Friday, October 24, 2008

A Test of Character

What do we most remember from reading a story or hearing a story read or, for that matter, of seeing and hearing a story performed?

Possible answers are:
authorial voice
a particular scene
descriptive qualities
surprise turn/reversal of fortune.

Although I did not always do so, I chose characters as the answer. My choice is not based on my observation that most readers make this selection; my choice is grounded in my own recognition of my own sense/feeling that characters are the things I am most likely to recall over time from stories and novels I have read. 

 Indeed, I cannot always remember the plots of some of the novels and stories I have written, but I can remember the characters, because of their very names--I once had a Germanic film director named Bert Schadenfreude, and I had as a pseudonym Craig Barstow and assumed his persona in order to write Westerns--or because of some tic of personality.

To defend my thesis that readers are more likely to remember characters than they are likely to remember plots, I cite the train of thought that characters embody the message, the theme and goals of the stories. 

 I don't remember many of the details in Vanity Fair, but I do know that Miss Becky Sharp was one opportunistic cookie, a personification of self-aggrandizement, a forerunner of contemporary novelist Candace Bushnell's Trading Up, in which wives are on the look out for a promotion to a better provider. I also argue that the choice of characters informs the theme of the story, confessing in the process that this recognition is my means of bringing some plot into my stories.

Characters, my argument continues, are by necessity bigger than life; no one wants to read about a character who is smaller. In his own wonderful way, Melville's Bartelby, for all his seeming passivity, was passively larger than passive-in-life; he became through his commitment to life a stronger force than his opponent; he was the protagonist; he and his vigorous choosing not to became the driving force of the story.

When we create such individuals, we put premium on what they want and what they are willing to do in order to achieve their goal. In some cases, we even show the effects on them of having got what they wanted then having experienced buyer's remorse.

Such individuals certainly have some point of origin in persons we see about us, as archetypes as well as actual individuals. They become armatures about which we wrap the details of our own imagination, allowing for the things they will say, think, do, and feel. They are prisms in that they refract the results of qualities with which we endow them, casting forth a spectrum of feelings and responses that speak directly to us and in the coded colors of the emotions.

We must treat these individuals with respect regardless of their origins or their place in our sensitivities, certainly in recognition of their places in our stories. We must not kick them when they are down nor heap adulation on them for all their accomplishments. They are, after all, born of our fantasies, which are, in fact, spectra of our own feelings. In a lovely calculus, writing about all our characters with respect, even the most despicable of them, sends the message to our own sense of self that the component parts of ourselves are worthy of respect.

For some time, I have made the additional argument that the writer is best served by respecting and adopting the techniques many of the so-called method actors employ, exercises by which we learn to be a particular individual on a moment-to-moment basis (see the Meisner Technique) as opposed to merely memorizing a script and giving it various attitudinal colors. 

There is a connection between how you would, for instance, portray Ahab, or The Wife of Bath and the way you would pull all your characters out of the shadows of cliche and derivativness and into the spectacular light of your own creation.

In summary: characters are your doorway to the kinds of discovery resident within memorable fiction, the qualities you most remember about your own favorite characters.

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