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Monday, 31 May 2010

All In The Chemistry

Last night I was watching one of my all-time favourite films, Victor/Victoria starring Julie Andrews, James Garner and Robert Preston.

For anyone who doesn't know the plot this is it in a nutshell: Victoria (Andrews) is a down-and-out singer in Paris, 1934. While trying to get a free dinner (by letting a cockroach loose in the salad, of course) she makes the acquaintance of Carol 'Toddy' Todd (Preston), gay and recently unemployed himself. When Victoria's clothes shrink in the rain Toddy gets the chance to see her dressed as a man and has a wonderful idea - if she can't make it as a female singer she'll make a splash as a female impersonator instead. It's simple really: a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman. All goes well until Victoria falls for tough nightclub owner, King Marchand (Garner).

The best thing for me in this movie (apart from the exquisite score) is the palpable chemistry, not between Andrews and Garner but between Andrews and Preston. Some relationships in films just work, whether they're romantic or not, and this one most definitely did. But it got me thinking: chemistry in film is so easy to spot... but what about chemistry on the page? Writing fiction where the characters seem like more than cardboard cut-outs speaking opposite each other is a difficult task.

One definition of chemistry is 'a natural mutual rapport'. It's easy to see why it's more complicated to spot in a novel: actors have the benefit of gazing into each other's eyes whereas when an author writes something to that effect nine times out of ten it comes across as cheesy and contrived. So are there any methods of inducing chemistry to join your work?

One thing I'm trying at the moment is looking at character models and finding their polar opposites because, after all, opposites do attract. The book I'm referring to as far as archetypal models go is 45 Master Characters by Victoria Lynn Schmidt. It's a good, no-nonsense book about mythic models with references to examples for each type. For instance, the Seductive Muse archetype is documented with examples such as Sally Bowles (Cabaret), Samantha Jones (Sex and the City) and Scarlett O'Hara (Gone With the Wind). The beauty of this book for me is that it gives you real references to work from. I can often imagine who my character is like but having a model on hand to consult usually helps me round the character out a little more.

Then comes the chemistry bit. Schmidt suggests that the natural pairings to the Seductive Muse are the Woman's Man, the Messiah, the Recluse and Mystic, or the Amazon. All have different qualities of their own and depending on what your particular story requires you pick the relevant option. It might seem a little too character-by-numbers and constrained for some people but remember it's only a starting point.

If you have two characters who have some relationship in that they either contradict or compliment each other then you have the basis for chemistry I think.

As for a couple of examples about the chemistry I've spotted in novels: Lily Bart and Lawrence Selden in Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth, Maud and Sue in Sarah Waters' Fingersmith, and Walter Hartright and Marian Halcombe in The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins are a few of my favourites.

The fact that only one of those couples ended up together is incidental. Victoria didn't end up with Toddy, after all, but their rapport still remains the highlight of the film each time I watch it.

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