Friday, February 1, 2013

You Look Familiar to Me: I've Grown Accustomed to His Fez

In most of the cases where you are drawn back to read a novel for the second or third or fourth time, the attraction is direct and straightforward.  You'll have identified in some way or another with one or more characters on a level approximating intimacy.  You know how things will turn out, but you wish to experience those scenes yet again.  You feel a bonding to the point where you are duplicating what fan authors do, create stories of your own in which the men and women of your choices have had extra-authorial activities.  You are playing the literary equivalent of fantasy football and baseball leagues.

This is a form of cheating in much the same way marital infidelities are cheating if they are carried on beyond the realm of fantasy.  Since your literary seductions are fantasy based, you account yourself free of the cheating charge, and plow back into rereading yet another time some favored work, curious to see if and where your fantasy will lead you this time through.

You are currently rereading John Fowles's rich layer cake of a novel, The Magus, at first because your explorations in literature class wanted to have at it, but also because there are one or two individuals therein you would sneak off into the fantasy bushes with.

For yet other reasons, Phillip Pullman's The Golden Compass trilogy has you coming back, again and again.  The characters are important for a reason you'd never before considered and for which you now frequently apply your imagination.

Each of the characters has a familiar, a demon in some animal form.  In much woo woo fiction,familiars attended witches, but with the Pullman ventures, they are in general attendance, have different forms and wide and wild agendas.  The first two times through this trilogy, you came to the opinion that the familiars were not used enough, in effect not having any effect on the complications and outcomes of the stories.

The third reading through of The Golden Compass, you were so taken with this conviction that you began the practice of inventing familiars for the characters in all novels and stories you considered memorable, and in your own work, you have begun to wonder what familiar a certain character might have, spending time to deliberate over this choice as though you were in effect creating an entirely new character.

This conceit is for your own combined awareness and amusement; it is not to be shared with the potential reader, nor is it intended to case even the slightest tint of woo woo into your story (which is a mystery/suspense/thriller type, where woo woo has no place).  But knowing each character has a familiar and knowing what those are adds a particular edge of mischief and knowledge as well, allowing you the luxurious confidence of feeling--no pun intended here--more familiar with the individual characters.

Back to Pullman for a moment:  his familiars do not necessarily get along with one another.  Sometimes one will walk out more or less in a gesture of protest or as a sign of not liking or trusting the human to whom another familiar is connected, not liking that human's familiar, or not liking either.  What exquisite clues this process gives you with such vital functions as dialogue and kinds of action.

In a real sense, giving your characters familiars is of a piece with giving them a personality trait or quirk or some noticeable kind of baggage to carry about with them through the arc of a story.  It is the Ernest Hemingway approach of putting everything imaginable in about a character for a draft or two, writing as though all that "everything" obtained, then in subsequent drafts, removing the specifics, leaving only webs of implication and subtext.  When you began to grasp what he was doing, you were able to decipher one of his more famous short stories, "Hills Like White Elephants," then go on to get a better overall picture of the writer than mere imitation of his cadences and sentences.  After a time--well away from the university days--you were able to get a better grasp of the use of subtext and of the difference between what a character says and what she feels.  Better, of course, to be late in grasping this important tool than never having awareness of it.

Traits and quirks are the pole stars for characters, including those you bring into play.  Now, familiars add to the weight and personality of the sense of self they bring forth.  Thinking outside the metaphorical box is an important part of creating characters, a kind of earthquake and flood insurance that they will not all end up sounding like you or having the same interests you have.

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