[Shown above: the rare and valuable Leopard Devil Ducky.]
It looks as if I need to talk more about the issues raised in the previous Rubber Ducky post, as people are tossing me troubling comments and questions. (Of course, if I weren’t troubled about the whole issue in the first place, I probably wouldn’t be writing these posts.)
Chayefsky never laid out a general theory of the Rubber Ducky—it was simply a dismissive comment he sometimes made, and director Sidney Lumet (who came from the theatre) picked it up from their conversations and spread it around.
I certainly don’t think Chayefsky meant that past events could never act as motivators or couldn’t shape characters. I think the reasons he chose to represent the sort of thing he objected to as a “Rubber Ducky” are:
1) A ducky is a small, insignificant item
2) A ducky isn't even cuddly, like a favorite stuffed animal
3) A ducky hasn’t got much intrinsic logical or symbolic connection to anything of import
That is, I think Chayefsky was referring to motivators that were too tiny or too irrelevant to seem sensible. His main target was 1950s TV dramas, which often explained away, rather than explained, someone’s extreme or deranged behavior by jumping into the past—usually in the last few minutes of the show--and offering up some irrelevant childhood trauma.
One must remember that in those days discussions of sex, must less sexual abuse or incest, were strictly verboten in American television. In our more enlightened times, we don’t really need Rubber Duckies, because Childhood Sexual Abuse has become the all-purpose explanation for character damage: it’s simple, you need not get too specific, everybody agrees it’s a Big Deal, and exactly how it relates to the adult characters personality need not be explored. Whether you’re describing Charles Manson or Joan of Arc, all you need to do is mumble “childhood sexual abuse” and your audience is supposed to nod knowingly as if that clarifies everything. (Post-traumatic stress syndrome is quickly taking over the former role of childhood sexual abuse, as it’s more flexible and can include sexual abuse.)
As usual, I digress. I guess what makes a backstory element a Rubber Ducky is when that element is fundamentally unsatisfying.
Now, here’s a question. Citizen Kane’s Rosebud: Rubber Ducky, or not?
I’d argue that Rosebud isn’t a ducky because it is a symbol of what Charles Foster Kane had taken away from him—which is basically his whole family and childhood. In fact, the sled isn’t taken away from him at all—he still has it when he dies. The sled is meant to take us back to the (less than idyllic) childhood scene we are shown earlier in the film.
Can I believe that someone grows up to have an unquenchable thirst for admiration and love because they can no longer go sledding? Not really. But because they were torn away from their family and raised by stern, cold guardians? Sure. Rosebud is simply meant to connect Kane’s two worlds in our minds.
I believe, however, that Citizen Kane had an unhealthy effect on the minds of many writers. The revelation of Rosebud illuminated the entire foregoing film, and often provoked gasps from people seeing it for the first time. Who wouldn’t like to have that sort of effect on an audience? (I think O. Henry’s short stories—which I admire—had a similar effect on many writers, making them believe that the whole purpose of a story was to surprise the reader at the very end.)
Like most issues in writing, how the reader responds is everything. Is that engrossing exposition, or an info-dump? An unforeseen but symbolically perfect accident, or a deus ex machina? A POV transition, or head-hopping?
A brilliant backstory element, or a Rubber Ducky? That’s the kind of thing I wring my hands over as I write. Which is a problem, as you can't type with any precision when you're wringing your hands...
(Actually, this makes me want to write a novel where taking away someone's rubber ducky plays a pivotal role. With enough attention and craft, I think you can make anything work...)