Character: An Explosion between Strangers

 

For a long time I didn’t understand what people meant by “character”. In fact, the word still seems like an elusive function in an equally elusive calculus of fiction.    It’s a function with grave responsibilities: The main character, or characters,  must steer the story to shore or have a notable wreck. They must have conflicting motives–or (in simple language) things they want and don’t want. At the same time the writer is steering them, adjusting them, so the navigator isn’t really in charge.  Except for those times when writers say, “The character surprised me.”

This statement never seemed remarkable except  for the fact that the writer  seems surprised at the surprise when in fact all people—in and out of fiction—are unpredictable.

The innovative and radical psychoanalyst, Wilfred Bion, has said that when two people meet, a kind of explosion occurs.  I think everyone can relate to this because the explosion doesn’t have to cause fireworks:  It can be a small shudder, a tremor.  It’s the explosion of meeting a stranger and knowing that you are a stranger to the person you are meeting.  It’s also an interpersonal explosion because each person knows they are stranger to the other.

This happens for me with people in fictional worlds as well as with people in what we call “the real world.” And for me, this is the beginning of what we call “character” and feels much more like meeting a person

By explosion I mean something physical and kinesthetic—the kind you feel when a stranger walks into a room.  It’s the explosion of encounter, of sheer physical embodiment. And when this happens—invited or not—someone slips from being an imaginary person to what I’ve learned to call a “character” in my story.

Eventually, I make a contract with this person (or people):  They’re charged with steering the story and I’m charged with seeing that they do.  It’s a crooked contract because we each can hoodwink the other.  I’ll find out things about them that they don’t know and they’ll discover things things about me that I don’t know. They may change the course of the navigation and I may surprise them by adjusting the stars. We’re unacknowledged doubles, dancing in a funhouse mirror.

Even though this explosion happens in fictional space, it still feels like a literal explosion And when it happens in this space I want to follow them  because they’re literally, physically, separate from me.

In other words: It’s the explosion of otherness that makes me curious.  They’re only interesting at this stage because an explosion has happened between us.

This literal, physical curiousity, gets me to walk on their streets, enter their rooms, discover their hideouts.  I learn the physical map of their lives. I may not know what they look like. But I feel them moving through space.  In other words, they’re embodied for me.

Now and then I don’t allow the explosion to occur, just the way I might ignore someone at a party.   This happens most often with incidental people, or what we call “minor characters.”   I’m not snubbing them.  I’m just failing to take them into account, the way it happens when someone is introduced and I don’t quite pause, don’t give myself over, don’t allow a meeting.

Whenever I don’t allow this meeting—however minor—I get into trouble. The person wanders around the story without apparent purpose and I have to go back and allow the explosion.  It’s like: Yes! I’m going to meet you. And I’m going to let you meet me.

Having made the initial disclaimer about character, I am, after all, writing about a character for a blog hop. The person who invited me is the highly original and poetic novelist Harriet Scott Chessman who approaches character with amazing deftness  in The Beauty of Ordinary Things. Harriet  Chessman cares deeply about people in and out of fiction and her compassion, perceptiveness and respect for otherness illuminates her book, as it illuminates her earlier novels (Someone Not Really Her Mother, Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper and Ohio Angels)

Her thoughts about character are at:

#Characterhttp://redroom.com/member/harriet-scott-chessman/blog/blog-hop.

 

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