Sunday, April 19, 2015

The Borders of Taboo: Your Dark Side and You

From time to time over your years of teaching at the university undergraduate or graduate levels, you've been asked by students for letters of recommendation they might submit along with their application, either to a graduate school or to yet a higher plateau of graduate school.

You've also been asked for recommendations to potential employers, for blurbs to books. recommendations to literary agents and publishers, and to such scholarship-granting entities as the Guggenheim Foundation.  In turn, you have yourself applied for recommendations, all of which causes you to understand how in such large measure, recommendations are a part of your life.

In the book reviews and critical essays you've written, which are, after all, little more than in-print letters of recommendation, you've voiced positive opinions of narrators and their authors, although there have been times when your opinions were less than recommendations, which, of course, led to consequences.

In one notable instance, you were motivated to write a brief essay about a character you've long admired, learned a great deal from, and wish you had invented.  Among the many hundreds of memorable characters you've encountered, this one now has appeared to you in dreams more than once..It a is no exaggeration to say that within the last ten years or so, the day is rare when you don't think of him.

A part of your tribute to this character includes your recommendation for his election to the Character Hall of Fame or, better yet, the sainthood of being the patron saint of characters.  Of all the many characters you know and admire, he is the only one who has never appeared in a book or short story.  He is, of course, Wile E. Coyote.

Another character you'd be thrilled to recommend for either role, Character Hall of Fame or sainthood, would be your favorite villain, Count Isidore Ottavio Baldassore Fosco, an individual you consider from time to time ever since having read Wilkie Collins's 1860 novel, The Woman in White, a novel that contains yet another character of particular stature, herself a worthy candidate for the Character Hall of Fame, Mariam Halcombe, half-sister to the female lead, Laura Fairlie.  

Count Fosco, as his name suggests, is Italian; he is also overweight, conniving, manipulative, and quite intrigued by the potentials of criminal activity.  Inordinately fond of small animals, through much of The Woman in White,  he affects a brocade vest, in a pocket of which he keeps a pet mouse, taking it out from time to time to stroke its head or feed it a tidbit or delicacy.  Count Fosco was surely a role model for Dashiell Hammett's arch villain, Caspar Gutman, in The Maltese Falcon.

With these favorites of yours out for admiration, you feel the expansive temptation to add novels by Mark Twain and Charles Dickens in order to bring two favored first-person narrators forth to join the candidate list for Character Hall of Fame, plus the fact that these two novels, Huckleberry Finn and Great Expectations each has powerful supporting casts, but you will resist that temptation in favor of the observation that informs this essay.  

One great character in a novel is the equivalent of letting the genie out of the bottle.  Yes, that genie, and that bottle. Strong, motivated, inner-directed characters force the supporting cast to rise above their station or, if you will, they are the equivalent of the numerous eighteen-wheeler trucks that ply I-40, pulling along many a VW Bug in their slipstream.  They are dramatic forces to be reckoned with.

The reckoning begins with the writer's need to understand the imperative to consult his or her dark side, lest all the characters in a narrative sound alike, speak alike, and have similar agendas.  The ideal host or hostess plans a seating arrangement of guests with the notion of entertaining and engaging discourse in mind.  The writer needs to use the opposite approach, seating a perfervid vegan next to an individual who likes his roast rare, an arch conservative next to a left-leaning activist.

Your own ideas related to your own dark side involve codes of behavior, activities, and experiences you've gone out of your way not to breach, or times when you have trespassed on your own borders of taboo.  Stories are not about persons who get along, they are about individuals who try to find ways to accommodate their own dark sides and the contrary devises of others they are forced to deal with.  An individual who borrows from a loan shark must be desperate enough in story to do so rather than dumb enough.  By the same token, the loan shark in a story must have a weakness or need that a loan shark in reality is inoculated against.

An improbable-but-useful analogy is a traveling theatrical ensemble, say six men and six women, each of whom is aware of being inhabited by an inner Dr. Jekyll and an inner Mr. Hyde.  Their repertoire is chosen to trigger the maximum inner conflict on each member of the group, leading to uncontrollable responses when each begins to prepare for a new role.

Rumor has it that the fine actress, Vivien Leigh, herself no stranger to rehab facilities and sanitoria, was able to project such great waves of vulnerability in her role of Blanche Dubois (A Streetcar Named Desire) because the dark side vulnerability of the character pressed so many of her own buttons.

Good writing is not easy, nor is good reading.  Each involves catching tourist-class conveyances to places beyond our comfort zones, with crying babies in seats behind us, kicking and yowling and their harassed mothers, trying to shush them.  Individuals who claim reading and writing should be fun and easy are not good role models for basing characters, nor are they much work writing about.

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