Saturday, June 11, 2011

Rule with an Ironic Hand

 To an even greater degree than we civilians need to govern our responses lest we, in our objective of being truthful, overstep into the territory of being too truthful, our characters are at constant risk of betraying their feelings and their agendas.

Unlike most of us, our characters are supposed to make the occasional slip, let an unintended act and/or response of damaging consequence slip through the cracks.  The better characters, by which you mean those who do allow the genie to escape from the bottle from time to time, are the ones we cherish most because we cannot keep them under control.  The moment they are left unguarded for a moment or two, they do something that seems impulsive to them, surprising to us, and wonderful for the story.

Although we admire such sorts in dramatic situations, it is a risky business to have them as friends in real life, of equal risk to in fact be similar to one of your own characters.  We want some level of reliability in real life and in our dramatic life, valuing the loyalty, support, and consideration of our friends, particularly after spending a day with characters.

Among the things we observe as writers is the way characters often have a wide gap in their understanding of circumstances and the individuals who populate them.  This observation is not meant to imply you think characters are dumb or even slow.  To the contrary, they are often faster than you are or, if you choose, you are slow in comparison to them.

Characters, exchanging information in the belief they are having a conversation, are on their way to provoking the story of an impending misunderstanding.  They are also causing readers to take sides, which the reader is only too willing to do, provided the characters come forth bearing those literary equivalents of frankincense and myrrh, subtext and ambiguity.

This is one reason why Jane Austen has lasted so long across so wide a spectrum of readers.  A favorite circumstance of hers is where a character she has advanced as a potential lead has either from distant past or more immediate past, put herself in the position of wanting something with intensity but not being able to speak up for it or act on its behalf.  There are some truly ditsy women in her pages, such as the young sisters in Persuasion,but they are not lead characters.  Women who lead Austen novels are more self-assured, have quite a nice fix on what they want, but have somehow boxed themselves in.  Anne Elliot, in Persuasion, has broken off an engagement with Frederick Wentworth some years before the novel begins, thinking him not serious enough in his life goals, wanting to be away at sea more than at home.  She has come to see him as a changed man and now wants him, but here he is, showing off before Louisa and Henrietta Musgrove, all but flirting with them and they with him.  Anne is present; she is the principle narrator.  She has been put in a delightful Austen squeeze.  How could you not like this circumstance she has set up, using irony and ambiguity with such deftness?

Such stories and circumstances come to those who watch social dynamic with a close eye.  You could profit from revisiting this novel as a review for your next Golden Oldies, two weeks off.

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