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.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Jung, Tesla and the Evocation of Inter-Character Atmospherics

I have been contemplating the fictional construct of characters; not their own particular complexities as such, nor the manner in which they evolve through the course of the narrative, but the effect they have on other inhabitants of their literary realm. In the process of beginning a new work my attention is primarily bestowed upon the individual rendering - transforming the skeletal shadows that exist as nebulous, half-formed notions of themselves, into the heated pulse of life with all the emotional turbidity that coils and pulses beneath the facade. In short I am intent upon the literary life-giving properties that transform a fictional individual from the two-dimensional imprisonment of page to the soaring expanse of an imaginative reality. For there are innumerable fictional characters that, for one reason or another, do not succeed - they remain flatly unengaging. Dull and lifeless beneath the turn of page, until the reader tires of their insipidities and the book is returned, barely skimmed, to the shelf. I remain fervently of the opinion that the formulation of character, with all their attendant complexities, is critical to the literary success of a novel.

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.