Friday, December 26, 2008

Three Ways of Looking at a Character

first person--a form of dramatic narrative in which an individual using the pronoun I becomes the filter through whom the events of the drama are filtered; not necessarily Adam, as implied in some texts, but rather a presence who becomes the author's appointed agent to relate the details of a fictional history. The first person narrative became popular at a time when it was believed that the narrator was relating actual events in actual settings, a belief that resurfaced during the middle years of the twentieth century when a confession-romance literature of I-narratives found massmarket magazine audiences.

The first person narrator may play a direct role in the story being related, in which case he or she becomes the individual in whom the reader invests emotional and psychological capital, a notable example being the eponymous narrator of Saul Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March. The first person narrator may also play an ancillary role in the story such as Nick Caraway in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, a presence used to good example by the author as it became apparent that Caraway was being exploited by the major focus, Gatsby.

As with all other points of view, the writer must endow the first person narrator with enough quirks, obstacles, relevant background, and goals to provide a distinct personality, including but not limited to vocabulary, a place on the optimism/pessimism scale, prejudices and antipathies, and a history with some relevance to the story at hand.

Having constructed the platform of attitudes and goals for the first person narrator, the writer must then quantify a place for the character on the naive scale, in which the writer assesses how relatively naive or realistic the character is. The naive narrator does not see individuals and events the same way as cynical or realistic narrators might, thus does interpretation become an important factor in the forces driving the first person narrator.

One of the stated technical disadvantages for having a first person narrator is the need for that individual to appear in every scene in order to be able with plausibility to relate the scene to the reader. With a little thought, the writer will quickly see through this limitation by, for example, allowing the narrator to be "off stage" at a particular event, the hear the details of the event from one or more other characters. This limitation may also extend well into the past by having the first person narrator encounter diaries journals, or newspaper accounts of an event that took place earlier. A greater technical obstacle still apparent is the overuse of the pronoun I, which stands just a tad more virulent than obvious and ungainly locutions used to avoid the obvious repetitions of the I.

Two splendid examples of first person narrative are Charles Dickens' Great Expectations and Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, each of which has survived the Still Readable and Inspiring After A Hundred Years in Print test, and one of the most enduring first person narratives, "Call me Ishmael," had to have bee written in first person because Ishmael was the only survivor of the ill-fated Pequod.

About the appropriateness of first person narrative, critics, editors, and teachers are divided; it is an idiosyncratic call best answered by listening to the characters, who should have a hand in the decision of their being rendered as I or he or she. The true test to be applied to a character is the plausibility that character presents to the reader.

synecdoche--a figure of speech that is first-cousin to the metaphor, it posits the whole being greater than the sum of its parts or the parts representing the whole, or the parts of one thing relating to the whole or parts of another thing. A gifted surgeon, for example, may be referred to and represented by her hands. Similarly, there is the synecdochal long arm of the law; a crew, particularly of a ship, being referred to as hands; plastic being used as a symbol for credit cards, which of course obviate the need for carrying around sums of paper, or money. Knowing the synecdoche may result in a higher SAT score and be good for points in a literary criticism course, but it may also have the unwanted effect of becoming an albatross or weight about the neck (or any other part) of a story, so much so that its over abundance will cause editors and readers to defect.

When the subject of metaphorical writing comes up, it should be regarded in the same way as weather reports and landscapes are regarded--with extreme caution. For writers such as Raymond Chandler, they--the metaphors and synecdoches--arrived as appropriate devices that shed shorthand light on a situation, an attitude, a condition, a character--not as a blinking neon sign calling attention to the writer's cleverness. By all means, note and admire them when they are found in the work of other writers, but do not try to get them into your own work through some sense of literary nepotism. If they are to come in your work, they will come of their own, and even then should be subject to critical scrutiny. Do they make things better, or do they in negative synecdoche become the literary equivalent of an energetic kid, showing off in class?

bigger than life--a quality often attributed to characters after the fact of their having been read; a sense of an individual having a combination of traits, qualities, goals, and strategies that make him or her memorable for individuality while at the same time representing a particular type, thus, for example the adjective quixotic as it represents Don Quixote, who left an indelible reference guide on a segment of society. Not to be confused with implausible behavior, the concept of bigger than life reflects a vision of an individual that radiates either a single quality or warring internal qualities. Consider Pat Conroy's bigger than life Lieutenant Bull Meecham, from his novel The Great Santini. By all accounts an argumentative, bigoted, bullying sort, Meecham was a dazzling aviator, a man who metaphorically was king of the clouds, a man who, when the choice unexpectedly fell on him, risked then gave his life to save others, causing readers to feel shock and grief at his death. Another bigger than life character for splendid example is The Wife of Bath from The Canterbury Tales, a portrait of a woman with attitude, goals, and grace who has remained an out-of-the-ordinary paradigm for five hundred years.

It is possible to track bigger than life individuals from the distant past, when characters were either of noble rank or forged on the field of battle, or in the castle drawing room, or otherworldly, but effective drama now is about remarkable men and women from more modest stations in life, performing in ways that belie the limitations that go with their situations; men and women who sense talents and obligations which they--not being able to afford horses or cars--walk to greatness.

Bigger than life characters are made of the clay of ambition, responsibility, love, devotion, and vision necessary to seek and then effect change. To render them, the writer needs to know who his characters are, what his characters want, what they are willing to endure to get what they want.


Kate Lord Brown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Matt said...

Agreed on your view of "cleverness" and the caution it should be approached with.

Kate Lord Brown said...

Hi Shelly - wishing you and yours a very happy holiday. Dickens - Twain - Faulkner? How do you feel about 'As I Lay Dying?' It was a formative text for me .. just handed in a second book - 15 first person view points, feeling somewhat anxious.