Saturday, May 17, 2008

Edith Wharton on character development

The other difficulty is that of communicating the effect of the gradual passage of time in such a way that the modifying and maturing of the characters shall seem not an arbitrary sleight-of-hand but the natural result of growth in age and experience. This is the great mystery of the art of fiction. The secret seems incommunicable; one can only conjecture that it has to do with the novelist's own deep belief in his characters and what he is telling about them. He know that this and that befell them, and that in the interval between this and that the months and years have continued their slow task of erosion or accretion; and he conveys this knowledge by some subterranean process as hard to seize in action as the growth of a plant. a study of the great novelists . . . will show that ssuch changes are suggested, are arrived at, in the inconspicuous transitional pages of narrative that lead from climax to climax. One of the means by which the effect is produced is certainly that of not fearing to go slowly, to keep down the tone of the narrative, to be as colourless and quiet as life often is in the intervals between its high moments.

Another difficulty connected with this one is that of keeping so firm a hold on the main lines of one's characters that they emerge modified and yet themselves from the ripening or disintegrating years. Tolstoy had this gift to a supreme degree. . . .

. . . with what sure and patient touches their growth and decline are set forth! And how mysteriously yet unmistakably, as they reappear after each interval, the sense is conveyed that there has been an interval, not in moral experience only but in the actual lapse of the seasons! The producing of this impression is indeed the central mystery of the art. To its making go patience, meditation, concentration . . . .
--Edith Wharton

Again, I'm quoting from The Writing of Fiction. This is from the chapter on "Constructing a Novel" in which she discusses some of the central difficulties that a novelist has to grapple with. When I came to this section I started underlining like crazy, because it's a problem that I'm very conscious of in my story. The character in my book has to change--in response to the events of the plot--and at the same time has to remain himself, so that whatever action he takes at the end has to feel like it was inherent in the character that was presented at the beginning of the story. Otherwise the reader will feel gypped. Another discussion of this idea that has helped me is in L. Rust Hills book Writing In General and the Short Story in Particular. He calls it the "inevitability of retrospect," and he has a neat little drawing to illustrate the idea.

What I don't like about this passage from Wharton is she doesn't give any practical advice! Well, not much anyway--meditate, concentrate, go slowly. But overall she makes it sound like it takes an act of grace to pull it off.

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