Monday, February 13, 2017

Reading Glasses and Hearing Aids for All Characters

The average human adult hears sound waves from about eighteen cycles per second to about twenty thousand cycles. This same, statistical individual sees objects, say a row of letters, from a distance of twenty feet that most other individuals of statistical conformity see.

These two senses are often brought in for some kind of comparison when dealing with statistical averages. Other senses, such as taste, sensitivity to heat or cold, have numerical and subjective boundaries as well; they are often used in dramatic situations to add layers of characteristic to invented, you might well say ad hoc examples, designating deviation from the statistical norm.

Writers, whether knowingly or not, frequently use these particular senses when they construct characters whom they subsequently trust to carry forth the actions, thoughts, and spoken word of a narrative. Their first step in creation is to endow the character with some well above average desire for an outcome. Inspector Jaivert in Les Miserable, would have probably remained a prison guard had he been average, but his focus on justice was so intense that those in the surrounding legal system recognized his "talent," just as individuals in the religious life saw such individuals as the peasant girl Bernadette, in Franz Werfel's novel, The Song of Bernadette, or indeed, an earlier peasant girl, Joan, as having a "vocation."

In any case, front rank characters are not in any way average. If there is something average about them, it is brought forth as a defect. When you think, then, of characters, think of Edmund Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac, who is memorable for many things, among them his large nose. Most actors who portray Cyrano on stage or in film make use of putty or wax to exaggerate the size and shape of the nose.

We do not want ordinary characters. Quick, make a list of all the ordinary characters in the novels of Charles Dickens. No, wait; don't. Dickens' characters may lack dimension; they may be sketchy cliche, but they all have one or more qualities that push them over the edge of ordinary. Bill Sykes,  the dodgy malefactor from Oliver Twist, for example, was so awful that even his own dog could no longer tolerate him. When Sykes was on the run, his dog led the police to him, an effective statement if ever there was a betrayal.

Whether you are reading or composing your own fictions, you don't want statistically average characters, dithering about, causing things to seem more normal. You want potentials for misunderstanding, missteps, willful disobedience, and the kinds of mischief caused by teen-aged hormones and the approaching concerns of middle aged life. You want in fact men and women who do not see conventional wisdom through eyeglasses corrected to 20/20. You wan near- and far-sighted characters.

You want men and women who do not hear the wisdom of their tribal elders, unless the wisdom from such elders is the suggestion that youthful folly is a pony to be ridden at full gallop.

Not all that long ago, you began subjecting characters to stress tests to suggest to you how much resilience they had before they could set foot in one of your narratives. As an aside, your narratives have often been described to you as originating in whimsicality. Other writers of your awareness and personal acquaintance see reality as the famed jungle that's to be found "out there," Your reality has its quicksand and pot holes, true enough, but not because you come to it having been reared by the Christian theologian, Jonathan Edwards, who wrote of his characters as Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. 

Such as your god is, it is a whimsical god, who has a taste for Dr. Brown's Cel-Ray tonic, sandwiches piled high with brisket, thick, wintery lentil soups, noodle puddings with slightly burned crusts, shaggy dog stories, and a mischievous way of stringing out a story. Your god, with a nod to your own father, prefers matzo balls so dense that, were one to fall from its serving spoon, it would crack the dish upon which it landed.

You were present during your god's watch over such things as the Great Depression, the Anschluss and subsequent formation of the Third Reich, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the bloody battle at Tarawa, the internment of Japanese-American citizens in such places as Manzanar, not to mention the Scottsboro Boys, numerous lynchings and Bilie Holliday's memorable song, "Strange Fruit." You knew this god meant business and had some dark moments.

But even god needs glasses and a hearing aid. During his lifetime, an actor named Nathan Birnbaum portrayed god in a film. The actor's stage name, you might call it nom de plume or even nom du guerre, was George Burns. Were such a movie to be made today, you could see a more contemporary favorite, Mary Rylance, taking the role, or perhaps the young, brusque, talented Tom Hardy.

At one point, you were close to being taken on as part of the writing team for a short-lived TV series in which the role of god was played by a Puerto Rican attendant at a Turkish bath. But the producer who was to make this possible, at the last moment, chose someone else. "This has nothing to do with writing skills," the producer told you. "I simply couldn't in good conscience have another Jew writing words for god."

"But--but--" you sputtered. "The writer you chose--"

The producer waved his hands. "Nah, nah," he said. "The other writer is Sephardic. That doesn't count."

So yes, reading glasses. A hearing aid.  All your characters. Even god.

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