Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Dangerous Chemistry of Characters

Memorable characters etch themselves into our consciousness because of the outcome of an inner argument they have been having with portions of themselves.

Some characters have won the argument, which gives them a particular sense of purpose, even nobility.  But if they aren't careful, the purpose and nobility can set them apart on some upper floor of the moral high ground, where they find it increasingly difficult to carry on as ordinary humans.

Other characters have lost the argument, taking the low ground, perhaps admitting their complete inability to consider morality.  If these individuals are not careful, they will become a personification of immorality rather than real individuals, or worse, they will undergo a redemption that places them on a higher moral strata than those who suffer the extremes of nobility.  They will emit the aura of the fervently saved or redeemed, which means they will be even more stubborn in their new-found sanctity.

Yet other characters, say Huck Finn, will scoot past the danger points, wanting no truck with either extreme in the battle for morality, instead wishing to be somewhere beyond the pull of civilized behavior and more into the exploration of what it is to be a human among other humans and animals.

Your first instructions about such elements so far as creating characters is concerned had to do with giving the individuals you chose to lead your stories worthy opponents, so that their victories would not seem like gifts from unspecified gods.  Subsequent instructions and conventions and, yes, interpretations of conventions, suggested in the strongest possible terms that your lead characters had some character flaw, something needing to be overcome, whether the "something" was physical or interior.  A few instructions seemed to imply that the "something" be a combination of physical and its subsequent interior result.

Somewhere at about the time you encountered novelist Ursula Hegi's character,Trudi Montag, in The Weight of Stones, who discovers that she has grown as tall as she is going to be.  Trudi is a dwarf.  You began to compare her with others, such as Walter Tevis's Beth Harmon in Queen's Gambit.  Then, you cannot help yourself but make the next leap in the equation.

The matter does not stop with one character with a flaw.  Look at Frank and Cora in The Postman Always Rings Twice.   Not to forget Gatsby and Daisy.  A character with a flaw is the dramatic equivalent of a concept for a story before it is transformed into an actual story.  A character operating in recognition of some existential itch or pain or skewed personality path is nothing without a partner against whom to interact.

Poor Frank Chambers, who thinks he's finally landed a decent job and the consuming passionate relationship he's developed with Cora.  And perhaps Cora is momentarily comfortable with her passionate connection with him as opposed to her severe distaste for her life with her husband.  But the connection with Frank is so strong that Cora now wants him to kill her husband.  If that chemistry doesn't ignite and burn them both, there is no story.  That chemistry is, in fact, James M. Cain's story, one way or another.

Huck wants nothing more than to get away from his abusive drunk of a father, but Twain can't let the matter rest there; he has Huck connect with a runaway slave who, at the time of writing, has legal and moral implications to transform a story into a territory every bit as discomfiting as Ursula Hegi's moments of showing us the inner melt of Trudi's psyche when she is brought face to face with the knowledge that she will grow no taller.

As a slave, Jim is chattel.  As a runaway, he is violating the law in the first place and Huck is abetting his misdeed.  In this Mike Huckabee world of morality, young Huck is committing a sin for which he can expect damnation.  His convictions are so strong that he breaks from boyhood for a long enough moment to mature emotionally.  "All right, then," he proclaims.  "I'll go to hell then," and he proceeds to continue helping Jim to escape for all but those last, awful pages, when Tom Sawyer comes into the picture.

The matter is a distillation of characters with problems into characters who are driven to acts that take them beyond the point of return (Jay Gatz, becoming Gatsby), where the next step, the money step, the story step, the dramatic catalyst step, is the chemistry between the characters, erupting, exploding, encompassing.

Early on, Ishmael tells us of his own affliction, his moodiness, his need to get away, to get to sea.  That's only the first step.  It is not a story yet, not until he meets someone who will complete the chemistry of destiny for him.

A moody youngish man recognizes he is going into one of his downward cycles, and decided on his usual "cure" of shipping out on a whaler.  No story, not until the Pequod is under way and Ahab explains to the crew that they are not going to merely go whaling,  They are going after one whale, the whale.

Now, we have story.

Beth Harmon is an orphan,living in a cheerless orphanage in Kentucky.  By chance, she observes the grotty old janitor, playing chess with himself in the basement.  Fascinated, Beth watches, effectively"teaching" herself themoves of the

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