Sunday, December 18, 2016

What Makes a Character Memorable?

What makes most characters more fascinating than most real time people?

If we've had any experience at all with reading, even the kinds we had when we were scant steps away from the "Look! Look! Look! See Dick. See Jane. See Spot." stage, we have an awareness on some level that characters arrive in story as a result of at least one world being tilted awry, which is to say well out of order.

We understand from mere repetition, say from having read Robert Louis Stevenson's masterful Treasure Island, that worlds are set in disarray, that adults are not always to be trusted, and that treasures of one sort or another are if not buried, hidden.

At about the time we have moved beyond watching Spot run and jump--big fucking deal--we understand that adults with strong goals may have things in one way or another buried, that trusting an adult carries certain risks--see Graham Greene's haunting short story, "The Basement Room,"--and individuals without plans are likely to bore us no end.

By the time we've recovered from the often devastating side effects of puberty, then moved on to a place you like to think of as The Plateau of Awareness, we've downloaded certain conventions, an ethos, and an outlook, all of which hold sway over our tastes and preferences in Real Time persons, in their behavior, and in our expectations, both of them and of ourselves.

Whereupon we presume to create our own Real Time and their denizens, which is to say we not only approach reading the work of others with a different set of criteria, we approach the notion of creating our own individuals, our own Meg and Jo, our own Miss Rebbecca Sharp, our own version of Rose of Sharon Joad as well as our own Captain Ahab and Queeg, all of whom have some primary goal, some setting right of some imagined flaw in the universe.

You have character notes in more than one of your many notebooks, relating to the subject at hand, which is the inner drive and its outer counterpart relative to a character who is so much in your favor for much, but not by any means all, of his appearance in two significant works.

Your notes speak to the matter of you needing to live long enough to return Huck Finn to his stature and wisdom in the work in which he begins as principal narrator. Perhaps he will encounter his old pal, Tom Sawyer, one more time, when each has at last become in later years what each was on the path to become.

Tom's belated appearance in Huckleberry Finn was an epic disaster that wants some poetic justice as well as the dramatic justice their creator left them with, a justice that was more a matter for their creator to deal with than his characters. There is no sense for you in Huck, after crossing the boundary into true awareness and potential, regressing to the individual who baits and teases the runaway slave, Jim, toward the novel's end--after, you're quick to note, Tom Sawyer appears, the albatross to bring the narrative crashing downward.

There is truth and evidence enough in many stories to suggest some characters merely want to find some significant and permanent outcome, often of a financial or social status matter. There is equal truth in your observation that a financially profitable career or an advantageous marriage, such as the marriage achieved by Jimmy Burden, who gave us his Antonia. Such outcomes rarely produce a result as profound as Antonia.

The thing that draws you to characters is their deeper dream, the wish to create a functional and thriving self from an ordinary beginning, a self as thriving as Huck, Augie March, and any number of young women who have stepped out of Louise Erdrich's stories and into the places in your heart where you keep your secret wishes and dreams.

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