Thursday, January 14, 2010

On Being Introduced to Characters in a Story

What is it that first gets you to caring about a character when you meet for the first time? It has little to do with the description of the character, although that might be off-putting if it is too static. Nor does it have much to do with gender or age or even occupation of the character, particularly since in the past weeks you have read about and in your own work written about a veritable cornucopia of individuals, most of whom you've stayed with long enough to get to know.


Thus it appears to come down to that intangible element you call authorial aura, a reflection of what the author thinks and feels about the character, as well as how that character behaves, literally, which is to say in action, and how that character begins responding to the circumstances into which he or she is thrust by the author.

On a number of occasions you have found yourself attending a gathering or party at which, with the exception of a host or hostess, none of the other attendees are familiar to you. This sense of strangeness is mitigated by the sense that you wouldn't have been invited had someone you like thought you would fit in for some reason or another. Even though it may not seem so to others, you are introverted, causing you to step forth cautiously, looking for a way to merge with the group, communicate, exchange information, contribute to the event. Similarly, you approach characters in a story, even characters from authors such as Louise Erdrich or Jim Harrison, whom past experiences have led you to believe will win your heart.

You are now looking, both in gathering and story, for some kind of chemistry, some measure of attraction that will cause you to hope for schadenfreude events to befall the character, a spilled drink, a dropped canape, a loud growl from within the tummy, a dumb remark. Or you might hope the character will accomplish something particularly brilliant or daring or interesting. Over all, you want people to win, but in order to have that view, there are others you'll want to somehow shoot themselves in the foot. It is likely that you are watching carefully, looking for traces of a character who is independent, takes risks, has opinions. Similarly, you don't want born victims, men and women who think they deserve unrelentingly grim results; no more than you want born optimists who always expect to win or to avoid loss.

He or she can be anyone at any age, stepping up to an event, any event, then letting the devil take the hindmost, but doing so, even forgetting lines, with panache. Ah, this is someone to follow, someone who knows where there is a bottle of ale in the host's refrigerator, or a stash of pinot noir in the other room, or a plate of hors d'oeurves that really resonate. This is the insiders information you seek at a party, the person who can lead you somewhere, possibly even into a story.

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