Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Characters: Mugged in the Parking Lot

The work is one of the lesser titles of the Russian literary giant, Leo Tolstoy.  A novella, its title does little to inspire your attention:  The Landowner's Morning.  But by the end of the first sentence, thoughts of restraint are swept aside.  You are in, even though the time, setting, and characters are years away from you in time, culture, and potential.

Shortly after that opening sentence, the author quotes from a letter written by the principal character, a young prince, written to his aunt.  Not, as you might suspect, in Russian, since both nephew and aunt are somehow connected to the Russian royalty, but in French which, after you take a brief moment to think about it, is exactly what such individuals, had they been real, would have done.

You are impressed by the way Tolstoy causes us to care about a nineteen-year-old noble, just completing his third year at the university.  Of such things, story comes to life, springs off the page, reverberates with an interior of sincerity noted and described by yet another Russian who made his life in terms of story and the portrayal of story, Constantin Stanislavsky.

No, this is not a sudden discovery of the Russian influence on character or story.  This is instead a repeated and enhanced awareness of the things you have to do in order to get the character out of the shadows and into the spotlight, where his or her apparent defect or flaw or quality regarded as a strength will stand out and, in a real sense, become the rudder of that character's behavior.

Characters, even those who walk on to deliver a message, must carry some quality of more abundance per square unit of being than your average human does.  Characters must not be allowed to do what they wish to do because once they do, the story is either over or runs the risk of repeating itself. This is so because readers have already come to understand that giving a character what the character years for is the same thing as introducing a live, frightened mouse into a closed container with a dreaded predator.

A story may begin with a character having achieved a desired goal, only to discover how that particular goal is not like the pair of shoes ordered on line from Zappos (where returns are a way of life).    Now the story becomes what the character does to get rid of the desired thing, a thing that clings tenaciously.

In many cases during the early years of your education, you read and responded to stories because you were in effect told they were part of the Western Canon and since you were a Westerner, in pursuit of education, you must be exposed to and properly respectful of the messages inherent in each.  This was all well and good when you liked the material, when you connected with it on a visceral level for which you as yet had no vocabulary.  You could not know at the time that you would have to figure out your own vocabulary for these things, nor could you realize that you'd been taught to more or less shut up and take notes rather than complain or ask questions.

You have nothing against the Western Canon except in the ways that it was presented to you, and you, being who you were and are now, responded better to things you discovered by yourself or had recommended to you rather than having them presented to you as a one-size-fits-all work.

The more a character stood out in his or her loneliness and refusal to accept things as they were described in introductions, the more likely you were to remember that character as an individual, to identify with his or her problem, and to translate it from the time and place of its occurrence into your own evolving spectrum of experience.

Literature is a serious business, best described by writers with satiric and humorous visions, men and women who have worked their way through their culture, either in formal means such as graduate study programs, or through the street-smart approach of the auto-didact. In either case, they'll have had to work their way through the tendency of the former to patronize and equivocate and the latter approach to wanting to sound smart rather than demonstrate their own unique intelligence.

A practical approach to use as a trampoline involves using characters you know, rather then inventing them, but you need to be careful you stop at mere description, before the creativity clicks in.  Characters described as you see them and know them cannot match up to memorable characters of literature.

You discovered this insight anew with a character you've based on someone you know and truly detest, a fact that was borne home to you when after causing him the fictional humiliation you wished for him in real life, you took some time to consider what this would do to him.  The consequences were that he immediately fell in love with someone he'd behaved abusively toward. His vision of her was, you thought, quite accurate, since you were beginning to fall in love with her, too.  You can leave this individual to the despicable nature he has earned in his own life; he is a character; he has grown, profited, evolved from his own shortcomings.

Whatever advantages your characters have earned in their fictional lives, they still live with memories of the things they have done, the lies they have told, the corners they have cut to achieve their goals, in search of the thing they may be starting to understand they can never achieve.

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