Saturday, September 15, 2012

Character : The Greatest of All Puzzles

I found this wonderful quote by the writer Isaac Singer the other day. While being interviewed by Richard Burgis in 1978, he said the following:

"When people come together - let's say they come to a little party or something - you always hear them discuss character. They will say that this one has a bad character, this one has a good character, this one is a fool, this one is a miser. Gossip makes the conversation. They all analyze character. It seems that the analysis of character is the highest human entertainment. And literature does it, unlike gossip, without mentioning real names. The writers who don't discuss character but problems - social problems or any problems - take away from literature its very essence. They stop being entertaining. We, for some reason, always love to discuss and discover character. This is because  each character is different and human character is the greatest of puzzles."

I am increasingly of the opinion that character is ALL - that what drives a reader forward, what sustains the hook, is the early development of characters with which the readers can readily identify. As individuals we are all plagued by self-doubt and uncertainty, embroiled in conflicts of one kind or another, susceptible to emotional fluctuations - such is the nature of humankind. Characters that transcend the written page are also ones that make mistakes and have lapses of judgement; they are far more intriguing in their conflict and miseries, in their respective flaws and with their particular foibles, than they would be happily unburdened of these elemental human attributes. A favorite character of mine is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, a fictional persona that has stood the test of time (over one hundred years!) and is still being depicted in movie after movie today. Holmes' intellectual capabilities are unsurpassed, but socially he is unbearably supercilious and unable to sustain any long-term emotional relationship with anyone other than Mr. Watson. He indulges in drugs, and his routine is characterized by numerous quirky habits that reinforce that social distance from many of his peers. He is truly luminescent and emerges from the page as a full-fledged, very much flawed, but also utterly engrossing character that we, the reader, want to see more of. Once we begin reading a new novel we continue reading primarily because we care about what happens to the characters - but only if the writer succeeds in making them real  to us. An idea, or plot, or event cannot hold the story together, only characters effecting events and events affecting characters can really do that.  When we think of the novels that remain with us generation after generation: it is the characters that shine forth from their fictional environments that capture us so completely rather than the plot within which they operated. Catherine and Heathcliff, Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, Captain Ahab, Madame Bovary, Hester Prynne, Huckleberry Finn...there are countless examples. Of course none of them are real people, but the writer has made them so - breathed life into these complex, flawed, multidimensional individuals who continue to live after the rest of us have shuffled off this mortal coil. So as I open a new Word document, fingertips poised to begin my next novel, I am obsessed primarily with the characters that will inhabit it, that will people the landscape which yet remains hazy. I wish to bring them into focus, to grant them a clarity, that will, I feel, drive the narrative inevitably forward. There is a famous sketch of Charles Dickens at his desk, the characters of his books materializing in the air above his head; for Dickens, Esther Summerson of Bleak House was more vividly real than his own children. May we all be so skilled in our literary characterizations (without the cost to our kids of course!)

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