Saturday, July 19, 2008

Poor Salvatore, Or, The Right Kind of Inconsistent Character

Characters are built up detail by detail, word by word, in tiny increments over the course of the manuscript. The old-fashioned method for character establishment was to introduce each character with a long bit of exposition describing who they were. "Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when captured by her charm as the Tarleton twins were. In her face were too sharply combined the florid features of her father with...."

We don't use that introduction method very much anymore. Why not? Because it slows down the action. And we don't want our material to be slow because slow material turns off readers these days. We want our books to be fast, zooming, lickety-split. This means that were really left with three methods to convey character to the reader.
  1. What the character says
  2. What the character does
  3. How the other characters react

And because we don't have access to quantities of exposition, the only way to build a consistent character is to carefully control all three of those details. One slip -- just one action that's inconsistent, or one line of dialogue that doesn't flow, or one character reacting in an unexpected way -- and we have effectively undermined our own characters. The only alternative is to rely on exposition to explain away the inconsistency.

So how do you present to character when the character himself wears two faces? This is where Salvatore comes in.

If we were able to use exposition to introduce Salvador's character, the equivalent of voice-over narration, we would hear something like this when he walks into his first scene. "And here is Salvatore, the closeted homosexual and art director. Nobody knows he's gay, and he is terrified that someone might find out."

But of course, that's not what we're going to do. Salvador is living a lie. The personality that he presents to the world is not reflective of his inner truth. So how then does the writer convey the duality of Salvador's existence without undermining Salvador's character?

The exact same way he would build them if Salvador were a consistent character. The only difference is that now, he must be consistent about his inconsistencies.

Let's take a look at some of the methods that the writer uses. Sal only appears in two scenes in episode one, so it's pretty easy to deconstruct. The first scene comes at about the 12 minute mark and takes place in Don's office. Don is playing with a chest exerciser when Sal walks in. Sal looks at him and slips right into a kind of sardonic banter which is his stock in trade.

Sal: Ooh, look at you, Gidget. Trying to fill out that bikini?
Don: Summer's coming.

It's a quick, witty exchange, and it's so natural that you get the impression this type of dialogue forms a good bit of their interaction. They shift from this right into a discussion of an ad campaign, but before we get into that, look at the subtext of those two lines. Even though they're being teasing and playful, there is an underlying message in Sal's line, that is, that he sees the sexuality in what Don is doing. Whenever the office talk turns to things of a sexual nature, Sal tends to take on this extremely sarcastic, bantering demeanor. And it's in full force in the beginning of this scene.

They discuss the ad campaign, and Sal pulls out some sample artwork. It's a pencil drawing of a shirtless man reclining in a hammock. He has a muscular, well-defined torso and a handsome face. Sal runs his hand in an almost caressing fashion over the man's naked torso.

Sal: It's my neighbor. Believe me, he always looks very relaxed.

Sally, buddy, we believe you. We believe that you watch him often enough to know how he always looks. There's something in that gesture that gives you way. You have a crush on your neighbor.

Don looks over the artwork and suggests that Sal should give it some sex appeal, which is highly ironic given Sal's demeanor. Sal slips back into his forced banter.

Sal: A sexy girl? I could do that.
Don: It'll give you a chance to get a real model.
Sal: Oh, I love my work! Speaking of sexy girls, are you going to Pete's bachelor party?
Don: I'm not really big on those things.
Sal: Tell me about it. If a girl's going to shake it in my face, I want to be alone with her so I can do something. Should we drink before the meeting or after? Or both?

The very first time I saw this scene, before I really understood the complexities of Sal's character, that last bit of dialogue really stuck out for me. It's very defensive. Sal has only been on stage for about a minute and a half at this point, and I didn't pick up on the significance of him caressing the artwork. But this line set my Spidey senses tingling. It's forced, it rings false, and although it tries for that overtly sexual machismo that dominates the office, it misses the mark completely. Aggressively sexual men may prefer the "shaking it" to be followed by "doing something," but they will still take one without the other.

Also, it would've been very easy for Sal to adopt a demeanor similar to Don's. Don dismisses the bachelor party very casually. Sal's reply comes across almost defensive in comparison. The result is that Don appears to be very confident in his sexuality, while Sal seems a little bit forced.

Even though all the characters drink their way through the scenes, I found myself understanding that in this moment, Sal actually needed to drink. It wasn't recreational. He is seen in a very handsome Don Draper exercising, he has lingered over the drawing of his half naked neighbor, and he has had to discuss the bachelor party. There is a lot of subterfuge in this scene, and that's exhausting work. So it's no surprise that Sal pours himself a big whiskey, and drops a couple of Alka-Seltzer into it.

The intercom buzzes to announce the arrival of the female researcher.

Sal: oh, great. Now we get to hear from our man in research.

You would think Sal would feel some affinity for this character. They are both fish out of water, she because she's a Ph.D. working in a man's world, and he because he's a gay man working in an environment where men compete both professionally and sexually. But instead of showing any sympathy for her, Sal uses her as a dart board. This could signal a lot of different things, and I've never really been sure how to interpret it. Is he jealous of her because she doesn't have to hide her differences? Does he get so sick of pretending to like women, that he sees her as a safe outlet for venting his resentment? After all, here is one woman that it's safe to dislike. Or is it just that by discriminating against her, he finds another method to prove his masculinity? All the boys in the boys' club resent the female researcher, and Sal just wants to be one of the boys. What do all of you make of this line?

The doctor describes some psychological research into death wishes. She and Don debate and disagree over it. Sal interjects at one point, and it's probably the most telling line of dialogue in the entire first episode for him.

Sal: So we're supposed to believe that people are living one way and secretly thinking the opposite? That's ridiculous.

Of course, it's not ridiculous. It's his life. His delivery of this line is much less forced, much less sardonic than what we've seen from him before. Even though the content contains sarcasm, his demeanor is not as broadly sarcastic as it is when he's discussing sexual matters. He almost seems natural for the first time. If you watch very closely, you will notice that whenever matters of sexuality arise, his demeanor becomes more and more bitingly sarcastic. When he's talking about other things, the sarcasm is still there, but it's not as forced. It's almost as though his normal demeanor is sarcastic and flippant, and when they're talking about sax, he becomes almost a caricature of himself. Wildly exaggerated.

In the second scene featuring Sal, the boys have all gone to a strip club for the bachelor party. Sal sits with his back to the stage. He oozes sophisticated disdain. The others are like kids in a candy shop. They don't seem to know where to look first.

Paul: Let's live here.
Sal: You'll do more than look tonight.
Pete: Do you have a girlfriend, Salvatore?
Sal: Come on. I'm Italian.

It's always telling when a character is asked a yes or no question and answers with something other than a yes or a no. By doing that, of course, he allows Pete to form his own conclusions. Whatever Pete has presupposed, that is what his answer will be. And yes, Sal does invite Pete to play along with a cultural stereotype for Italian men. But he never tells the lie. He never comes right out and says, "Yes, I have a girlfriend."

The coup de grace for this character comes just a moment later. A group of girls arrives at their table. Cosgrove has talked them into joining the boys for round of drinks at the bachelor party. The girls are seated, and there's some banter. Then one of them looks around as if taking in her environment for the first time.

Girl: I love this place. It's hot, loud, and filled with men.
Sal: I know what you mean.

The girl smiles but looks confused, and even a little bit taken aback. She understands exactly what Sal is saying without saying it. She seems to be the only one who keys in on this. All the other people at the table just continue to look around and chatter, without seeming to realize that Sal has nearly accidentally outed himself.

But here's the thing. We've already seen Sal slip once, when he caressed the drawing of his neighbor. Don never reacted to that, and neither did we. We glossed right over it, or at least, I did. But when the girl reacts to his comments about all the men, suddenly we react, too. When Sal is in his normal environment, his little slips go unnoticed. It's only outsiders who have not been conditioned to his character who can see it for what it really is. This insider/outsider dichotomy is very important over the course of the series, and it plays right into the theme of Don as antihero. Don has compartmentalized his life, and each piece seems to react to him in a totally different fashion. Sal has also compartmentalized his life, but he's not quite as successful at the dissemblance.

In this way, Sal is a foil for Don. We'll take a look at the show's use of foils, but for right now, there are a couple of conclusions to be drawn here.

1. If you want to control the way your readers react to something, make one of your characters react to it. When Don glosses over Sal's slip, so do we. When the girl in the strip club catches his innuendo, so do we. By having two different people in two different environments react in two different ways, the author can control the dual nature of the character.

2. Consistency is important. If in one environment a character behaves in a particular way and draws a particular type of reaction, then it must always be that way when he is within that environment. This is why the girl in the strip club can react to Sal's innuendo, but none of the other men sitting at the table can. Those men are all part of the environment that doesn't notice the truth about Sal.

3. Use evasive maneuvers. Sal is an expert question dodger. He also adopts an aggressively heterosexual demeanor -- accent on aggressive -- whenever the topic of sexuality comes up. He's very good at throwing people off the scent.

4. Use nonverbal cues. Sal's demeanor changes when sexual topics come up. He is less relaxed. Louder. His sarcasm is enhanced exponentially. He rolls his eyes and smirks and gestures broadly. These things signal his discomfort.



Edittorrent said...

That's great, Theresa! I think some writers are dinged for "inconsistent characterization" and don't know what to do, and this will help a lot.

What comes through in how you see Sal isn't that "consistency" means that he always has to act the same way... rather that we see him acting the way that person would act in this situation. Yes, he mostly does his heavy-handed I'm so into women thing, but once in a while, when he's relaxed especially, he lets something slip... but it's always deniable. He never says it so that the listener can absolutely know exactly what he means. He always says and does this in a way that if he gets caught, he can say, "No, I meant..." and that will be accepted.

All the more reason to pay very, very close attention to how you word dialogue. Sal sure does. Even when he slips and speaks the truth, he's got enough of a guard on him to say it in a deniable way.

Anonymous said...

I picked him as being gay in his very first scene. It was the drawing of a male model rather than a female AND the placement of the red dot of the cig pack. Did you catch that?

Then when he says 'the man from research', I thought that was him suggesting the woman was masculine, as a highly educated woman in a highly sexist environment, as well as her dress and manner, more gender-neutral than floozy like the submissive 'girls' in the service roles. So I don't think this was a comment on Sal's sexuality as much as his claiming membership in the 'boys club' because he is after all male, not female.

I'm not sure I get that Don is an anti-hero. Protagonist, yes. Haven't seen enough of the show [and won't, since they only make available the full pilot and not the series episodes].

You deserve a medal for the long missive on this topic. You are a writer!

Edittorrent said...

Don as antihero... hmm. He is the protagonist, so that helps. Also he is morally ambiguous-- has a mistress, is hiding his past, and also really regards his wife as an ornament. So.. he's definitely not yet a hero, if he ever becomes one.

Anonymous said...

First, thanks for turning me onto this show. I hadn't heard of it before. The online episode hooked me, and I immediately put season one at the top of our Netflix queue.

The show is very well written (and acted and directed). The only parts I thought were weak were the Salvatore bits. He was too far over the top. These mad men are bigoted chauvinists, but they're not stupid. How could none of them figured out Salvatore's secret? I found this very jarring. His first scene spoiled my suspension of disbelief. (The second was more plausible. "I'm Italian," was an excellent deflection, and you could believe the other men were too distracted to notice his slip.)

I think it should have been played much subtler, at least in Salvatore's first scene. Some viewers might have gotten an inkling of what was going on. Later, there could have been a reveal, and those attentive viewers would get the thrill of having guessed correctly.

Rendering Salvatore's sexuality obvious enough for us to catch on in three seconds and also expecting us to believe that his coworkers have never noticed is absurd.

Edittorrent said...

Yes, but Sal's demeanor is contradicted by his words. Remember the trinity -- we show character by what they say, what they do, and how others react to them.

Sal SAYS heterosexual things.
Sal ACTS in a way that we read as homosexual.
Characters REACT in two different ways depending on whether they belong to the environment where his deception is perceived as truth. Only outsiders react to his inner truth, first this woman in the strip club, and later in the series, the Belle Jolie lipstick guy.

And that's how you pull off an inconsistent or duplicitous character.


Edittorrent said...

Also, it's 1960, and even in Manhattan, most heterosexual men probably didn't have much contact with men they knew to be gay.

And Sal laughing and saying that he is Italian could work. John Amaechi, a gay man who played in the NBA, said that his teammates mostly didn't realize he was gay (and this was in the 90s, when you think they'd be more savvy). He's English, and he just said they assumed any idiosyncracy was because he was a Brit!

He also said the NBA locker room was the gayest place he'd ever been-- the guys would primp and put on their jewelry and admire each other... and they were mostly straight. :)