Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Character Traits

iconic characters--memorable individuals in dramatic narratives; presences in stories whose attitudes and bearing outweigh the plot of the narrative.

A significant test by which to assess the memorability of a character is to determine what that character wants--really wants, then decide what that character will to to achieve the goal. Why is Hedda Gabler so memorable and what did she want. Why is Lady Macbeth so memorable? Perhaps for her insistent urge for power, but just as likely because of the first words out of her mouth when Macbeth returns to her, having already had one change of heart before screwing up the courage to murder Malcolm. "My husband!" she affirms.

Consider this list of characters culled from the ages:

Antigone: she was willing to put her life on the line for insisting on doing what she believed to be right.
Anton Chigurh: not just an enforcer or a hired killer but as well a control freak of epic proportions.
Becky Sharp: known for her bigger-than-life opportunism.
Captain Ahab: at the very least, he was so bent on revenge that he overrode his religious tradition and risked damnation to achieve it.
Captain Spaulding: with more than his greasepaint eyebrows to call him to our attention, his every act flies in the face of comfortable tradition and convention, and wouldn't we just like to get away with that?
Florentino Ariza: from Love in a Time of Cholera, his aching, unrequited love for Fermina Daza sends him through intimate encounters with over six hundred substitute lovers.
Fleur: this haunting presence of many a Louise Erdrich short story and some novels is incarnate a stunningly attractive Native American woman who years for a return to the old ways; she has the will and, seemingly, the magic to back up her presence.
Lewis and Clark: two military men who set forth on an assignment and in the process discovered a continent.
Jane Eyre: she rode plainness and intelligence and love into an archetype who spoke to Rochester across the Moors and to us across the eras.
Joan of Arc: a teen-age girl who hears voices and leads armies.
Omar Little: an impressive presence from the recent TV series The Wire, he made his living by robbing drug dealers. He had a code of honor, an ethos. The mere thought of him evokes memories of the sounds when he took to the Baltimore streets: "Yo! Omar commin! Here come Omar."
Sisyphus; from the Greek myths, a man who drew as punishment an eternity of the frustration of performing a meaningless task.
The Wife of Bath: an epitome of womanly force, spirit, and earthy intelligence. She would not be denied. Compare her to Erdrich's Fleur.
Wile E. Coyote: character write huge. Armed with Acme Products, Coyote is the patron saint of characters with established goals.

We must not forget the specific things these estimable icons want. To want something as abstract as freedom, independence, even love is to miss the point entirely and to miss the thrust of the true Valhalla of Characters: a specific something or someone; none had the time nor patience for abstractions.

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