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Monday, February 10, 2014

Character

In my creative writing class, we are using Jack Hodgins' lucid and helpful book on fiction.  We began, appropriately, with words and sentences, moved on to setting (after all, fiction first needs a world) and then last week looked at what he had to say about character.  At the very least he says good, interesting characters need to be coherent or consistent, they need to have motivation, and they need to be plausible.

Yes, but.

In my CanLit class, we have just finished reading Dennis Bock's first novel, The Ash Garden.  One of the main characters, Anton Boll, is a man who left Germany to work on the atomic bomb in the United States. Bock's fictional character seems to play a small but crucial role in getting the whole thing working and deliverable.  He's not the big brains, but he's important.  Boll goes to Japan with the Manhattan District (the military section of the Manhattan Project) about four weeks after the bomb is dropped and sees the very personal and horrific scars radiation leaves on survivors.  (Bock implicitly makes us realize that the experiments in the middle of the desert never involved human subjects, so we didn't know what the bomb would do to the survivors in Hiroshima.) This traumatic experience leaves Boll with a galloping case of cognitive dissonance.  Part of him believes, as did many Americans, that dropping the bomb was the best course against a country dedicated to "total war," and that it probably saved lives in the long run.  (I'm not sure about this argument, and I will always wonder if we would have dropped an experimental weapon on Europeans rather than the Japanese.  The notion of the Japanese as "other" may well have contributed to our mis-understanding of the way "total war" might have played out.) But Boll also has a personal investment in the bomb.  He knows that his work with the Manhattan Project will cement his legacy as a physicist.  Add to this the guilt he feels about the wounds he sees, and you have a characters whose motivation is powerfully inconsistent.   It seems to me, pace dear Jack Hodgins that sometimes we are moved by a character's inconsistencies--inconsistencies so like our own beliefs that we're about to be a hero or a heroine in someone's narrative, hopefully our own, and that we're really worthless, stupid, lazy, completely lacking in wisdom or perspective.

My students did a much better job of querying Hodgins' notion that characters should be plausible, since they read much more genre fiction than I do and thus know that the character's plausibility depends on the world the character lives in.  I was thinking of magic realism and the plausibility of Isabel Allende's or Gabriel Garcia Marquez's characters:  I don't think plausibility is their greatest strength.  Rather, the magic of these writers' works is to pull us into worlds where the contract is entirely different.  We have to figure out the new rules--a great exercise for people who move unthinkingly in and around the rules of their own cultures.

Motivated I can run with.  In Burning Down the House, Charles Baxter argues that characters who are victims aren't very interesting.  Hodgins himself notes that characters have to want something and to be frustrated in their efforts to get it.  Characters need to want to change something, to make a difference, to grow and change themselves.  They have to want.  That, after all, is one of literature's--one of art's wild cards:  what does unpredictable and incomprehensible human desire look like?  Baxter also suggests that we can get interesting characters when we witness them making an inadvertent mistake that they then need to take responsibility for.  Baxter wonders "What's an unwitting action? It's what we do when we have to act so quickly or under so much pressure that we can't stop to take thought.  It's not the same as an urge, which may well have a brooding and inscrutable quality.  For some reason, such moments of unwitting action in life and in fiction feel enormously charged with energy and meaning.  It's difficult for fictional characters to acknowledge their mistakes, because they then become definitive.  They are the person who did that thing.  The only people who like to see characters performing such actions are readers.  They love to see characters getting themselves into interesting trouble and defining themselves" (Burning Down the House, 14).

Running alongside my thoughts about character was an inexplicable desire to find myself an old deck of cards and play a few games of solitaire.  I needed to do something completely useless, to rebelliously waste time.  I never did dig up that old deck of cards (a new deck is too hard to shuffle), but that goofy desire did help me think about character. In the best post-structuralist tradition, I have long realized that subjectivity was always "in crisis and in process."  We're not people; we're people in the making and we're often pulled in two directions. These are easiest to see using feminist theory. Perhaps while we consciously buy ourselves a pair of red Converse sneakers (something I plan to do when I retire) and wear boyfriend jeans, we're also unconsciously thinking about whether we live up to the model of femininity that culture is advocating in the media, femininity with an up-do and diamonds and stiletto heals.  As if there's only one.  That would be too easy. We'd be able to follow the pattern and get on with life.  But there are always so many that we have to choose and experience cognitive dissonance.  So I've long thought of personality or subjectivity as a gem with many facets.  These connect but they're not identical.  My yearning for solitaire inspired yet another model.  Perhaps we're dealt a metaphoric hand--or dealt part of a hand and accrue the other part. The hand is a whole, but its parts may take us off in unpredictable directions.

This term my reading schedule has been relentless:  finish one Canadian novel and start the next one.  But the upcoming break has already created a bit of a hiatus in my reading.  So I've begun Molly Peacock's wonderful work of creative nonfiction, The Paper Garden:  Mrs. Delany Begins Her Life's Work at 72.  Mrs. Delany, friend of Handel and Swift, began making floral collages in her seventies.  Her damask rose, Peacock tells us, consists of 71 pieces carefully layered on to create the depth of the rose.  And while the rose has an inner coherence, there are--as in most flowers--stamens and pistils, male and female organs.  The creative part of Peacock's nonfiction is to pair a collage with a phase of Mrs. Delany's life and to consider how the details of the collage's construction might illuminate an earlier period of her life.  It's that odd and interrogative reading of the flowers that suggested Mrs. Delaney's mosaiks were another wonderful metaphor for character:  layered, contradictory yet complementary, whole but with easily identifiable parts. And contrasts--a sliver of deep red demarcating the creamy pink petals at the centre.  I can imagine at the very same moment the notioin that consistency might be profoundly comforting and restful--and boring.  Would it mean that I couldn't walk into my CanLit class tomorrow as both a teacher and a student? I'm not giving that up for a little consistency.

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