Sunday, December 8, 2013

Character

 For the longest time, you believed that the most important aspect of story resided in the hearts and minds of the characters who were called upon to perform in them.  

Character, you believed, transcended story to the point where you can recall any number of remarkable characters, including one who is perhaps your most favored of all, Wile E. Coyote, without recalling the plots and motivations of the stories in which they appear.

At the time, and at the present time, you were (and now are) able to supply a one- or two-word motivation tag for these memorable characters.  The motivational tag has some direct relationship to a major emotion.  

Ahab, for instance, wanted revenge upon The Whale.  Dorothy Gale was homesick for Kansas.  Gatsby wanted Daisy.  Huck Finn wanted freedom.  And so it went, from the early times of story, such as Gilgamesh or Beowulf, ranging toward The Wife of Bath or The Pardoner, and advancing into more contemporary times with the likes of Becky Sharp, Daniel Darronda, and Willa Cather's Antonia.

They all wanted something.  They strove to accomplish their desires, and in so doing, took you along with them, on journeys no more improbable than ones you have concocted for your own characters in your own finished works and those still in process.

The more you are aware of what a character wants, the more likely you are to finish a work or your own or remember the characters created by other authors.  Sometimes, when you are reading stories that could be called "novels of ideas," you need to take the time to ask yourself of the characters present what each one wants.

Now, you've arrived at the need to know what every character in your stories wants, even if it is the postman delivering your mail, or Rob, the FedEx delivery man who delivered packages to you when you lived on Hot Springs Road.  You knew what Rob wanted because you saw him at the Y, nearly every day, wanting a swim.

Then you discovered voice.  Some writers have a narrative voice that takes you back to the tradition of oral story tellers from other cultures and of storytellers such as Mark Twain, Joel Chandler Harris, Brett Harte, Will Rogers, and such remarkable performers as Jackie "Moms" Mabley.  

Voice was attitude, brought to life, which meant to you the bite and tone and unspoken irony or subtext of a story, particularly those by a writer you also admire, Ring Lardner.

Some storytellers are so focused that their entire story is predicated on voice, examples being Lardner's "Haircut," "The Love Nest," and all the stories in his collection, You Know Me, Al.   Another example being the short stories of John O'Hara--all of them, but to name one, "Saffercisco."

Voice informs the writer's choice of characters, thus its higher place in your hierarchical list of story ingredients.  At the time you thought characters to be at the top of the list, you were much impressed with the notion that poetry should influence dramatic narration.  But time had its way with you.  

You still spend considerable time with poetry, watching the way some of your favorites move narrative along in what seems a conversational strand.  Albert Goldbarth comes readily to mind, his conversational voice drawing you into the mischief and play of his connections of seemingly disparate things.

Goldbarth is one of the many poets who, through the effect of their works upon you, cause you to look for a voice in your own writing, to listen for it, to use it as best you can while keeping in mind your own dictum:  Each character must sound  individual.  This does not preclude voice, but it precludes sameness.

Voice is how you sound, the way you manage your strengths, minimize your weaknesses, and reach for the beyond you have yet to see.

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