Wednesday, January 13, 2010

How to Make Your Characters Responsible

It always seems better to learn of a character that he or she has had a background in which there was a problem or an issue or even something significant that needs to be overcome in order to put the character on some sort of equal footing with the rest of us. We will accept characters that start off in ways that remind us of ourself, but the clock is ticking as we wait for the lathe of fate to do some serious shaping.


However composed and competent they might seem on the surface, the more memorable characters step forth being bedeviled, which does not by any means mean a religious or spiritual crisis so much as it means they have experienced loss and disappointment to the point where they find it difficult to be as confident as they once were. They have dreams and plans, but they go on the energy of the dreams and plans to keep them afloat.

Characters are also made memorable by being astounded by something, the enormity of their dream, the impossibility of it, the overwhelming consequences of having managed to survive as long as they have.

Completing this trinity of afflictions is the lovely word fraught; memorable characters are fraught and they have blundered, wandered, or slipped into circumstances that are fraught, which is to say filled with afflictions and dangers, loaded with uncertainty, pressures, tensions.

Often we as individuals find enough palliative and comfort in our work that we will define our life as relaxed, satisfying, challenging, even rewarding, but all these adjectival conditions are cover-up to the fact of our being bewildered, astounded, and fraught. It is no wonder we are drawn to individuals in real life and to characters in books who resound at these frequencies; they are us.

It is difficult at the moment to draw significant connection between yourself and the character of Michael Henchard. True enough, from about age sixteen until about age thirty, you were going steady with fermented spirits. To say nothing of mind-altering drugs, you put away a small-but-eclectic ocean of booze, whatever ceiling of whatever bedroom loomed over your eyes, it was a whirling, spinning ceiling from which you were fortunate to escape ultimately by either falling asleep or losing consciousness. Henchard stands as an example of what you might have become because you had the temper Henchard possessed in Chapter One, when he did what he did. You are about to look closely at him again, a reread of The Mayor of Casterbridge, to see if it has more for you than in past readings, the same amount, or less, this to be your next Golden Oldie for review.

These Golden Oldie reviews are part of a plan you have for a book project that combines some of your favored themes of guilt literature, titles jostled away from public notice by pretentious newbies, and the characteristics of memorable characters. You are vocal--perhaps to the point of being a bit of a bore--on the subject of opening velocity for fiction, and you have for some time now been imagining a chapter entitled Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge: Opening Velocity Writ Large, in which this work, recommended to you by James Michener, stands as the quintessential opening chapter. Michael Henchard certainly is bedeviled, astounded, and fraught. Whatever you say of him, he remains.

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