Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Tim Hallinan Explains "The Mechanicals"

Guest post by Tim Hallinan

Tim declaiming to an eager audience
The only time William Shakespeare almost loses control of his most sublime comedy, “A Midsummer Night's Dream,” is when a group of “mechanicals” assembles in the forest outside Athens.  They are there to rehearse a play they plan to present at the nuptials of the local aristos, and they nearly walk off with Shakespeare's whole show.

They're called “mechanicals” because they work in trades that involve skilled labor—including a tinker, a bellows-mender, a carpenter, and, last but certainly foremost, a weaver named Bottom, who has quite a night in front of him.

Some 420 years later, “mechanicals” are, to me, the characters I need for essentially mechanical reasons – to move the plot along, to fill in some exposition, to shoot someone, whatever.  They present a real challenge.  If they're not interesting, their mechanical function is obvious to the reader. If they're too interesting, they distort the story's focus.  The challenge, as I see it, is to make these “mechanicals” individuals without wasting a lot of the reader's time to build them up and explain them, since we'll probably never see them again.

The key to maintaining this balance (for me, anyway) is to remember that every character in a book thinks the story is about him or her.  Your hotel clerk may have twelve words with the protagonist and then disappear, but in her world the protagonist was a twelve-word intrusion on her continuing story.  Like everyone else, she's come from somewhere, she's going somewhere, she's where she is for a reason, and she wants something.

A couple of examples.

In the last Junior Bender book THE FAME THIEF, Junior questions an old-time director named Douglas Trent about the book's primary victim, a former actress named Dolores La Marr.  The purpose of the scene is just to give the reader some info from La Marr's career in the 1940s and to introduce a couple of suspects from back then.  From the moment Trent appeared on the page, he was alive to me:

Doug Trent had been a very good-looking young man, and he was doing everything money, medical science, and a high pain threshold could contribute to the cause of making him a very good-looking old man.  His skin had the fraudulent flawlessness of a wall that's just had graffiti sandblasted off it.  And if that wasn't enough to put me off him, his naturally silver hair was as blue as a delphinium . . . . To make it a trifecta, he was also wearing an ascot, tucked into the open neck of a loose white shirt.

“Yeah, yeah, Dolly,” he said.  He touched the tips of his fingers to the corner of his right eye, as though checking to make sure the masonry was holding. “Terrible, terrible thing, what happened to her.  Beautiful girl, just beautiful.  Couldn't act for shit, of course, but it didn't matter, as long as she hit her key light.  Light went right into those pale eyes, and the audience just filled them in with whatever emotion the background music had to offer.  Do you know how Mauritz Stiller got those long, heart-wrenching close-ups of Garbo?”


“He got the light exactly right, put the camera a foot from her nose, and told her to count to ten.”

I said, “In Swedish?”

Trent, who had moved on to patting the skin beneath his eye, stopped and gave me a first-rate cold look.  “How would I know?  The point is that a lot of what an actress gets credit for is actually due to the director.”

“I'm sure,” I said.  “I mean, makes perfect sense.”

“Trust me,” Trent said.  “I know actresses.  I married six of them.”

“What was it like, being married to six actresses?”

“Like being married to one of them.  They're all pretty much alike.”

“Why'd you keep doing it, then?”

“'Hope is the thing with feathers,'” Trent said, “that tickles your scrotum at the moment when you most need a clear head.”

Junior starts out not liking Trent, and for good reason, but becomes more sympathetic toward him over the course of the conversation, and so did I.  I wound up giving him what I think of as one of the book's pivotal lines:

“For a few months there, and then again after the scandal broke,” Trent said, “you'd have thought Dolly was a real star, not just one more girl who'd accidentally made a good movie.”

“Was that what she was?” I said. “Just one more girl?”

“Honey,” Doug Trent said, rubbing his eyes, “there are thousands of them.”  He looked around the room again and cleared his throat.  “They're the fuel that Hollywood burns.”

To me, Trent had been waiting in that crummy apartment for weeks, a man who used to matter in Hollywood, hoping for someone to talk to. He opened himself to me (and the reader, I hope) with a minimum of resistance.

One more, and I'm done.

In the most recent Poke Rafferty book, THE FEAR ARTIST, there is a trio of former European spies, all in their seventies, who hang around in an actual Bangkok bar where ex-spooks who would have killed each other on sight in the 1970s buy each other drinks and re-fight the old battles.  One of them, a Russian named Vladimir, is essential to the story. 

But Vladimir needed a couple of foils to challenge him, tease out information.  One of them might be named Janos, and he's one of my favorite things in the book.  He has the spy's ultimate attribute: he's completely forgettable.  Here's how we meet him:

Two men wait in the final booth, the one to which the Russian leads him.  Rafferty's eyes are adjusting to the darkness, and as he sits he sees that one of them affects the ever-stylish Dr. Evil look, with a shaved head, a mustache, a goatee, and a single earring above a pale garment that might be the grandchild of a Mao jacket, while the other is simply part of the scenery, a man with no distinguishing characteristics whatsoever.  A written description would read, medium everything. 

Rafferty slides in beside Dr. Evil as the man with the Russian accent says, “You buy, yes?” and shouts something to the bartender without waiting for an answer.

“Vladimir,” the Russian man says, pointing at himself as he sits.  “Pierre,” he says, indicating Dr. Evil.  “And, um . . .” 

“Janos,” says the man without any characteristics.

“Always I forget,” Vladimir says.  “This is why you genius.”

Janos nods modestly, and everyone waits, looking at Poke.

I liked Janos so much that I used him in a couple of scenes, and in the last moments of his life, the man who will shoot him says, “I'm sorry.  I've forgotten your name.”

Sorry to go on at such length, but I wanted not just to talk about what I believe but to show you a couple of ways (maybe not very good, but there you are) that I tried to solve the problem.

 Visit Tim's website to learn more about all his terrific books.


Maryann Miller said...

What a great way to explain those bit players in a story. I guess because of my film background I have always thought of them as bit players, but your "mechanicals" makes so much sense. And I loved Trent. What a terrific bit player.

Timothy Hallinan said...

Thank you Maryann. The advantage screenwriters have is actors. A good actor can make a little role pop, but you and I have to do it all. And thanks also to Neil for hosting me.

Unknown said...

I love the concept of the 'mechanicals'. Also the idea that every character is the main character in his/her own mind. Thank you, Tim!

Unknown said...

Hmmm. Not sure why I came through as unknown above. So I'll sign this one.

Carole Shmurak

Everett Kaser said...

I'd never heard the term 'mechanicals' before, so once again you've educated me, Tim. At this rate, someday before I die I might actually know how much I don't know!

Timothy Hallinan said...

Hi, Carole and Everett! Thanks for reading the longest guest post in history and being kind enough to comment on it. MIDSUMMER is my second-favorite play in the world, right behind THE TEMPEST, so the "mechanicals" in the play are often on my mind. I think one of the trillion lessons any writer can learn from Big Bill is that every character has a life. I'd like to claim it as mine, but too many writers, many of them much better than I, have used the principle for yeard. Everett, I think the things you don't know are down to 138 by now.