Borrowed from life vs. dominated by life

My sister bought me a membership to a local theater group that give me free admission to four shows a season. It's been a nice gift, although the problem with any local theater group when you do not live in a locality that draws talent from across the globe is that sometimes the local talent is talented, and sometimes it's...that other thing.

So I tend to avoid the shows that require large casts. Today I saw a two-man show that was excellent; a month ago I saw a one-man show that was so boring I managed to hit upon a solution for a home-improvement problem that had been bothering me.

The problem in the latter's case was not the actor; it was the script. Both shows were about real, historical people. But the excellent show was a story, and the boring show was just, you know, a story.

"Like, I met this guy once? And he was like, really interesting. He, like, grew up in Austria. And when the Nazis came, like, in 1939 or whenever they came to Austria, he was, like, 18, and he was like, NFW. I'm not sticking around here. He wasn't Jewish or anything, he just thought these people were appalling. So, he was a big hiker, right? So he walked from Austria to someplace in France where he got a boat ride to the UK! Then he moved here, to the US, and he's stayed here ever since."

Stretch that out for two hours, and you've got the boring play.

Now, I read the playbill, and the author of this play met the person the play is about in real life and blah-de-blah-blah and this really happened--it really happened--and the person was really real. And the author felt like he couldn't embellish or alter this person's story in the least, because they were a real real really real real person who most people didn't know about.

Well, you know something? The guy I was talking about three paragraphs up is a real person, too. What difference does that make? You don't want two freaking hours of me saying, Oh, yeah, this guy was cool.

Now, the excellent play was also about a real (really really real) person. It's also about a totally made-up person: Of the two characters in the play, one is a historical person and the other is an invention, who is something of a composite of some real people, plus a generous dash of I need to make this play work.

So guess what? The invented character has an arc: He learns from the real-life character and goes from being a Padawan to a Jedi. He's also a great foil to the real-life character: He's got a fantastic backstory, which is used to pull out revelations from the real-life character, as well as to illustrate the way the real-life character used and was affected by his own life experiences.

An arc and a foil--that is just too much to expect from someone in real life. And that's the point!

If you want to write about real life, do the research and write non-fiction. You will have to deal with stuff that doesn't work so well in a story (John Nash was a real dick, for example), but that's non-fiction--you have to be disciplined and tell the truth, even when it's unsavory or inconvenient.

When you cross the line into fiction (even "based on a true story" fiction), cross the line. Just go for it. I don't respect the truthfulness of the guy who wrote the boring play--I think he's a punk for not having the courage to write an interesting play. The discipline with fiction isn't the truth: It's the story. In fiction, the story comes before all.