The dude: A character study in personal redemption

Warrington, Robert W.



\ The Dude: A Character Study in Personal Redemption By Robert W. Warrington First printed in the Isthmus, July I August 2012 This essay is a work of nonfiction, and whenever I write nonfiction my goal is to say what I mean as clearly and directly as possible. It may seem like a simple enough task, but writing nonfiction is actually an arduous process of gathering too much information, organizing the relevant part into a logical whole, and then presenting it in a way suited to the intended reader. I also know from personal experience that no matter how skillful the author may or may not be, reading nonfiction will feel like hard work - and not always worth the effort. Fiction, on the other hand, is an entirely different experience. For instance, when I write fiction my goal is to create characters and then make them do stuff. And at no point should I come right out and say what it all means. Ideally, of course, the piece should have a higher meaning that transcends the actual events described, offering some surprising or reconfirming insight into the human condition. But I never have a clear picture of what that meaning will be when I first begin to create the fiction. In other words, I write nonfiction in order to be understood, but I write fiction in order to understand. My ideas for stories tend to begin with an interesting character or characters placed in an interesting situation, and with a specific ending in mind. Then I begin to write toward that ending and let the story unfold as it must- allowing the ending to change as needed. If I do it right, the reader joins me in a shared act of creation, and the characters come alive in the theater of the reader's mind. Perhaps this is the reason why readers are sometimes called "the audience." Anyway, when I write fiction the creative process is as painful as I imagine giving birth must be. But if I am sufficiently skilled, then the audience finds reading my fiction to seem effortless, pleasurable even, causing them to lose all sense of time and place - as if in a dream. I think the reason reading nonfiction feels like work and reading fiction feels like play is because the former engages the part of the brain involved in analysis, logic, and memory, while the latter reproduces the emotional impact of real-time experience. To achieve this emotional impact, writers of fiction use a number of literary devices that are rarely appropriate or simply not available in nonfiction. For example, fiction writers employ narrative, which is telling what happened, and they also use dramatization, which involves allowing the reader to witness events as they happen. I find it interesting that, while a fiction writer will often need to learn how to use literary devices as he perfects his craft, readers are naturally equipped to implement these devices as they do their part to create the story. Some examples should make it clear why this point is so important. Let's say that I want to write a story. With a blank sheet of paper in front of me, the possibilities seem endless. But the truth is that the kind of story that I write will be influenced by my sense of life: my unconscious, emotionally felt conceptualization of man and of existence as a whole. The readers who will enjoy my story will also share my sense of life, or they will be open to changing their own sense of life as they read what I have created. For instance, when I was young I enjoyed reading a genre of fiction known as fantasy. In a fantasy novel, characters can bend reality to their will using magic, and they tend to defeat their enemies using violence. I once read these books because, deep down, this is how I wanted the world to be. I also read them as a way of avoiding the pain of my own reality - as if identifying with a character who was The Dude 1 able to confront and solve his own problems somehow made it true that I had confronted my own, even though mine were actually piling up while I read. Later in life, I reached a point in my story where I was open to changing my sense of life. One day, I picked up a book, in prison, with the intent to escape from life's difficulties, as usual. However, this novel was so amazingly constructed that it produced a change in me that reverberated all the way to my core and became permanent. From then on, I read for the same reason that I look in a mirror: To discover a new and familiar reflection of myself. The kind of stories that I wanted to write changed as well. However, at no point did I need to know about the concept 'sense of life' in order to have a sense of life. Art is a reflection of and extension of reality, which is what makes it possible to learn about reality and oneself by reading well-written fiction. Again, the kind of story that I want to read is also the kind I want to write. So, with this new sense of life that I now have, what kind of story do I want to tell? At this stage in my life, I want to write a story about redemption, a story about a deeply flawed man becoming a better man, one worthy of self-admiration and self-respect. If my sense of life involves man being appropriately equipped to prosper in a cause-and-effect driven universe, then my story will be a process of thoughtful, free-will driven change - with the uncertainty involved creating tension and driving the reader to tum the page. This is called a romantic-themed story. If my sense of life involves man being tossed about like a leaf in the wind, at the mercy of inner and outer forces that are too great for him to influence in any way, then the story will reflect this attitude about life, and any change to the main character will seem like it was pointless and inevitable. Stories written from this perspective are naturalist-themed. In a literary sense, I am a romantic at heart. Therefore, the main character of my story will be heroic and capable of self-determination, but the universe will be what it will be regardless of how anyone in the story might wish it to be otherwise. Before writing a story, authors will often explore a character involved by first writing a character study, an example of which follows. I'll call the character that I am envisioning here "The Dude." Simply put, The Dude is awesome. He makes thinking a way of life, not in some ivory tower, elitist way, but in a getting his hands dirty with his mind kind of way. He has made a personal commitment to awareness. He seeks always to integrate, to the best of his knowledge and ability, everything that enters his mental field, and he makes the effort to keep expanding that field. His orientation is toward the product of his own mind because he knows that his mind is the tool by which he creates a high quality life. When he wants to know if it is raining, he looks out a window rather than asking someone else for the answer. He looks for patterns to reality because he knows that all of the answers are there if one just makes the effort to look. The Dude has pride in the sense that he is dedicated to achieving his highest potential, and he never doubts his ability to do so. Besides having purpose, pride, and independence of thought, The Dude is honest; and, in his interactions with other people, he wants above all to be understood for who and what he really is. What he says is true expression, and he does what he says he will do. When he makes a decision, he knows it is right because it is moral, and his moral standards can be expressed in simple, easy to understand phrases like, "Something is good and right to do when it leads to living a long life filled with mental health and well-being." or "I would not want them to do that to me or mine, so I will not do that to them." When he makes a mistake, he attempts to make it right, knowing that right decisions lead in the right direction, no matter how painful the short-term consequences may be. He does not always know for certain whether or not he is being rational or honest, but he The Dude 2 is always certain that he cares about being rational or honest. He judges himself based on what he can control, and he is protected from being too harsh on himself because he knows feeling bad about making the wrong choice is proof that he has standards and principles. He knows that he is not always free to succeed, but he is always free to try. The Dude looks forward to getting up in the morning because each day is another step toward a more fulfilling existence. As a member of a society of free-willed individuals, what he wants for himself he also wants for everyone else. Does this mean that he wants everyone to have his girlfriend or a slice of his pizza? No. He wants everyone to have a significant other, and a slice of one of the infinite number of pizzas available. This outlook he calls "big-picture hedonism." A world where everyone is prospering is the best of all worlds to live in, and one that his inner substance aims to create. But he also knows that some people choose to act like animals. These men he ignores until their actions threaten his safety. Then he responds with strength and confidence. The Dude wants everyone to get what they earn. However, he only concerns himself with the people he cares about and with anything that threatens the people he cares about. Everyone else can destroy themselves with their own actions as much or as little as they choose. The Dude also wants to profit only by producing value, not out of some need for achievement and status but because his character cannot result in any other outcome. In sum, The Dude is an independent, honest, productive, just, and wholly integrated person who can be depended on in every situation. And he never needs to say any of this out loud to anyone for it to be communicated. But how, then, will the reader know all of this about The Dude? Using a literary device called characterization, a writer reveals the substance of a character. When a writer simply tells readers what a character is like, it is called direct characterization. Most often, though, writers use indirect characterization, revealing the character through his words, his thoughts and feelings, and through his actions. What a character thinks, feels, says, and does, in combination, all communicate to whoever is paying attention exactly what the character is all about. A character is also revealed through the comments made about him by other characters in the story, although it should be noted that these comments are not always as reliable as one would like them to be, and their source should always be a consideration. And, again, readers do not need to be told how to interpret a writer's use of characterization. People intuitively know what defines a person. In this story that I am imagining here, The Dude does not start out as The Dude. He begins the story as "That Guy." That Guy is not moved by concern for logic or truth. To him truth is irrelevant, and lies are lies only if someone finds them out. He has acquired his beliefs by accepting the consensus of others. That Guy will also temporarily believe something because he wants it to be true. He has a code that he sometimes lives by, but it tends to lead toward selfdestruction. Deep down he knows this is true, and he despises himself for his own weakness. He expects to exist by relying on others to have a code opposite his own. He needs others to produce so that he can survive. To be a successful parasite, he needs others to be a productive host. Avoiding self-responsibility, he is truly helpless. His whole existence is motivated by the desire to avoid pain, effort, thought. He lives like some people read: skimming over important details to get to the drama, to the dialogue, to the 'exciting' part. That Guy tries to profit through fraud, force, or destruction, and he believes that it is appropriate for him to do so. He thinks that the only reason people do not do what they really want to do is because they fear the consequences. However, in his eyes, a 'real man' is not afraid of anything. So, to prove to himself and others that he is not afraid, he thinks and acts in ways that are counterproductive or self-destructive. That Guy does not want to be a part of an orderly The Dude 3 society because, in his eyes, it is a better world where the rules apply to the 'good guys' and the 'bad guys' get to do whatever they want- so long as they are 'smart' enough to not get caught. He may tell people that he is other than he is, but he betrays himself with evidence unintentionally given. And, with his every thought and deed he is truly betraying his self, the person that he could be if he just tried to be more. But the story does not really begin with That Guy being That Guy. Stories begin in media res, or in the middle, because there is always a backstory that explains how it got to that point. With That Guy, there are an infinite number of potential backstories. As the story unfolds, it might become apparent that his behaviors are the result of unconscious drives and conflicts. Or his behaviors could be responses that he learned through rewards, punishments, and observation. They could be influenced by heredity or drug use. Or, it could be a strange mix of all of the above. It is clear, though, that somehow, as a boy, That Guy came to believe that his only two choices were to exist for his own sake and be a ' bad' person, or exist for others and be a 'good' person. The tragedy of his life is that he accepted this fallacy. As I said before, I want to write a story of redemption, a story about That Guy heroically struggling to become The Dude. A story records a process of change, but it is the plot that explains that change. A plot is a series of events that show a chain of causality. This is what keeps the reader reading. The human desire to know why something happened is even more powerful than the desire to know what happens or happened next. Once people have some of the facts, they inevitably look for the links between them, and only when they find causal links that are believable or preferable will they be satisfied. A reader does not need to be told about how plot works. People just naturally look for significant details, events, and causation. Now, as a writer, I know that I need to find a plausible combination of events that will lead to a single moment when the main character, That Guy, makes a decision that regards - and determines - his essential integrity, after which nothing will ever be the same. At this single moment of choice, That Guy elects to live either more in harmony or more at odds with his best self. The moment could come as he is reading a novel, or an essay. But, for sure, the decision made in that moment will affect his relationship with his self forever. After making the right choice, That Guy stops blaming the way he is on any of the aspects of his existence that he cannot directly change, and he begins to focus only on what is under his volitional control. He comes to accept how he is right then. Accepting how he is, he then finds it difficult to continue being that way. He refuses to continue being his own enemy. But he also realizes that this decision is only the start of a long and difficult process. To begin this journey, this quest for personal excellence, he will need to be ready to travel the entire distance alone, ready to resist the pull toward conformity with the collective mind. He will need to be brave enough to doubt everything that he believes to be true - no matter how comforting or widely accepted that belief may be. Above all, he will need to value himself before he can seek to understand himself. A value is something one acts to gain or keep, and it is this central motivation that will carry him along in his journey toward becoming The Dude. Some people believe that healthy individuals strive to reach their full potential. But That Guy is not a healthy individual, so his unexpected journey to becoming The Dude should produce an interesting story. To make it even more interesting, I might place him in a hopeless situation and in a setting where all of the other characters are variations of That Guy. There will be conflict between the central character and the other characters, and internal conflict between his best and worst self. He will need to keep his eyes open for the details that matter, the ones that implicitly suggest meaning and value. His resolve will be tested, and complications will be steady as he The Dude 4 comes into conflict with people who hold an opposing value set, and with nowhere for him to run. But he must succeed, because what is at stake is his life and everything that he is capable of accomplishing with his mind and hands. Now that I have an interesting character that I know pretty well, an interesting situation filled with potential danger and conflict, and an ending in mind, as a writer I will need to choose a point of view for the story. I could choose a third person omniscient author, one who can go into the mind of any character, one who can see and interpret everything across all time and space, using words like "He did this because ... " and "Her thoughts on the matter were ..." Or, I could write using a first person narrator, one who tells the story from his own perspective, using words like "And then I thought ... " or "He told me that ..." In real life, omniscient narrators do not actually exist, but that does not stop people from thinking that they can see into the minds of others and see events across all space and time. But it is their story, and no one can tell them how to tell it. One might think that the solution to this problem is to remain in first-person narration. But first-person narrators are only as reliable as their powers of perception and cognition. In other words, the closer a narrator lives and deals with reality as it really is, the more reliable his narration will be. At this point, it should be obvious what my main point is: People do not need to be taught how to implement literary devices because human beings are born telling stories. Humans live their lives as if they are the author and central character of the story that they are telling to themselves. They live their lives as narrative quests, at all times aspiring to achieve a certain unity with the backstory, with who they see themselves as, allowing their sense of life to determine the story's tone and direction. When confronted with competing options, a person tries to take the path that best makes sense of his life as a whole. Moral deliberation is, on one level at least, more about interpreting one's life story than it is about logic and reason. People also take into consideration the larger stories of which their lives are a part. Everyone is born with a backstory, born with membership in certain groups, born into certain roles - with all of the expectations and obligations this implies. But I cannot change my past. I can only move forward. Fortunately, the end of my story remains to be written. If lived right, my life can be as informative as nonfiction and at the same time as pleasurable as reading a well-written story. And, just as with a good story, or this essay, my life can be read on as many levels as the reader's understanding permits. I believe, however, that there is one writer's technique that everyone should learn how to use, one that people do not already intuitively employ. By putting together a character study of myself, by seeing and accepting the truth of how I really was, it made it hard to continue being that way. By putting together a character study of who I would like to be, it gave me a standard and an ' ending' to 'write' toward. I have yet to achieve Dudehood, but the journey so far has taught me that there is a distinct difference between being motivated to act or not act out of fear, and acting out of a desire to emerge from one state of being as I strive toward becoming a better self. I truly hope that this information helps people write better stories, because The Dude is right: A world where everyone is prospering is the best of all worlds to live in. And it is just such a world that my inner substance, the writer in me, aims to create. Be cool. The Dude 5

Author: Warrington, Robert W.

Author Location: Delaware

Date: July 2012

Genre: Essay

Extent: 5 pages

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