Posts tagged with "character" - Faerye Net 2011-08-22T14:11:48+00:00 Felicity Shoulders Too cozy for comfort 2011-08-22T14:11:48+00:00 2011-08-22T14:14:47+00:00 <p>I&#8217;m listening to a cozy mystery on audiobook. You know the sort of thing I mean: no gore, no guns. Just a puzzle and a well-behaved British sleuth working it out. I wasn&#8217;t too many chapters in before I thought, &#8220;this may just be <em>too</em> cozy for me.&#8221; At first, I thought it was a certain tendency of the author to include too many non-telling details: she turned right on Such Street and walked north to Another Street before proceeding west on Yet Another&#8230;she folded her newspaper under her right arm. But as I closed in on the three-quarter mark in this book, I realized that I had yet to meet an unpleasant character.</p> <p>There&#8217;s conflict: World War I and its aftermath, the struggles of a character transcending her social class&#8230;I&#8217;m not a huge conflict addict myself, I can make do. But when I realize that I&#8217;m reading a book <em>with the breakdown of social class as a theme</em> where no character shows any attachment to the old ways, and the high-class characters show no evidence of reluctance to change, vested interest in a system that privileges them, or snootiness toward a &#8216;social climber&#8217;&#8230;I stop believing.</p> <p>I harp a lot on the Vivid Fictive Dream described by John Gardner in <a href='' title='More info about this book at' rel='powells-9780679734031'><em>Art of Fiction</em></a>, so maybe you&#8217;re sick of it. But this sort of thing &#8212; a world with no jerks, no snobs, no self-absorbed idiots making trouble for characters &#8212; breaks the reader&#8217;s suspension of disbelief. We&#8217;re used to accepting, even if we feel a few steps removed from them, flawless protagonists (perhaps especially in mysteries) but flawless supporting cast? Flawless extras? An entire Europe, hell, an entire <em>World War</em> with no human flaws? It&#8217;s cloying, and it&#8217;s <em>unbelievable</em>. As Agent Smith says, &#8220;The perfect world was a dream that your primitive cerebrum kept trying to wake up from.&#8221;</p> <p>I love escapist literature. I have comfort books where the hero saves the day and all evil is defeated. These are not particularly realistic things, but a good author can make me believe in them &#8212; and one of the ways you convince me to believe in your happily ever after, in spite of everything I know about human nature and the capacity things have to fall apart, is not to lie to me unnecessarily on the way. Gardner tells us that the novel &#8220;imitates the world in all its complexity&#8221;. That means jerks and petty tyrants, even if you&#8217;re not telling a story that needs epic tyrants or sociopaths. The thing about readers is we want you to lie to us, but we want you to tell us a lie we can believe.</p> Old Curiosities: Dimensionality and Dickens 2011-01-28T15:47:40+00:00 2011-02-16T23:03:08+00:00 <p>I recently finished listening to an excellent audiobook version of <em>The Old Curiosity Shop</em> by <del>Dahls</del> Charles Dickens. This is my eleventh Dickens novel, so you know I&#8217;m a fan. I love the rhythmic beauty of Boz&#8217;s sentences, the far-fetched yet quintessentially human characters he invents. I know his flaws, and even love some of them. I keep coming back for more.</p> <p>And I am sorry to report that I was disappointed in <em>The Old Curiosity Shop</em>. Despite its formidable reputation &#8212; the Americans running along the wharf, yelling to the incoming ships from Britain and asking for news of little Nell &#8212; I found it to be engaging, but not deeply affecting. Oh, it made me cry, but in an unusual turn of events, I resented my own tears. Usually I embrace Dickens&#8217;s melodrama, which is often over the top but also really earnest. Here, it rang hollow and manipulative. Why?</p> <p><em>Old Curiosity Shop</em> is Dickens&#8217;s fourth novel, which may explain some of its weaknesses, but it&#8217;s worth noting that while his first &#8220;novel&#8221;, <em>Pickwick Papers</em>, is the only Dickens I&#8217;ve ever left unfinished, I love his second and third, <em>Oliver Twist</em> and my dear <em>Nicholas Nickleby</em>. What early Dickens failing is forgivable in those and glaring in this?</p> <p>Stereotypes. Dickens often relied on broad generalizations and character &#8220;types&#8221; in his work. His characters often have a theatrical quality, and sometimes are so defined by their role that their name never appears, like <em>Curiosity Shop</em>&#8216;s &#8220;Single Gentleman&#8221;. This is an integral part of his style, and doubtless helped prompt the memories of readers whose experience of the novels was through the serial medium. In general, this theatricality is part of Dickens&#8217;s charm: he had a deft eye for the absurd which envisioned bizarre but vivid and palpably real characters like Wemmick and the Artful. But the same capacity for exaggeration and shorthand characterization could also harm his work.</p> <p>In <em>The Old Curiosity Shop</em>, two of Dickens&#8217;s prejudices come to the forefront: the idea of the Villainous Cripple, and the Sacrificing Woman. The Villainous Cripple stereotype should be familiar to anyone who&#8217;s watched Bond movies (or apparently, <em><a href="">Doctor Who</a></em>.) It partakes of two main tropes: external appearance accurately expressing internal nature, something which I&#8217;m sure has a fancy name (hopefully with &#8220;fallacy&#8221; on the end); and another classic of disability (mis)representation, the Bitter Cripple. Thus, you sometimes see a villain with a disability or disfigurement that just adds to their drama, &#8220;frightfulness&#8221; or &#8220;wrongness&#8221;, and you sometimes see a villain whose disability has caused them to become &#8220;warped&#8221; and malignant.</p> <p>Daniel Quilp is both. He is described factually as a dwarf, then figuratively as a monkey, an ape, and a demon. Oh, so often a demon. We even have entered Dungeons &amp; Dragons-style demonic bestiaries with &#8220;imp&#8221;! He&#8217;s strangely agile (thus the monkey image) and uses his agility &#8212; and his capacity for disturbing facial expressions &#8212; to upset and frighten people, to project this demon-ape image. Of course the words &#8220;warped&#8221; and &#8220;twisted&#8221; are used. On the other hand, we see him occasionally justifying his evil &#8212; for this is an evil, manipulative, vitriolic character &#8212; by reminding himself of insults paid to him on the basis of his disability. Our working-class boy-hero, the euphoniously named Kit Nubbles, is reported to have called Quilp &#8220;an uglier dwarf than could be seen anywhere for a penny&#8221; after one of the central pieces of Quilp villainy is executed, and this remark is used by Quilp as justification for all his subsequent efforts against Kit.</p> <p>The Bitter part of this stereotype is as close as it ever comes to real characterization: are we to believe Quilp is evil because people mocked him for his disability? But then, why are other Dickensians stalwart and pure in the face of their afflictions and the world&#8217;s cruelty? (Is this a literary Puritanism, with an Elect and a Damned?) In the absence of any really understandable motivation for Quilp&#8217;s Herculean efforts in the service of villainy, he isn&#8217;t a character, just a malign force moving through the book and serving the plot. Greed may explain this action, revenge that, but fundamentally he hates all the good characters for no better reason than that they are the good characters. He hates, explicitly, their virtue. Unlike the general run of Dickens&#8217;s shadowy villains, nursing their monomanias and dreams of avarice, Quilp feels unfocused and emotionally diffuse. This is not a character with human motivations. This is a plot device with a face.</p> <p>The other character to whom I object is &#8212; don&#8217;t hurt me &#8212; Little Nell. I have long said, &#8220;I love Dickens, but he doesn&#8217;t love me back.&#8221; Dickens doesn&#8217;t write a lot of relatable women. At least, you can relate to some of his major characters, but I really don&#8217;t recommend doing it. The classic Dickens heroines &#8212; the Good Girls &#8212; are endless flowing fonts of generosity. They are virtuous, compassionate, and honest. All good things, but in the Dickensian heroine they are taken to excess. If you ever find yourself considering what Agnes Wickfield would do as a guide to your everyday behavior, I suggest you preemptively check yourself in for therapy. Giving as much and as thoroughly as these women do is not healthy. Their entire personalities are defined by their nurturing. In Agnes, we forgive it, because she&#8217;s a secondary character. In Little Nell, the nominal protagonist, it&#8217;s poison.</p> <p>Characters need, to state the obvious, flaws. Even in the starkly drawn world of Dickens&#8217;s imagination, heroes have them: Nicholas Nickleby&#8217;s temper (however much I find it refreshing) is a flaw. Pip, Boz help him, is a mass of flaws. The characters need something in themselves to strive against, not just in the world. Even Kit Nubbles, the bonus protagonist of this volume, introduced as Nell&#8217;s comic relief and only marginally older than she, has flaws and struggles, small though they be. He struggles to &#8220;stay cheerful&#8221; and govern his temper for the sake of his mother. He can be oblivious to others&#8217; feelings. He can, albeit less spectacularly than Nickleby, snap.</p> <p>Nell, on the other hand, is imperturbably perfect. She&#8217;s less naive than that other pure little waif, Oliver Twist, so she&#8217;s able to get herself and her beloved Grandfather (the recipient of her Eternal Spring of Giving) out of scrapes, and out of clutches. She&#8217;s sweet, kind, soft-spoken, moral, uncomplaining (to the point of collapse from hunger) and true. She likes to ease others&#8217; suffering. She wants simplicity and quiet. Oh, and of course, she is gorgeously beautiful, and small for her age, allowing her to inhabit a nebulous zone between the pitiful child and the vulnerable woman for maximum victimhood.</p> <p>We have <a href="" target="links">Mary Sue and Marty Stu</a> &#8212; can there be a Martyr Sue, too? A character with no flaws is just frustrating, not engaging. I&#8217;m willing to wait for her flaws to emerge, but at some point &#8212; and I remember the point vividly, when Grandfather was whinging at her for uprooting them <em>which she did to rescue them from his folly</em> and she answered mildly &#8212; you lose all suspension of disbelief. No one that sweet can exist, should exist. Anything you do to her to make me cry is cheap. Anything she says is cloying. She has too few dimensions to exist on a flat page.</p> <p>This is what we&#8217;re talking about when we say that writing in stereotypes is <em>bad writing</em>. For all the cleverness and fun moments in <em>Old Curiosity Shop</em> (and it did definitely have them), it&#8217;s strung around empty spots instead of believable person-facsimiles.</p> <p>Dickens learned by doing, as we all must. Besides the convincingly flawed Bad Girls like Nancy and Louisa Gradgrind (and less convincingly drawn Estella), he eventually produced women who were allowed to be much less than perfect and still good, like Bella Wilfer. Some of his later characters seem almost like apologias for those that came before &#8212; Jenny Wren for Tiny Tim, Riah for Fagin. I don&#8217;t resent Little Nell or condemn her as a sexist depiction. I just see her as a missed opportunity, like many before and since. Art needs justice every bit as much as justice, to get a hold on people, needs art.</p> Reluctant romantics 2010-11-27T15:25:15+00:00 2011-03-09T20:23:19+00:00 <p>At the beginning of the &#8220;Much Ado About Nothing&#8221; production in the BBC&#8217;s <em><a href='' title='More info about this book at' rel='powells-00794051289025'>Shakespeare Retold</a></em>, the credits roll over events several years before the action of the play. Beatrice is preparing for a big date; Benedick is preparing&#8230;to skip town for a big job.</p> <p>Now, some of you may realize this isn&#8217;t countertextual: it&#8217;s a spinning out of one line:<br /> <blockquote><span class="caps">DON</span> <span class="caps">PEDRO</span>: Come, lady, come; you have lost the heart of<br /> Signior Benedick.</p> <p><span class="caps">BEATRICE</span>: Indeed, my lord, he lent it me awhile; and I gave<br /> him use for it, a double heart for his single one:<br /> marry, once before he won it of me with false dice,<br /> therefore your grace may well say I have lost it.</blockquote></p> <p>I could go on at some length about the casting of this production &#8212; Damian Lewis as Benedick, <strong>be still my heart</strong>; and Sarah Parish, the pretty, witty Beatrice with the motile face. But I&#8217;m here to talk about the introduction and one shot in particular where Beatrice scatters red rose petals over her bed, then looks at them, goes off screen, and comes back with a dustbuster to remove them. With her expressive face, you see the whole thought process play out.</p> <p>I love this moment. It crystallizes something very important: Beatrice is a reluctant romantic. She is a romantic, or she never would have thought of the petals: but once deployed they strike her as too much, too obvious, too vulnerable, too earnest. Too romantic.</p> <p>I can sympathize. I don&#8217;t know what scholar put forward the idea of the romance cult, but I first read about it in Ernest Becker&#8217;s <em><a href='' title='More info about this book at' rel='powells-9780684832401'>The Denial of Death</a></em>. Basically, the idea is that as the power of the Church has declined in post-Medieval Europe (and the European-inflected West) the place of Christianity has been supplied by worldly romance. Sure, the Western world is still chock-full of Christians, but Christianity can no longer safely be assumed to be a universal constant. Stories told in the Renaissance and later depend on different universal truths and aspirations, a different transcendant happiness: romantic love. Love, moreover, that transforms and elevates, that is itself a destiny and purpose. True Love with One person, Forever.</p> <p>It&#8217;s natural, perhaps, that this world order should have its cynics, just as the religious one did. But most of us &#8212; not all, I note &#8212; do crave companionship, and the idea of a lasting partnership that will fix us and save us from ourselves has been programmed in from an early age. Even those of us who believe more in density than in destiny often have a yearning heart.</p> <p>And so, for us, there are the reluctant romantics, the bickering lovers, the banterers and sarcastics. Beatrices and Benedicks, Hans and Leias: characters who are strong and self-reliant, resistant perhaps to the vulnerability of love or belief in it, characters who demonstrate with every barbed word and cynical protest that they will not go gently into the sunset. It&#8217;s become an overused device itself, but done right, it still enchants. In the process of convincing their doubting hearts, they convince ours too.</p> Power of Chest Expansion! 2009-02-16T17:24:06+00:00 2009-02-16T17:25:03+00:00 <p>Once upon a time, at the urging of one <a href="" target="links">Ryan Grove</a>, I added a copy of <a href="" target="links"><em>Essential Spider-Man Vol. 1</em></a> to my collection of <a href="" target="links">old <em>X-Men</em> continuity</a>. It didn&#8217;t strike the same chord with me. We&#8217;re talking seriously old school Spidey &#8211; J. Jonah Jameson was not the only one with a vaguely square head, the villains were kooktacular (and I say that as a Batman fan) and the dialogue was somewhat clunky. Most memorably for me, Spidey&#8217;s powers hadn&#8217;t been pinned down. In one panel, pinioned by ropes, he decided to snap them using &#8220;my power of Chest Expansion!&#8221; I think I fell off my chair.</p> <p>There may be worse sudden power inventions &#8211; the Superbreath of Memory Theft from <em>Superman II</em>, for instance &#8211; but it stands out for its petty perfection. <em>Chest expansion</em>? Couldn&#8217;t he have used his Spider Strength? From whence does this Chest Expansion spring? Since spiders have exoskeletons, it&#8217;s hard to imagine them puffing up their thoraces. It&#8217;s a one-off power (like the Superbreath) that solves the situation he&#8217;s in, with no care for consistency.</p> <p>Every time a character in a book &#8216;remembers&#8217; or discovers a new power or area of knowledge, I think of Spidey snapping those ropes. It&#8217;s lazy. It&#8217;s writing yourself into a situation and cheating your way out &#8211; giving the character a new tool to overcome the challenge, rather than using the capabilities he has creatively, rewriting the challenge, or changing the circumstances. It&#8217;s drawing endless Chekhovian guns out of your trenchcoat instead of going back and writing one onto the mantel. There are probably genres &#8211; campy, over-the-top or deliberately cinematic genres &#8211; for which this works. But for most books, having the author suddenly upload a skill into the protagonist&#8217;s head <em>Matrix</em>-style snaps me out of the action, unsuspends my disbelief, and leaves me feeling betrayed.</p> <p>At least until someone breathes on a cup of water and I forget the whole thing.</p>