Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Hardy, Dickens and Deconstructing the Character-Driven Novel

I remain somewhat wary of literary categorizations - binding novels within an ever-tightening hierarchy of type and genre, as if they were biological organisms that can be labeled, pegged and defined, neatly nesting with others of similar attribute. While it worked for Linneaus, novels - to my mind - remain creatively elusive. While the application of specific designations to a literary work indubitably facilitates marketing, and communicates some broad notion of content to consumers, the conventional differentiation between 'action-driven' and 'character-driven' novels seems to me an erroneous one - intimating as it does
that the pursuit of one such strategy precludes the utilization of the other.

Whether from ignorance of particular literary theory, or a stubborn persistence in my own particular perspective (which tends to fluid inclusion, spanning and encompassing genres, rather than rigid categorization) I cannot say. It might simply be a reiteration of what is already blatantly apparent - that novels are more complex creatures that refuse to obediently conform to prescribed perimeters; a vibrantly-hued Jack-in-the-box that will not be contained. Across the lid of this literary box wherein Jack is wedged is transcribed the phrase (in grandiose letters) - 'Character-driven' or 'Action-driven.' The larger the box, the broader the categorical brush, the more inclusive the members, and the less useful such distinctions become. Frequently encountering this fundamental polarization between action-propelled novels or those in which characters sit firmly behind the literary wheel, I ponder upon its validity. Perhaps it would behoove me (before discarding the notion entirely) to deconstruct the particular attributes that define a literary work as one or the other.

The assumption is that these proposed dichotomies are representative of all narrative works, that each novel can and must be placed in one box or another. Unlike the gregarious wanderings of subatomic particles (which can occupy not just two locations but an infinite number simultaneously), the slimmest of novels must (or so it seems) be definitively defined according to one or the other. Choose your box.

Perhaps the underlying notion is that within a given novel the thematic threads of action or character comprise the structural integrity of the given literary work. When one peels away the location and its associated atmospherics, the attendant details, the extraneous threads, what lies at the heart of the novel? What element can a reader, intent on some nefarious dissection, remove without compromising the integrity of the whole (assuming for arguments sake that such a thing can indeed be done)? What provides the quintessential foundations for each particular work? What serves to fundamentally propel the narrative onward? What, if the vehicular analogy can be strained a little further, fuels the literary engine? Can it indeed be such a simplistic reduction of two?

I have, these past months, been revisiting an old friend - Thomas Hardy; and particularly several of his lesser known novels The Woodlanders, and The Laodicean. Like Charles Dickens, his works were serialized; segmented pieces published monthly by Harpers Bazaar among others. Both authors penned novels peopled with profound fictional personalities, their works (as far as I am aware) falling decisively into the 'character-driven' category. I wonder if this form of installment publication lends itself more readily to character-rich narratives. In Dickens' initial segment of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, one is thrust into the grim darkness of Jasper's opium-induced dreams, encounters the complacently-gullible Edwin and is left with the whimsical girlishness of Rosa; these powerfully-rendered characters, accompanied by the fastidious Mrs Twinkleton and the eccentric Mr Durdles, are the gleam and glimmer that light the way; it is these fictional individuals that loom large in the imagination, that engage and enthrall the readership while it waits impatiently for the next monthly installment. Besides the obvious difference in reading-habits between contemporary readers and those of the early nineteenth century, I do not believe that a novel devoid of such engaging fictional characters would have survived the monthly-publication interim.

In the opening of Hardy's Woodlanders, serialized in Macmillan's Magazine, Grace Melbury returns from a genteel urban academy to the rustic simplicity of Little Hintock and the quiet attentions of the taciturn Giles Winterbourne; the early chapter depicts the latter awkwardly awaiting Grace's arrival at the marketplace, his apple tree sapling beside him, eyes on the dirt, a man of the turf and hillock who possesses an intuitive understanding of the natural world but easily bewildered by the feminine one. And she! She is a 'flexible young creature...coming on tiptoe through the mud...and she held out to him a hand graduating from pink at the tips of the fingers to white at the palm.' Again, as in Edwin Drood the contrast is delightfully apparent from the onset - this moment of awkward reunion encapsulates the dilemma that will plague Grace for chapters to come - how to reconcile her acquired urban polish with the woodland rusticity of her youth, of which Giles is a part.

Implicit in this dichotomy of character-propelled novels versus those relying upon action to power forward momentum, is the notion that they are mutually exclusive. Action or character and never the twain shall meet. I defy any readers to proclaim Les Miserables lacking in dramatic dash and physicality, or to find its deficit in The Mystery of Edwn Drood (a taut page-turner, by Dickensian standards, fraught with dark intrigue). The turmoil, when it comes, is all the more dramatic for our utter engagement in the characters who comprise a part of it; no languid sighs here, nor long-winded melancholy perambulations, but action enough to bring the heart to a heated fever, to quicken the breath, send eyes anxiously scanning the page ahead - Does he die? What happens next??? The evoked anxiety of the reader exists in direct proportion to their degree of identification with the characters who are thus beset; Valjean's flight through the murk and mire of subterranean sewers, the desperate retreat of Rosa with the malevolent Jasper on her heels in Edwin Drood. So it is not necessarily so that the action of these 'character-driven' novels is of the subtler sort, or that it is confined to emotional entanglements rather than physical combativeness.

Perhaps the 'action', in these novels, actually encompasses a broader canvas; defined not only in terms of the ongoing physical momentum of events, but also supplemented by the internal ruminations and angst of a poignantly-drawn, complex character. The action of intent and motivation. In the conventional form of an 'action-driven' novel, I understand this means essentially and specifically a sequence of action-packed scenarios - much as one would expect to see in a modern Bond film - with the daring hero proceeding from one life-threatening engagement to another, with looming conflict and the desperate attempt to overcome it, being a central theme. Perhaps in these novels the dramatic plot sequence forms the primary structure of the novel itself, with characters formulated but essentially secondary to the maelstrom through which they are propelled. It is not that the characters are two-dimensional, as much as their particular roles within the narrative could be fulfilled by a certain, relatively generic type; authorial time and attention being bestowed on dramatic sequences that ideally enthrall a reader eager to escape quotidian demands. I do not mean to say that these novels are less enjoyable, or less worthy than their more literary counterparts - I merely wonder as to the accuracy of such polarizations in their interpretation. Perhaps the allocation of 'action-driven' for these novels is in fact quite appropriate, if it did not imply a dearth thereof in 'character-driven' works.

Within literary landscapes (such as those evoked by Hardy and Dickens) where plot progression cannot be imagined sans the complex creatures drawn with much authorial forethought (no generic hero-type will do) the action is just as prevalent but broadens to encompass a wider range of dramatic eventualities; not only the pant and grunt of physical struggle, but the mental agonies of Somerset as he yearns after the coolly reserved Paula in The Laodicean, or the ferocious malignity of Jasper in the quiet school garden in the Mystery of Edwin Drood, or the final death-scene of Giles Winterbourne gasping out his last in the dilapidated home he had relinquished (at the cost of his own life) for his Grace, even when she was no longer his own. To my mind, this is action of a much more powerful sort.

I do not think it is entirely a matter of length either - of spatial emphasis within the novel to one or the other; side-characters that populate Dickensian narratives are deftly portrayed with a minimum of pen-strokes. The disquieting Princess Puffer of Edwin Drood is portrayed within a few short paragraphs in the opening chapter, and despite her later reappearances within the novel, she is little-enlarged upon but remains a vividly memorable character within the Dickensian compendium. The unscrupulous Dare of The Laodicean is most indelibly portrayed via his laconic encounters with Captain De Stancy, where a brief dialogue serves the turn, or a glimpse into the mental machinations as he devises schemes to libel and undermine Somerset in his pursuit of Paula. There is no lengthy exposition of his character, or his background, but instead he is immersed within the ensuing action, his aspect vividly apparent in conversational asides. There is scarce narrative space devoted to these supporting cast members but they are indubitably critical in the rendering of each imaginative world, and give credence and incentive to the ensuing action.

Some advocating this polarization of action versus character writers even go so far as to ascribe a neural predisposition towards one kind of writing or another - not only are there novels propelled, with some degree of exclusivity, by action and others by characters, but each are produced by authors who depend upon, and utilize, one side of their brain in preference to the other.  This implies a level of biological predeterminism, but one that is, I feel, negated by authorial choice - either one wishes to focus primarily on a thrilling escapade, complete with villain and hero counterparts, a rollicking narrative entertainment which many readers enjoy; or they wish to convey fictional individuals that are more than the sum of their parts, characters that transcend the page, and whose actions (subtle, mental and otherwise) impel the forward momentum of the novel. They are not opposite ends of the spectrum, nor does one necessarily exist independently of the other - character-novels are hardly devoid of action, and there are indubitably works of escalating action that contain characters both luminescent and memorable (I found Stephen King's characterization via dialogue - from the admittedly few novels of his which I have read and those some time ago - quite superb).

Perhaps, as in many things, it is in the extreme reductionism where the error lies; it seems imbued with a simplicity which finds little correlation in the complexities of any given literary endeavor. I do not mean to say that any writer can simply select his or her preferred modus operandi and blithely proceed with one kind of novel or another. A writer conveys in words that which is within, the giving of voice to an internal compulsion, the narrative colored by their own particular vision, one that itself evolves and morphs with passing years. There are writers of all literary tint and hue, catering to an audience just as diverse; but each of us shares the restless imperative to self-transcribe the palpitating adventure that thrums in our blood and resounds in the beat of our heart. It is not to say an action-writer cannot delve into a character-compelled narrative, and vice versa, or even that one exists in isolation of the other, but it is a question, perhaps, of authorial motivation. Rather than isolating specifics that drive the plotline, perhaps instead we should make reference to what compels the writer behind the pen.


  1. Gorgeously written as always PJ! Thank you for sharing this wonderful musing with us!

    1. Thank you dear Sarah - I am delighted you enjoyed it. Thank you for taking the time to read it, and for the most generous comment left behind.

  2. Dear PJ, What a wonderful edition of the Humble Musings! I thoroughly enjoyed this reading and found it more than timely in light of the discussions you have led over the past few weeks. I totally concur with your findings that "character-novels are hardly devoid of action, and there are indubitably works of escalating action that contain characters both luminescent and memorable." You have broached a most fascinating topic once again that finds most of us reeling - as avid readers of the classics and modern literature, and as authors of our works in our attempts to define our own style without being categorized exclusively in one box or the other! I think it is unique to each writer to blend the character/action formula spiced with dialogue (as you rightly mentioned earlier, Stephen King did a lot of character development via dialogue), much like preparing a hearty stew that simmers to perfection. It is, as you say "authorial motivation" that makes our trademark.

    1. Dearest Shari, Thank you!! Yes and that unique authorial-stew, flavored with a spice blend that is so particular (and devoid of neither character or action) is what makes these marvelous books so enthralling; nothing predictable about them. I have long been determined (or is it a rebellious refusal to comply?) to fashion my own box - which consists of an amalgamation of my own add-on's to form a self-created maze in which I also frequently get lost! But these broadly-applied reductions rather annoy me - but perhaps, as I concluded in my musing, they do have some validity for some kinds of writing, and less, perhaps, for others. Thank you as always for your kind perusal of my humble work and your wonderful wonderful comment!

  3. More like a treatise than a musing this time round, PJ. And a brilliant one at that. Your premise is sound and watertight, as always.

    I think the categorisation comes essentially from what drives the novel, action or character. For instance, in my case, when an idea for the novel was conceived, it was with a character and his journey. Then came the deconstruction of the action or plot that led him there. In that sense, my novels are more character- than plot-driven. If that makes any sense.

    1. Yes indeed dear Dana. I try for the character-driven novel myself - but feel it to be a perpetual attempt to breath life into the two-dimensional, and something I feel as a writer I am earnestly engaged in the attempt thereof - if that makes any sense. In some ways the process seems to be a visceral, unrecognized one (at least for me) wherein I am endeavoring to capture some elusive fluttering thing, still a butterfly in flight...and often feel the lack of it - perhaps hence my unmitigated joy at discovering it in these marvelous authors so referred to.

  4. PJ, I tell my students exactly the same, although not nearly as brilliantly as you put it. I'm going to ask all of them who can manage with English to read your essay. My point is that classification and deconstruction for the sake of "literary analysis" kills the work, and it's impossible to see it again as a whole piece in all its magnificence. This is one case in which the parts do not amount to the whole. Novels, poems, and plays that have gone under the scientific magnifying glass and the Petrie dishes of dissectors turn into literary Humpty Dumpty's. Thank you for such a masterful, honest defense of our works.

    1. Thank you dear Marta - I am honored indeed! And do hope there might be something useful there for your students. Often I think my musings are more an exploration of angst insofar as my own strivings as a writer are concerned. It is this deft distillation of what comprises 'humanness' within these literary works that so engages me. Yes I too have little interest in pulling them apart, examining the literary innards so to speak without recognizing the fragile beauty, the elusive life of the whole.

  5. What an absolute pleasure to find your thriving essay (thriving with careful thought, erudition, and love of the literary novel as well as he or she who pens it!) this fine (and thank God, not rainy) Saturday morning!!! I was quite well trained in literary analysis and creative writing (two master's degrees and a doctorate), but found academia not particularly a welcoming home for a professor intent on actually teaching and empowering her students. Department chairs and dissertation advisors tend not to like that type of behavior.


    However: I find your essay a delight and filled with deeply intellectual thought, something I have been away from for the past seven years--by choice and by circumstance. Thank you for reminding me that some do indeed "deconstruct" without losing a love for the piece itself, and I love without bound the ending of your essay: in reverence for the person behind the pen.

    By way of explanation I will say that I have been a homeless person with a mental illness, and am committed now to working with both populations. Thus I have truly been away from the refined literary world. Your essay is thus a special gift for me this Saturday.

    I pray that you continue to produce such erudition for those of us outside the ivory tower who yet remain committed to the production of literary works. I have sincerely and deeply enjoyed myself for this past hour, and will follow your work should I encounter it again.

    I also humbly ask that you read--should you have time--a few of my blog posts and provide feedback. I would love to know what a scholar and author of your caliber thinks of my posts.

    May you continue to thrive and may prolificity color the remainder of your days!!!

    Love and blessings,

    Dr. Niama L. J. Williams
    Long Beach, California, USA

    1. Dear Dr. Niama Williams,
      Thank you for your kind commentary, and for taking the time to read my humble musing - your words touched me deeply, and I am delighted beyond measure that mine provided some enjoyment to you. I apologize for not responding to your post earlier, I have been knocked sideways by the flu, but am thrilled, upon resurrecting myself finally, to find your lovely post. I greatly look forward to perusing your blog.
      Warm regards, PJ

  6. I was just thinking if I should upload a short story of mine! Maybe shall do it on G+ and address it to you!

    warmest regards,

    1. Brilliant notion LM! Do keep me posted I would be delighted indeed to read it! Thanks so much for stopping by!