Thursday, November 7, 2013
Jung, Tesla and the Evocation of Inter-Character Atmospherics
For the writer beginning anew, fictional individuals are essentially conceived in isolation: each circumscribed bundles of human frailty arriving fresh in the narrative, influenced by their own particular past and propelled by their own particular agenda. Memorable characters, however, do not adhere to a linear progression through a given work, evolving according to some predetermined parameters to come to some tidy resolution. As much as I focus on the attributes, the proclivities, the mannerisms, the essential aspects of a given persona - I wonder if the greater magic lies in the spaces between; in the literary ether that permeates between one character and another.
Perhaps a visual analogy might be found in Tesla's lamps where plasma filaments extend in an arcing stream of colored light from the inner electrode to the outer glass sphere. Might it not behoove us to think of characters in this way? Not themselves so much - but the manner in which they interact with others - the electricity that arcs between; the fear and the passion - that which exudes from the very pores, exhaled in sharp breath, inhabiting the air as a charged emotive force independent of both parties. A scene of my recently completed novel (and one which emerged unaltered despite the multitude of revisions) comprised a confrontation between two protagonists, where one nursed a legacy of hatred nourished and intensified by generations of economic and social oppression. The encounter was fraught with tension; the escalating, almost primal, anger of one charged the atmosphere with a barely-restrained ferocity that to some extent defined the relationship between the two for the remaining part of the novel. Perhaps this particular chapter survived intact when its neighbors were heavily revamped due to this inter-character frisson that does more to compel and engage us than any straightforward recitation or revelation of attributes might do.
The precise nature of these atmospherics are often as elusive as they are varied, and might just as readily be defined as a languid ease than a snarling hatred. Cause and effect - the vehicle of which is not always visible to the naked eye - is perhaps all the more dramatic for being so imperceptible. Seeking clarity and inspiration in physical analogies my mind drifts to inter-cellular communication: the ebb and flow of ions, sugars, and amino acids that permeate the phospholipid bilayer; air-borne pheromones that communicate sexual desire; compounds emitted by trees suffering an insect-onslaught that evoke a similar defensive response in arboreal bystanders; or the enigmatic dark matter that populates interstellar space and can be inferred from the rotation of stars and the gravitational tug on emitted light - in short what happens between!
Jung expressed it beautifully: "The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances; if there is any reaction, both are transformed." To expand upon this metaphor (harnessed as it is to a literary imperative), a character isolated exists and proceeds in a fashion essentially predictable (a substance inert), governed by genetic and cultural predispositions and environmental context; but when others of uncertain motive and intent intrude upon the scene there ensues the excitement of uncertainty. What Jungian reaction might manifest, and how might such a fictional synergy impact subsequent narrative development?
One of the most vividly expressive character-interactions recently perused was that between the Machiavellian Jasper and young Rosa in Dicken's Mystery of Edwin Drood. Jasper, the seeming-devoted uncle (a smilingly villainous Claudius prototype) to the ominously-missing Edwin, threatens dire repercussions if Rosa refuses his amorous advances. Assuming the presence of onlookers, (situated as they are in the school gardens) Jasper's languid poise assumes dramatic counterpoint to the brutal nature of his communication. The dominant personality in this scene exists not within the malevolent Jasper or the cowering Rosa as much as the sense of atmosphere charged, caught, and held between the two; it acquires a degree of physicality irrespective of flesh, bone, and blood, a quivering tautness that inhabits the air like an electrified charge - an emanated sense of menace that excites one and utterly oppresses the other.
Perhaps this is merely an effusive reiteration of the obvious, but words are my stock in trade...and the perpetual quest to make myself understood (and indeed to understand myself) in a cascade of verbiage is, indubitably, an occupational hazard. Self-indulgence aside, my focus, insofar as character development is concerned, has been primarily a linear one - fabricating the fictional individuals within the confine of plotline, establishing a sense of them - from whence they have come, their literary travels within the novel, and the resolution to which they will find themselves at journey's end. But much of them, indeed the elusive qualities that render them something more than words on a page, arises not from authorial forethought, as much as the engagement with a fictional 'other' and the frisson that arcs between. I have been thinking primarily of characters as a progression, wending their way through the novel - perhaps a closer examination of the dynamism that ebbs and flows between one and another, the flux and flow of engagement, might prove beneficial to a writer ever-seeking to improve her craft. Ironically, as reliant as I am upon a profusion of words, this frisson of interaction might be utterly mute, dramatically conveyed by what remains unsaid and undefined.
This evocation of atmosphere seems something key within the formulation of a novel. Not so much who or what the characters are, but how they will engage, what might arise from the mix, from the exchange, from the chemical transformation that Jung alludes to. For after all, what are we alone? Growth potentials are limited; the trajectory a relatively dull and lifeless affair. But there is magic in interaction, an uncertainty in a previously unimagined combination. The atmosphere that lies without. A poignant, and ofttimes wordless, conveyance that elicits an equally visceral response. And to take that elusive dark literary matter that pervades the inter-character gap, to shape it, mold it and keep it warm between the palms, to be dispensed as required like fairy dust - the atmospheric additive that enables literary flight.