Monday, October 27, 2008

Character: A Mirage Made in Heaven

Plot-driven stories often amaze and astound us into reading on into a series of events we know to be contrived and manipulated, their very complexity and puzzle-like intricacy being the engine that dries us. A successfully intricate plot can actually cause the reader to suspend disbelief at the behavior of the characters, investing interest instead in the construction rather than the peeling of the onion of character.

Character-driven stories amaze and astound us into reading further, thanks to a series of revelations about the individuals portrayed. Often these revelations have to do with some quirk, flaw, or radical social differentiation. My own argument about these revelations of differentiation has it that as readers we are approached with coded language that promises us insight into behavior and traits we suspect to be resident in our selves. Sanguine about my opening of this particular can of worms, I site one Humbert Humbert as an example of such a character, caught up in a character-driven story. My own particular line drawn in that particular sand has not so much to do with morality as the very opposite--self-interest. Some young ladies of Dolores Haze's age are, to be sure, attractive, but so are ladies two and three times her age as well, each group having more opportunity for contacting interests and sensible partnerships with less potential for mischief. To seal the bargain and simultaneously give the sexual side of attraction its weighty due, there are other aspects present such as social, political, artistic (including musical), historical, and of course the literary.

Author-driven stories have the potential for grabbing reader attention and holding on throughout the duration of the tale, but on reflection I often find myself growing uneasy at the author's constant reach for the attention I would more easily relinquish to the characters themselves. W. Somerset Maugham had the ability to insert himself into short and long form fiction with a seamless easy. George Bernard Shaw floundered in his attempts at fiction before he found his voice in drama for this very reason. Henry James floundered in drama with the same condition, finding his way as a deliberate author manipulator.It is probable that my experience as editor and teacher have made me more sensitive to and restive of this narrative approach, just as my long years of trying for traction in the plot-driven story have made me more sensitive to the awareness that this is not the sandbox in which I am most comfortable.

Writers such as Louise Erdrich, Ruth Rendell, Jim Harrison, Richard Powers, Richard Price yank me in by the collar and hold me by the way they reveal secrets about their people, making me feel in each case as though I were going through the process of friendship and discovery by slow, cautious degree, the intimacy forming from a recognition that somewhere within, there is a community of interest, that although we are of different times, places, and backgrounds, I share the most important thing of all with the characters these individuals and others like them create. That thing is fantasy. I recognize in theirs the edges and formations of my own. The result seems at first like pure intuitive magic, but it is no such thing. It is something more wonderful than magic it is empathy.

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