The Enlightened Assassin’s Agenda

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The Enlightened Assassin’s Agenda

Eric Witchey

My agenda today is to move my readers toward more specific articulation of their character agendas. If there’s any overlap between handling dramatic characters in text and managing our own lives, it is purely coincidental and has little or nothing to do with me or my agenda.

In a recent conversation with a writer, I said something that she then sent back to me as an important quote. At the time I said it, the words meant little to me. Having them sent back to me as important to someone else made me look at them again. Here’s what I apparently said,

“The more specific you are on agendas, the more proactive the agendas become and the stronger the scene becomes.”

Hm, says I. Isn’t that like setting identifiable, quantifiable, achievable goals? In moments of hubris, haven’t most writers entertained fantasies of accolades, awards, and glory? Even the humblest of us have at one moment or another had J.K. Rowling’s name evoke at least a little wish to be richer than the Queen.

Of course, those visions of grandeur are generally beyond our control. Even if we follow the advice of every well-established writing productivity and personal self-help guru alive, we have to acknowledge that a number of things have to happen at the right times and in the right order. We can control how hard we work. We can control how focused on the craft we are. We can control how much we risk and how often we put ourselves out there for consideration. To an extent, we can control how we use our financial, physical, and emotional resources to pursue our paths to publication.

However, we can’t control where we started in life, our beginning cultural currency, the attitudes we were trained to and had to overcome, the beliefs we had to recognize were not useful, the dynamics of family and language that both support and limit us. We can’t control the coronavirus, the economic swings of the nation, the consolidation of publishers, changes in marketing attitudes toward various demographics groups, or the wind on the wings of the Peking butterfly.

Still, as one writing friend once told me, “Lightning can strike anyone, but it helps to put up a lightning rod.”

So, when writers meet to set our goals, we look for the things we can measure, execute within our limited awareness of the world, and pat ourselves on the back for achieving. We whittle away at the greater obstacles, and we hope the moment comes when the lightning rod of hard work and focused effort over time pays off by attracting a strike that powers us for our next sustained effort.

So why is it that as writers we create characters with agendas like, “She wants to feel respected by her culture?” Don’t get me wrong. I think that is an important theme, but it is pretty useless as a scene agenda.

When I talk about character agendas, I often parrot one of my teachers, James N. Frey, who said, “EVERY character on stage has an agenda they are trying to execute. Conflict is the execution of mutually exclusive agendas.”

My favorite scenario for describing this, which I may have gotten and modified from Jim, is the pizza delivery man at the door. In the scene, there are three characters. An assassin, the person who lives in the house, and the pizza delivery guy. The agendas are all working against one another:

  • Assassin wants to kill homeowner and slip away.
  • Homeowner wants the pizza guy to call for help.
  • Pizza guy wants to be paid for the pizza.

The stakes are life and death for the homeowner. The stakes are professional success/failure and maybe honor or several other intangibles for the assassin—perhaps even incarceration or death. The stakes for the pizza delivery person are minimum wages, tips, and maybe some distracting fantasy they have going on about someone else on their delivery list.

Which brings up another point.

If Pizza has some adolescent male otaku Japanese anime-driven fantasy about the hot schoolgirl he’ll be delivering too next, then he has another agenda that his current scene agenda contributes to. He wants to get paid so he can deliver the next to pizza to the object of his creepy obsession.

If Homeowner wants Pizza to call the police and live through the afternoon and, perhaps, get information about why someone is trying to kill them because their daughter will be devastated to lose another parent, they also have another agenda that their current agenda contributes to.

Assassin might also have an overarching agenda. Assassin wants to get finished, get paid, and move on to the next job so they can build a strong enough reputation to be able to pick and choose jobs that will let them influence the world order and eventually retire to a personal island in the Caribbean from which they believe they will pull world-wide political strings and usher in an age of greater peace and prosperity for all.

However, right now in this moment in this scene, knife to the skin over the homeowner’s kidneys, Assassin wants the pizza guy to go away. Right now, Assassin only wants privacy.

Right now, in this moment with the knife in their back and Pizza outside the door, Homeowner only wants Pizza to get a clue and call for help.

Right now, large veggie pie in hand, door open so they can only see Homeowner and not Assassin, Pizza wants to be paid and, if possible, tipped well—quickly.

The agendas are, to take a line from the gurus of goal setting, specific, measurable, and reasonably achievable. If achieved or not achieved, each agenda for each character has an immediate impact on the character’s wellbeing and life in the moment.

In the larger dramatic sense, each agenda also has an impact beyond the moment for all the characters on stage.

If Pizza gets what he wants, he’s off to the next delivery and his inevitable disappointment. Homeowner will not get what they want. Assassin will quite likely get what they want, but maybe not. The fight in the foyer is another conflict to play out.

If Homeowner gets what they want, they might survive and get information, but Pizza will not get what he wants. Assassin will not get what they want—at least not all of it. They may end up killing two people and losing the ability to slip away.

If Assassin gets what they want, Homeowner is dead. Pizza may or may not get what they want. Who knows? Perhaps Pizza will become an apprentice to Assassin.

The point for writers developing dramatic scenes is that:

“The more specific you are on agendas, the more proactive the agendas become and the stronger the scene becomes.”

If the scene opens with the setup described earlier and the writer sees each character agenda as something less specific, the potential of the dramatic moment changes radically. Starting with a vaguer agenda than discussed so far and moving toward the global, vague, more like a theme statements we get things like this:

  • Assassin wants to be the best assassin.
  • Homeowner wants to be a good parent.
  • Pizza wants to get a raise or something.

In this scenario, the Homeowner could be anyone. Pizza guy might be motivated to move quickly, so he could just drop the pie off and go. No reason not to if the ticket was paid over the phone or online. Homeowner might beg because they want to see their daughter, but the agenda statement doesn’t focus their choices to allow selection of a specific set of tactics beyond that. Assassin might see killing Homeowner and Pizza as becoming the “best assassin.” They might see killing one and getting away while people chase them as becoming the best assassin. There are a million “best assassin” possibilities here.

Let’s create broader, vaguer agendas further outside the dramatic moment.

  • Assassin wants to go on vacation.
  • Homeowner wants to be a good parent and chairperson of the HOA.
  • Pizza wants to go home and boost his buzz.

These agendas might be true, but they are not specific in the moment. The types of motivations this filter encourages don’t lend themselves immediately to tactic development.

If I’m Homeowner and chief among my concerns is that I want to be a good parent and head of the HOA, connecting parenting and HOA to evading assassin behavior is a stretch. It works for comedic effect, but in that case, it is actually quite specific and reveals the mental problems of Homeowner. Homeowner might be engaged with the assassin on the manager’s worst nightmare level of, “Do you know who I am? I’m the next manager of the HOA. Did Karen VanSitling put you up to this? She’s been after the chair for…”

Now, Assassin can kill them, and Reader will applaud. It’s all good.

However, Pizza might as well be an unused chair in this scenario.

Let’s get vaguer:

  • Assassin wants satori.
  • Homeowner wants the respect never received from their parents.
  • Pizza wants to rise to CEO of the franchise system.

Now, the agendas are bordering on themes that might be stated more like this:

  • Becoming a perfect killer is a type of enlightenment.
  • Adherence to early life rules and values never heals the wounded child within.
  • Ambition and diligence are the path to wealth and power.

These might be true in the story. Certainly, I’m not stating them as true in any context other than the context of a story. However, at the best they only provide nuance in the dramatic moment in a specific scene. These vague agendas/themes do not allow a writer to discover or design possible tactics for achieving an immediate result in-scene.

That said, a set of nested agendas such that each specific agenda is a contributor to a larger agenda might allow for development of details that would enhance the scene. This set of agendas might provide insight into exactly what each character would do in the moment. Assassin’s agenda might look like this:

  • Assassin wants to kill homeowner and slip away.
    • in order to build skills to become the best assassin.
      • in order to go on vacation.
        • in order to create spiritual balance.
          • in order to one day achieve satori through their art.

Suddenly, the blade at the kidneys will be held a specific way. The words whispered in the ear of Homeowner must be considered carefully in both context of the moment and in terms of how Assassin sees the moment in relationship to their higher-level aspirations. Consider how this cascade of agenda elements can affect a line like this one:

  • …pressed her back against the wall, using the door as a blind to cover her presence and the blade she held to Homeowner’s back…

If each layer influences the moment, the physical reality of the blade, the door, and the wall remain the same, but the language might change to something more like this:

  • Smooth, black silk slid between the skin of her back and the coolness of Homeowner’s stucco wall, and she brought her thoughts back from that distraction, returning her focus to the transience of breath, the inevitability of mortality at the point of her blade, and the rhythm of the pulsing jugular of Homeowner’s neck. A skilled assassin might see the vein’s rise and fall as a tell, but a Pizza delivery boy distracted by material gain, hormone-laden blood, and cold night air would not perceive the interconnections of life and death and knowing and unknowing in the words that would arrive on the wave of Homeowner’s next breath. Assassin found within the silence that gave a shape to the perception she would spend on those final, important words. Later, perhaps on the beach while meditating, she would savor the moment and seek the meaning within the words.

Homeowner said, “. . .”

Of course, I have made the leap to Assassin being the POV character. I’ll leave building the nested agendas of the other characters and writing the moment from their POV as a game to play later. The point here is that the agendas are nested. The outcome of the moment will have an impact on all the layers of each character’s beliefs and desires. To get the best result, the most immediate agenda—the desire of each character at this moment, in this breath, in this heartbeat—should be as specific as possible.

-End-

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