Sunday, December 18, 2011

Character's the Thing

I write character driven fiction, trying to create interesting, psychologically complex, believably human characters, placing them in situations where they must deal with problems. For dramatic effect these problems ought to be bigger than deciding between coffee or tea for breakfast—although such mundane choices can precipitate a dramatic scene, such as an emotional flare-up having little to do with what to drink for breakfast—but they don’t have to involve life or death alternatives. I think of such choices as forks in the narrative road; the characters needn’t make the “right” choices, at least not according to the reader’s idea of right or wrong. There are many ways to get from L.A. to Chicago. For example, after having been instructed by his father’s ghost, Hamlet’s “right” choice, with twenty-twenty hindsight, might have been to kill his treacherous uncle in the first act, but that would have made for a very short play.

Much popular fiction follows a predictable pattern of character development that many readers have come to expect. The typical “character arc” can be worked out over a canned outline and a skillful writer can use mechanical plotting to produce a satisfying and marketable result. Character driven fiction is riskier, but when successful the literary rewards (though not necessarily the monetary ones) can be great.

In his preface to “The Portrait of a Lady,” Henry James referenced Ivan Turgenev concerning “the fictive picture.” According to James, Turgenev’s fiction almost always began “…with the vision of some person or persons who hovered before him, soliciting him, as the active or passive figure, interesting him and appealing to him just as they were and by what they were.” Those characters were “available” to the writer “…subject to the chances, the complications of existence, (Turgenev) saw them vividly, but then had to find for them the right relations, those that would most bring them out; to imagine, to invent and select and piece together the situations most useful and favorable to the sense of the creatures themselves, the complications they would be most likely to produce and feel.” I don’t think you can do that with a canned outline, although a writer might give the semblance of having done so, though it’s rather like painting the Sistine Chapel by the numbers.

For more than a century readers have asked, “Why did Isabel Archer make the choices she made?” as though they could have chosen better under similar circumstances. That’s like asking, “Why didn’t Hamlet kill Claudius in the first Act?” I think the better question is whether or not those characters acted plausibly, and most important “humanly” within the context of the story, even though the outcome is not the one the reader might have wished for, or in the end found most satisfying.

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