Wednesday, April 11, 2007

A man's character is his fate.--Heraclitus

What are the qualities in real life that draw us to some individuals and cause us to shun others?

What are the qualities in fiction that draw us to some individuals and bring us even closer to others?

What are the qualities in a biography or history that cause the reader to avidly pursue a narrative he might otherwise have ignored?

These are questions I ask myself with some regularity, hopeful of a useful answer, questions I ask my students, hopeful of useful answers from them, questions of every book I might easily not have picked up in the first place, much less read all the way through.

Was Heraclituson to something way back there, before the Common Era, or was his pronouncement merely a lucky discovery? He was also the one who observed that one could not bathe in the same river twice, or as Ezra Pound put it, "all things are flowing, Sage Heraclitus says..." It begins to add up: Heraclitus had a handle on things--and on us as a species. In a lovely kind of calculus, Heraclitus should get writing credits on that lyric we associate with Frank Sinatra, "I gotta be me," and by extension, some of his buddies, whose song could well have been, "I gotta be Frank."

Characters are agendas and forces, set in motion. You don't have to read very far into Shakespeare's Richard III to find out who he is, what he wants, nor indeed what he is willing to do to get it. In Act I, Scene II, we see him in action, trying to take steps toward that goal, catching some remarkable flack along the way from Lady Anne, on whose husband and father-in-law he has just had a twofer Soprano job performed.

Scene II begins at the funeral, and Lady Anne says:

Set down, set down your honourable load,
If honour may be shrouded in a hearse,
Whilst I awhile obsequiously lament
The untimely fall of virtuous Lancaster.
Poor key-cold figure of a holy king!
Pale ashes of the house of Lancaster!
Thou bloodless remnant of that royal blood!
Be it lawful that I invocate thy ghost,
To hear the lamentations of Poor Anne,
Wife to thy Edward, to thy slaughter'd son,
Stabb'd by the selfsame hand that made these wounds!
Lo, in these windows that let forth thy life,
I pour the helpless balm of my poor eyes.
Cursed be the hand that made these fatal holes!
Cursed be the heart that had the heart to do it!
Cursed the blood that let this blood from hence!
More direful hap betide that hated wretch,
That makes us wretched by the death of thee,
Than I can wish to adders, spiders, toads,
Or any creeping venom'd thing that lives!
If ever he have child, abortive be it,
Prodigious, and untimely brought to light,
Whose ugly and unnatural aspect
May fright the hopeful mother at the view;
And that be heir to his unhappiness!
If ever he have wife, let her he made
A miserable by the death of him
As I am made by my poor lord and thee!
Come, now towards Chertsey with your holy load,
Taken from Paul's to be interred there;
And still, as you are weary of the weight,
Rest you, whiles I lament King Henry's corse.

Whereupon Glouster, he who wants to become Richard III, enters, and we get the relentless pursuit of character, his and Lady Anne's:


Stay, you that bear the corpse, and set it down.


What black magician conjures up this fiend,
To stop devoted charitable deeds?


Villains, set down the corpse; or, by Saint Paul,
I'll make a corpse of him that disobeys.

Having worked the room as it were and securing Lady Anne's grudging assent for him to court her romantically, Gloucester is now alone on stage, reflecting:

Was ever woman in this humour woo'd?
Was ever woman in this humour won?
I'll have her; but I will not keep her long.
What! I, that kill'd her husband and his father,
To take her in her heart's extremest hate,
With curses in her mouth, tears in her eyes,
The bleeding witness of her hatred by;
Having God, her conscience, and these bars
against me,
And I nothing to back my suit at all,
But the plain devil and dissembling looks,
And yet to win her, all the world to nothing!

There, in that remarkable scene, we see not only poetic evidence of Shakespeare's sublime reach but proof of his mastery of character. We see character in all its gritty, complex splendor.

My approach for getting at the essence of character is the three-part quiz stated earlier: Who are they? What do they want? What are they willing to do to get what they want?

You could with some great effect add two more questions to the list: What are they most fearful of being discovered about them? How do they behave if they get what they want?

Another approach is to discover the character's basic need. Not just money to pay the rent or to rent a tux for the prom, but the quintessential need, the existential need each of us is thought to have.

One of the reasons we turn to biography and fiction is because many of those we see in real life have so adumbrated and buried their needs and goals as to seem lackluster, guarded, boring. For various reasons of our own, we want people who crave achievement or possession or power or freedom or-- We want people who have their wishes on a cosmic gift registry, because we know that people who want are likely to take steps.

We also know that people who get what they want also do things, but that, as they say, is another story, one writers love to exploit.

We cannot begin to exploit until we know them, those intriguing cultural alter egos, Characters. We love to warn them off, identify with them, second-guess them, relish in their pratfalls, even though we know at heart that we are being manipulated by their author. We remember them well beyond the point of remembering the plot points in which they are set. It would be virtually impossible for all but the most devoted Mark Twain scholar to recount the full plot, the Auto Club marked map, as it were, of Huckleberry Finn, but we all know that there ain't no more to write and I'm rotten glad of it," and we all know that Huck is about to take off for the territory ahead because Aunt Sally wants to civilize him, and he can't stand it, because he's been there before.

Sitting through a play or a movie, our interest quickly lags if the needs and agendas of the characters seem stripped of true ambition. As completely out of sympathy as I am for the brother in Joe Orton's stunning play, Entertaining Mr. Sloan,I empathize with him because he has revealed his desire for something to the point where he has effected a compromise with the known universe, his known universe, to achieve it. And so I am made to empathize with him.

By turning the kaleidoscope of character just a tad, I come to see Hamlet in yet another perspective. Through the simple expedient of imagining the protagonist to be King Claudius rather than his nephew, I empathize with him and see that all he wanted was to be king and perhaps get a few licks in with Gertrude, for whom he always had a sneaker.

Boils down to this: All characters in a narrative think they are right. Even serial killers are acting out a scenario they have somehow come by. As writers, we need to understand how they come by their scenario, what it is, and how it informs their subsequent behavior.

Just remember, they'll lie to you if they have to.

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