Last night I went to see Tennessee Williams’ play Sweet Bird of Youth, written in the late 1950’s.  The basic plot is that a gigolo named Chance Wayne has latched onto a fading film star, played by Diane Lane.  He has great hopes to become a movie star himself, and seeks to rocket his longtime, estranged girlfriend into the spotlight as well.  Both main characters, Chance and Alexandra Del Lago, use each other to get what they want.  Alexandra repeatedly refers to the two of them as monsters, well over the edge of socially appropriate behavior.  These two people unabashedly use others, seeking first and foremost to get what they want out of life, damn anyone who gets in their way.

The story deals with issues not written about in the 1950’s, including sexually transmitted diseases, alcohol and drug abuse, the plight of sexual playboys who seek a better life for themselves as well as how we all deal with the inevitable ravages of aging, no longer as attractive as we were in youth when we took our appeal for granted.

As I got on the elevator after the show, two late middle-aged women were discussing the play, and one commented quite vociferously that she couldn’t relate to the main characters; she couldn’t find any redeeming qualities, and didn’t like Chance or the Princess Del Lago.  I suspect she didn’t relate to the seedier side of human nature, and I found myself thinking, “She was born on third base, and thought she had hit a home run.”  It’s all too easy to stay comfortable in what life has given us, especially if that gift is affluence.

As a writer, getting an MFA in creative writing, I have encountered several different attitudes about whether our protagonists should be likeable.  My first fiction course instructor stressed that we need not try too hard to plug in details simply to help us understand the plight of the narrator.  She felt we should strive to make our characters interesting, not necessarily likeable.  Then readers and audiences would automatically root for our main characters, looking to see how they change by the end of the story.  Other instructors stressed that it is helpful if we imbue those we write about with some redeeming qualities, or, at the very least, an ambivalence about how they go about ameliorating their circumstances.

I don’t know exactly which answer is right, but I’m certain the one task writers encounter is that they themselves must relate to those they write about. 

Emile Zola said it best:  “If you ask me what I came into this life to day, I will tell you:  I came to live out loud!”  Let us make our brief time here matter.

 

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