Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Picking the Wrong Characters

If your characters are no account, they will stay close to home, indulging themselves on routine comforts and activities while they pursue the mischief of banality.  If your characters are of any consequence at all, they will fall in love with all the "wrong" things and people not available to them at home; they will stumble into ways to mess with the Cosmos.

Too much has been said already about giving readers characters they can relate to, form some sort of emotional bond with, thus do such characters as Captain Ahab or, for that matter, Captain Queeg or, to push the point, Captain Spaulding run against the grain.  In their cross-grained existences, they join the likes of Jane Eyre, Randle P. McMurphy,Raskalnikov, Selkirk-Crusoe, and Julian Sorrell.  They also suggest that there is more traction and potential for discovery with a character who steps away from the shadow cast by the conjured ideal of a paradigm man or woman from one of the Abrahamic religions, as visualized by, say, a Unitarian minister or even a Congregationalist, which is to say nothing beyond the occasional hymn and even the occasional dip into the wassail bowl at Christmas.

Look at how much more fun it is to write about Ratso Rizzo, Mink and Flem Snopes, and Robert E. Lee Pruett.  Look at the effect the civilized world had on Huckleberry Finn who, after all was said and done, couldn't stand it any more and had to light out for the territory.  See what lovely agonies came from John Yossarian and Rebecca Sharp and Holden Caulfield and not to forget Lenny Small.

As writers, we have two choices, to be doomed to a life of characters manufactured to fit a publisher's sales report or to acknowledge the edge at which our writing life has set us and create individuals from our own mold.  It is an irony of high order when you hear of beginning writers being advised to write what they know because most of what they know is the feeling of being somehow other and different.  This, you argue, is the first step toward the advancement needed to secure expertise in any craft--recognition of the self as caught in the interstice of wanting to play with the other kids but being fearful you don't know any of their games or skills and that the ones wherein you shine will seem somehow out of synchronization with the rest of humanity.

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