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Thursday, June 10, 2010

Characters in Danger of Extinction

Some instructors in writing workshops have said fictional characters must be larger than life to keep the reader turning pages and buying the next book in a series. Fiction is pretty amazing and has transported me to worlds I’d never thought I’d visit but, in the end, I don’t think anything is larger than life. There are, and always have been, honest to goodness live characters who act heroically, make horrendous sacrifices for worthy and unworthy causes, who keep going despite social or natural adversity, or who commit such heinous crimes that the rest of us shudder to be on the same planet with them. Sometimes, an author captures the essence or the humanity of these characters so the reader has the opportunity to meet them. Many readers are so busy that they don’t converse with anyone beyond their family and workmates. In fiction, they might find themselves eavesdropping on the thoughts and feelings of a character whose life is outside their experience.

I suspect fictional characters that have been boldly drawn by their creators are sometimes called larger than life. Stephanie Plum and the two men in her life come to mind. Is her sex life more exciting or raunchier than in real life? Well, I’m not giving any names, but I don’t think so.

When I read books written by live authors, the characters seem not so much larger than life as part of life, characters whose emotions and thoughts parallel mine. They cope with situations that are removed from the ordinary. After all, not many of us stumble on dead bodies in our back yards or at the office. I want to see these characters succeed in solving a crime. I expect them to persist and not sit around whining about what a shock they’ve received. From that point of view, I can understand a little the popularity of action/adventure. The male hero keeps going until the job’s done. In grad school, while I was obtaining an MA in literature, I had to read many books in which the male character spent pages fine-tuning his psyche and wondering whether society was worth joining.

I was never aware that I was afraid of dogs until I read Stephen King’s Cujo. I’ve stopped petting every strange dog that comes close. I was working the night shift when remote starters for cars became popular. It was dark and I was hurrying to my car in the parking lot when I heard an engine start up. Right away, I was checking for Stephen King’s Christine, the bad car that killed people. Who can forget Carrie, the teenage misfit, who finally got her revenge, so much more satisfying than a teenager who keeps brooding in private? I guess many readers enjoy being frightened but only if the nightmare is resolved by the end of the story.

Some fictional characters are hard to forget. I remember the character’s name better than the author’s. Scarlet O’Hara comes it mind. She was selfish and thoughtless but I always liked her better than the simpering creatures that fit so well into the polite society of the time. I never thought I could like a cannibal until I met Dr. Hannibal Lecter. He’s more interesting than Clarice Sterling and the killer, Buffalo Bill. Hannibal is so sensitive to the emotions and motives of others at the same time as he bites and eats people.

I’m not sure why Miss Marple and Sherlock Holmes have remained popular. They’re both smart and they’re on the side of justice. I guess we want those on the side of good to be brighter than those championing evil. Miss Marple appears more human then Holmes and she goes against stereotype .

Tennessee Williams creates characters that don’t succeed and situations that trap them. In A Streetcar Named Desire, Stanley destroys Blanche Dubois but Stanley’s victory is hollow and our feelings about Blanche are ambiguous. In A Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Maggie the cat, Brick, her husband, and Big Daddy won’t find fulfillment. They live in a world of lies. The emotions and struggles of the characters make them memorable but, I’m guessing, the world in which they live seems a little remote.

I’ve heard authors describe their characters as their alter egos or as someone who can live a life they can’t because of family and/or professional commitments. Writers talk to their characters and dream about them. They invent histories and personal profiles for them. They are the imaginary friends of childhood with adult motives and desires. Some characters capture the popular emotion and some don’t. I think I’d have to be able to live outside my time to be able to decide why a character captures the popular imagination today, will be more relevant one hundred years from now, or will never rise up out of the printed page.


1 comment:

Unknown said...

well, Pauline, I agree about the larger than life question for fictional characters. My best characters, the ones I'm in love with, are relatively simple and ordinary, but they do the craziest things, things I would never ever think to do myself. I guess that's what makes them extraordinary.