Friday, January 20, 2017

A Dark and Stormy Knight

After a long history of inner debates, reflections, and arguments within yourself, with other writers, and with many of your students, you continue to place the concept of characters closest to the top of the story pyramid.

The one or two possible competitors are narrative voice or tone, and the risky-but-compelling notion of narrative filter or point of view.

Inner parts of you argue that point-of-view, important as it is, leads back to characters--the person or persons who relate the story for the reader. At the moment, you believe those inner parts of you are the literary equivalents of Tories. This leads you back at your original argument: In order to move away from the narrative sandbox and into the dramatic, story must be political. 

In many cases, first-person point of view becomes attractive for the emerging writer; it was certainly compelling for you, until you made a turning-point discovery: First-person narrative requires an entire character to justify it. First-person narrative cannot be an easy excuse for using it as a vehicle only to escape writing in authorial omniscience.

This understanding helped you to see how you cannot be the one to tell the story. You must select one or more characters to do so. You cannot in effect say "Once upon a time" any longer, any more than you can resort to Bulwer-Lytton's, "It was a dark and stormy night," from his 1830 novel, Paul Clifford.

Within your own history of reading to see how other writers accomplished the sorts of results you coveted, there was the years of your fascination with the novels of one Charles Dickens. He had no problems you could see with characters. 

At one point in your investigations of his works, you became aware of the significant number of his characters who found their way into dictionaries, sometimes only as "a character in the Charles Dickens novel X." Nevertheless, they were names that evoked presences and traits, two qualities a character, as you see the concept, needs to have.

But many of Dickens' characters were actually more caricature rather than character, persons sketched in on the basis of a well-tailored name--Murdstone, Heap, Gargery, Micawber--and one obvious trait. His characters were parodies and satires of the types Dickens, with his keen eye for detail, was able to identify from the passing parade about him. Not that many of his characters have the roundness, dimension, complexity and inner turmoil you've come to cherish in writers such as Katherine Mansfield, Willa Cather, Louise Erdrich, Deborah Eisenberg, Dennis Lehane, E.M. Forester, and Kazuo Ishiguro.

Even such recognized satirists as Evelyn Waugh, Sinclair Lewis, and Ring Lardner were able to produce a character with more nooks, crannies, and hiding places in order to keep their work from having the more obvious surface gloss of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century satirists.

Story begins for you when two or more characters meet, then begin communicating, each confident of being heard and understood. The audience knows the truth: each character has set forth in the belief--and accompanying moral authority--of being right and understood.

The reader is at the apex of this triangle, at the peak, hearing and assimilating the nuances of difference among the characters.

Characters must be fleshed out beyond mere caricature, fitted with dramatic equivalents as hearing aids, contact lenses, perhaps an artificial joint or so. They must also brim over with purpose. You know many individual in real time who are soaked through with purpose and agenda, but even these are no match for the memorable characters who not only ante up to participate in the pot, they are aware of defects, shames, humiliations, and deficiencies that needed to be overcome.

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