy to write especially if they are close to your own reality. But what happens when you are writing a story that is completely removed from your reality? This weekend I had an epiphany about my story. I realised I was over-thinking it and over-analyzing it. I was rewriting scenes over and over, striving for some elusive form of perfection. That is when I realised I needed to step away from the story to allow the story to breathe. I have been so focused on editing this final draft that I was losing the story. I was holding too tightly onto my control. I kept on thinking what would my cps or betas think about me when they were reading this story. But it is not about that. Or it should not be. I need to think about what they will think of my character’s story.
So I have decided to take a few days break away from this story. Although it is frustrating that I know that I could finish the final draft in a day, I also know that in the state my mind is in I would have butchered my story and killed my characters. I know that in a few days time when I go back to this final draft it will have been worth the enforced vacation. I love my story and I love my characters. Sometimes when you love something you have to walk away. I know that is a terribly over used cliché but as clichés go it works in this case. I want a reader to get lost in my story. I, as a writer, don’t want to enter their thoughts. Perfection is over-rated and unachievable. As a perfectionist it is incredibly difficult to write that sentence let alone say it out aloud. That is why I have a little troll with bright pink hair who holds a sign saying : Nobody’s Perfect. This little troll sits on my desk within constant sight to remind me that to get to the heart of my story I need to stop striving to be the perfect writer and instead let go and let my characters be “perfectly” believable. What is a story without characters? It is like an office building at night with all the workers sleeping. It loses its purpose. It stops becoming a story.
As a writer, have you ever let your ego get in the way of your characters? What did you do to stop yourself?
As a reader, have you ever read a story and although you know it is technically brilliant, it just feels dead? Would you rather read a story that is technically perfect but has flat and unbelievable characters or would you want to read a story that may not follow all the technical rules but the characters are so alive you believe you know them as real people?
I know which one I would choose.
“Confidence, like art, never comes from having all the answers; it comes from being open to all the questions.” ~ unknown
If you have not watched Black Swan, do yourself a favour and watch it. If you have watched it, watch it again. Watch how Natalie Portman in her role as Nina becomes the role of the Swan Queen. I dare you to watch a movie like Black Swan and walk away unmoved. Love it or hate it, it will make you feel something. If ever I have a book that polarizes readers I will feel I have succeeded. I don’t want readers to think, I want them to feel. I am not writing a thesis. I am not a professor. I am just a story-teller. That’s when I know that as a writer I will have done my job sufficiently. Until then I will keep stepping back and taking stock if ego starts getting in the way. If that means my drafts take a little longer than I want, then so be it. In the end it is only the characters and their story that counts.
Are you ready to lose yourself to find the characters?