Thursday, June 6, 2013

Characters: The Best and Brightest, or The Worst and Most Devious

No matter how even handed and moderate they seem, characters are changing.  They have been for some time.  Reading in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries, you've seen them evolving from mere signifiers of a desire for independence (or being left alone to live as they see fit) to being governed by more complex standards and conventions.

They are more vulnerable because they have more at stake; circumstances and adversaries have ground against them like the rough flecks of sand in Saharan sandstorms do when they blast the sides of buildings and vehicles.  They are more apt to be driven by some political force for the simple reason that there are more political forces driving more individuals to take a stand of some sort against oppressors of some sort.

More conventions are meeting opposition, more individuals have had enough of being treated as they are being treated, more tyrants are defending how benevolent and considerate they have been toward the very individuals who are rising up against them.

In the comparatively narrow arc of human history for which there have been actual written documents as well as actual written dramatic depictions of human behavioral conventions, writers and observers of disciplines by no means limited to the dramatic arts have advanced observations reflecting a growing understanding of how the human species works in relationship to social behavior, political behavior, spiritual matters, and attempts to codify standards for behaviors considered acceptable, admirable, and deplorable.

As a class of contemporary readers, we are no longer surprised to know that our fictional celebrities have dark sides, possibly even murderous ones, for a certainty abusive and ignorant ones.

In some quite real senses, characters behave not only as themselves but as representatives of classes from which they have emerged, as altruistic or intransigent as actual individuals from those classes are in their behavior now.  We can chose to keep such individuals and classes at a distance from us and indeed many in our midst do, in effect protecting ourselves from too much troublesome encounters, yet allowing us to enjoy the conceit that we are at least looking the enemy in the face.

For a considerable time, your characters--the men,women, and young persons of your invention, were too narrow in scope, reflecting only the problems and cultural abrasions of your own cultural experiences.  Anyone else from any significantly different conventions, relied on the cliched visions you got from second- and third-hand sources, vulnerable to the one thing a character cannot be vulnerable to--the cliched vision of behavior.

You were wriggling in discomfort to get away from the grasp of F. Scott Fitzgerald's awl-like observation from his novella, The Rich Boy:  " Begin with an individual, and before you know it you find that you have created a type; begin with a type, and you find that you have created--nothing. That is because we are all queer fish, queerer behind our faces and voices than we want any one to know or than we know ourselves. When I hear a man proclaiming himself an "average, honest, open fellow," I feel pretty sure that he has some definite and perhaps terrible abnormality which he has agreed to conceal--and his protestation of being average and honest and open is his way of reminding himself of his misprision."

A writer's vision is best when there are some checks and balances relative to source.  If not cynicism, then at least a healthy skepticism

Somewhere along the way, you had to understand the need to a) get out and observe, and b) investigate the unobserved, uninvestigated areas of yourself.  There is some comfort in your ability report you have been engaged in a) and b) for some years.  The comfort zones drop at your attempts to be honest in the assessment of how successful you investigations have been.  But some awareness is better than none, isn't it, and awareness of a problem is better than the defensive position of insisting your own moderation and reason, isn't it?

In their own ways, the virtuous and highly moral standard bearers of convention can be every bit as insidious as those whom some particular convention wish to demonize.

If we are to have story that informs and disturbs us, we need characters who have the power to do the same thing to us.

When story becomes too entertaining, too much an advocate of too much restraint, sacrifice, and patience, we have to wonder not only what is behind it, but who.

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