Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Myth of the Solid Character and James Wood

As I've noted before, I've been reading and re-reading How Fiction Works by James Wood, and right now I'm studying closely and taking heart from a few sections where he discusses what he calls "The Myth of the Solid Character." These are in sections 74-77.

A lot of interesting comment is packed in those pages, so paraphrasing as briefly as I can . . . He says it's not universally true that all great characters that readers remember and are attached to are "solid" (or "round" for that matter.) There are plenty of examples of novels that engage and move their readers with characters--main, secondary and minor--who are brushed on very lightly and about whom the reader is told very little.

To quote one passage at length, he says:

I think that novels tend to fail not when the characters are not vivid or deep enough, but when the novel in question has failed to teach us how to adapt to its conventions, has failed to manage a specific hunger for its own characters, its own reality level . . ."

He's big on that idea of novels simultaneously telling their tales and training the readers in the particular conventions of that telling.

A few pages later, after demonstrating that Isabel in Portrait of a Lady isn't a solid character by any usual definition, he says:

So, the vitality of literary character has less to do with dramatic action, novelistic coherence, and even plain plausibility--let alone likeability--than with a larger philosophical or metaphysical sense, our awareness that a character's actions are deeply important, that something profound is at stake, with the author brooding over the face of that character like God over the face of the waters. That is how readers retain in their minds a sense of the character "Isabel Archer," even if they cannot tell you what she is exactly like. We remember her in the way we remeber an obscurely significant day: something important has been enacted here.

I take heart from this passage because all through the drafting and rewriting of my story I've been hearing in the back of my head the advice from many creative writing texts about "knowing" your characters and having them act from my own some deep sense and understanding of them--the necessity of building up the reader's sense of the character. One, that isn't an aspect of this work that comes naturally to me. But, fine. If that's important, I'll have to concentrate especially hard on that part of the job.

But, two, as I do so it has felt very forced and I don't have a lot of confidence in it. What does feel natural is something I've had trouble putting my finger on until I read this particular passage from Wood. I think when I'm in the zone, the mortaring and layering on of plaster and the sanding and prime coats and the multiple coats of paint I've been putting on have been about building up an awareness that something important and profound is at stake. And for me that has been easier to do by watching my character move around and brooding over him without spelling out in depth, or even knowing clearly for myself, what he is like--without excavating his interiority. I'm not sure how he feels about what's happening to him, and the imperative to figure that out and to show/not tell it has been disruptive. Something about that hasn't felt authentic, and right now I'm wondering if the imperative is incorrect--based on a myth, as Wood identifies it.

Well, this might all be a giant excuse for avoiding some hard work that after all is necessary, but I'm intrigued by the possibility, and it's causing me to work much more consciously on any section that is "characterizing" my character. I probably won't be able to grapple fully with this question until the revision process, but it's stewing for now.

No comments: