Sometimes a Cigar is Just a Cigar…Even in Fiction

In my last post I mentioned theatre, which got me thinking about something over the last few days.

As an actor, I’ve worked with directors and acting coaches who insist that everything one does on stage must be motivated. Motivated is a huge concept in acting. So huge in fact it’s often misapplied: seen as the philosopher’s stone, by which every moment on stage is justified.

Motivation is certainly important, but as as Freud is alleged to have said once, “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” In other words, if you accept the attribution, Freud is saying, “even I sometimes see something that doesn’t represent genitalia, and you know how fond I am genitalia symbolism!”

All right, I oversimplified that, and I also was a bit of a smart ass in doing so. Yet there is an underlying truth in it; some things just happen, some objects just exist, and so on. There doesn’t have to be an intrinsic, hidden meaning behind everything.

Take my acting example. If I am portraying a character giving a speech while sitting at a table, I may at some point gesticulate by wiping my hand across that table at some point. The type of director’s I mentioned at the start of this post would want to know why I decided to do that. Answering that it was simply a random gesture that came forth organically from the character I am creating is not acceptable to such people. If I cannot explain why i glided my hand to the right instead of the left, or what it was about the particular word I was saying at the exact moment I made the gesture, I haven’t justified the movement at all.

In short, I find this approach to be, well, bogus. While theater is not a hyper-realistic recreation of everyday life, we should be able to recognize, both as actor and as audience, a degree of normalcy in most characters and plays. This means that people, going throughout the course of their day, do not always have a direct, discernible motivation for every action they take. Sometimes we rap our fingers on a table, click our teeth, or play with a rubber band while we’re thinking. Each of these actions can of course be motivated by a very specific desire or emotion or characterization,  but sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Life, in other words, is filled with unmotivated actions and moments. People are alive, and their brains generally go a million miles a minutes. Running our fingers along the edge of a table, or leaning back in our chairs while taking is often just a by-product of complex, self-aware, conscious lifeforms going about their day.

I have the same view as an author of fiction.

Like theatre, fiction cannot be expected to be an exact realistic transcription of how humans in any situation behave in life. Events move faster in fiction. Pages of things like , “Um, well, ya know, ahh” are excised from our dialogue in fiction, even though most people will fall back on these semi-conscious verbal crutches many times through a day. When character’s do talk, it might be a highly stylized literary type of speech, depending on what you’re writing.

Fiction, even realistic fiction, is not on the exact same plane as actual life. Yet, in most cases that are not experimental or absurdist in nature, fiction should be a reasonable facsimile of life in the real world. This means that sometimes our characters, just to seem alive, just tap their fingers on tables, kick a piece of trash across the road while walking, and in general do the little, unmotivated things I mentioned before.

“Every single letter, word, phrase and sentence must matter in your fiction,”  we’re told. “If your story can be told without even the slightest mention of something, get rid of that something. Kill your darlings!”

Yes, all right, I get your meta-point; don’t waste words or your reader’s time. Fair enough. But I can’t off the top of my head think of any novel that would have collapsed without its mention of someone blowing the steam off of their tea in one moment, or a description a a tiny bird that flies by, never to be seen or mentioned again in the rest of the pages. Yet such moments abound in much fiction. Why? I don’t want to speak for other authors, but my guess is that they don’t exist because the structural integrity of their entire manuscript depends on mentioning that “my father whistled as he painted.” My guess is that such moments exist because they give depth, and make scenes more natural.

People just do…stuff. Yes, kill your darlings to some extent, because you can’t have a whole chapter describing how grandma took her coffee. (Though people write that way, anyway.) But not every little thing that doesn’t reveal character or move the plot forward is extraneous, though that’s often the sage wisdom we find on writer pages. It’s important to me that people view the characters in most of my fiction as people, who do “people things,” and that is the reason they lean against the telephone pole while they explain something, or crumple a soon-to-be-forgotten napkin in such a manner. It’s life. The little things that come about as a result of being what humans are. That to me is enough of a reason to include those small touches, in proportion to the things that do move the plot of reveal character.

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Whether Freud really said it, or whether it applied to genitalia doesn’t matter. What matters is that we remember to apply this to our writing, even as we set out to kill all those darlings.

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4 Comments

  1. Laura W.

    “Answering that it was simply a random gesture that came forth organically from the character I am creating is not acceptable to such people.”

    Part of my training this past semester in graduate school was movement theatre, where we worked on movement and gesture. Some of the gestures we developed were worked into the show and the characters, so that each character had a distinct physical life/form. The idea is to get actors out of their own physical tics and habits and get them to more fully embody a character.

    A gesture like one you described is probably timed to create emphasis. In my opinion, that’s all the justification it needs. It could also be a tic that the character has, or a gesture that fits within the range of motion of a character who tends to make short, sharp, linear movements. …Just a few ideas if you need to BS an answer on a random gesture to the director.

  2. Exactly, Laura. (Though I confess I have not had as concise an answer to the question in the past as what you say here.) It should be enough, unless one gets one of those socratic directors who ask “why, why, why” until someone is forced to say they don’t know. But I avoid those types when I can.

    • “Why, why, why” when done right can be an invitation to collaborate on an answer. Or it can be an excuse to browbeat an actor into admitting how smart the director is. :/

  3. True, I have seen both types, and taken acting classes in the last several years with same.

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