Thursday, 31 May 2012

The Creation of Character

The one unassailable fact with fiction is that it will contain characters – characters that live and breathe on the page in their own unique ways.  The characters may not necessarily be human (Paul Auster’s Timbuktu [1999] is from the point of view of a dog) but there will be some quality within each character that endears them to the reader.  A qualification: this endearment may not necessarily mean that the character is likeable – think of one of the most beloved figures in British fiction, Heathcliff, and how his passion at times overwhelms into madness.  He is not, by any definition, a loveable character, and yet he is loved.  Or there is Becky Sharp, a character defined by her abrasive wit, and yet it is this that makes Thackeray’s Vanity Fair [1847–48] such a joy.  

Guy de Maupassant
 A sentence beloved of Ford Madox Ford and Henry James comes from the Guy de Maupassant story, Le Reine Hortense [1883] and it is this:

“He was a gentleman with red whiskers who always went first through a doorway.” 

It is a sentence I love as well, for it is one that instantly brings forth the image of a man.  A man with a past and about whom you know the psychology.  That one sentence speaks multitudes.  From it we can discern that first he is a gentleman (so we know that he is well attired), that he has red whiskers (and red whiskers immediately brings to mind a certain kind of individual, usually of an irascible nature), and that he always goes through doorways first (telling us that though he is a gentleman he is not always a mannered gentleman).  These qualities, discerned quickly, will inform our understanding of the remainder of the story.  This gentleman is a character defined.  As Ford said of him, “that gentleman is so sufficiently got in that you need no more of him to understand how he will act. He has been “got in” and can get to work at once.”

For this is the important issue to the writer – the “getting in” of character.  What Ford means here is creating a character that lives on the page and is defined without much need for lengthy description or detailing.  It is what all novelists want – their characters to be alive.  Much bad fiction suffers because the writer is uncertain as to whom their character is.  You can see the writer struggling to make their characters breathe.  They struggle through this by creating detailed pictures of the characters on the page, framed as if in a photograph.  They read something like:

“Henry was a tall man, six four, with a crop of light blonde hair that waved over his forehead.  His neck was long and thin, and came down to broad shoulders.  His arms, gangly for his body, ended in hands of weathered skin, for Henry was a farmer.  His light blue eyes looked back out at you with such deep resonance.”

And so on for a page or so.  It may be an interesting portrait of a man, but it is a man who is only anatomically alive.  He remains a mere waxwork on the page.  We may have a perfect picture of him, but who is he and why should we care?  It is why Maupassant’s gentleman works – there is a picture of him and he is instantly alive.  He is, as Ford so rightly observed, “got in”.

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