I read advice once for revealing character in fiction, not personality, but character. Moral character. And moral development or deterioration.
The writer’s observation was that personality is far easier to convey. Forget about the challenge of “convey well.” It is simply easier to sketch someone’s exterior behavior than to show their moral life so that it can be understood, evaluated and observed to progress through changes based on a story’s events.
Writers can go completely “on the nose” - look no further than any character, ever, by James Cameron. Cameron characters are so generic and stereotypical that we learn nothing at all and the whole artifice of a made-up person comes crashing down. I’m thinking specifically now of the bad-guy marine in Avatar. Ai-yai-yi. Awful. GI Joe. Forget that, I’m thinking of every character in that God Awful Titanic.
The writer’s advice on revealing character in fiction is so trenchant that it immediately opens a whole door to understanding our own internal moral lives.
The idea is this: character is revealed when an individual must make a choice between two opposing, but legitimate values. It is important that both are legitimate in isolation, that, sidebar, may not ever actually happen in the real world.
We have to leave the realm of “good vs. bad” which gets us a James Cameron character, and we have to go into the world where both of these values are important, and as a fictional character or a real person, I am forced to pick one.
That choice, right there in that moment, is what reveals character.
Some examples help:
“I don’t want to be beat up” and “if I don’t step in she’s going to get hurt.”
“I feel terrible for this homeless guy. No human should live like this” and “Giving him money will only go towards alcohol” and, we’ll add a third, “I’m late and I can’t go looking for a homeless shelter for every lost soul I pass on the street.”
“I don’t want to hurt your feelings by disagreeing with you” and “I feel out of integrity agreeing with you.”
These aren’t the best examples. I’m not writing a dissertation, and I’m not going to spend the whole morning on this. The best examples of what I’m talking about come from our own awareness of these tensions - because we believe that both values are legitimate. In our internal lives we don’t get to go all binary.
And the one we pick… is the one that reveals our character.
A fictional character and a real one can be placed in situations that operate in this tension and allow others to see “who they truly are” from a moral perspective, what they stand for, and a whole parade of downstream dominos. And that, sayeth the writer advice giver, is how you get to a real character in fiction.
That’s part one of this post, which I thought would be briefer.
Part two is that a lack of recognition of the real - and legitimate - tension between these opposing (wrong word, I really mean “contending”) values is disappearing from our political culture almost entirely and fast. Actually, let me capitalize the key word: LEGITIMATE. We are turning into political AVATAR characters where our characters are only determined in the straw man moral situation of “good” and “bad.”
For example: the tension of rethinking every historical character in terms only of “some known horrible behavior” with the desire to “not turn everything that has every happened into a fatal flaw.” And we may be horrified at the prospect of nothing being left to celebrate in a binary world.
There are paintings that should come off the wall for a variety of reasons - and, um, say certain flags - and there are paintings that shouldn’t be removed from the Capital Rotunda. Thomas, I have your back here. I’m not going to take MLK Jr. off of a stamp because he was an adulterer. And neither are you. But thirty years from now, when adultery is the gold standard for character, we might just do that, which would be a horror, and I would get involved to stop that. And I absolutely think adultery is bad.
If the public discourse denies the real tension between opposing values and is unable to sustain a world that is only healthy when it is uncomfortable, then we’re moving into James Cameron territory where the stakes are very high.
And, it seems to me, this is where we are arriving at exactly where our body politic is right now. Right and Left. Maybe we’ve already arrive there.
So this is what’s going on in my head right now. Melanie wants to go out for breakfast. I agree with her, but I’d also like to understand this better, get some input, even argue about it, because this is important to me. They’re both important to me. Marriage health. Character. Whoops! I’ve Done It Again.
Here’s a representative world of ambiguity, and you can weigh in on it:
If there was a recording artist who had been famous his entire life, but then did terrible things as an adult, may I continue to listen to that artist’s music that was recorded while he was still a child? I am incapable of operating in a state of moral ambiguity. Please tell me what to do. Sleepless in Gary.
Ha-ha. You see what I’ve done here with the whole yes/no thing in the poll?
Intellectually, I think we should separate creations from the creator. Emotionally, I struggle with this. Sometimes I hear a great song or watch an inspiring movie and I don't need to connect to the artists in order to find value. But when I do associate the art with the artist, suddenly the WHO made it matters. This is a tough one.
This is tricky sometimes... I think about someone like Richard Wagner, an unrepentant anti-semite, but he also wrote some of the most beautiful music ever written. But the dissonance is partially grounded in the time difference between his world and mine today. I know that is not an adequate justification, but he's long dead and his social/political impact is nil to none, yet the overture to "Tannhauser" still exists... "Tristan and Isolde" still reverberates in my soul. It's a little different if it is someone still trying to "influence" the world today (eg: Kanye Fucking West) with their hateful rhetoric (and frankly shitty music) that I feel it is ok to vote with my wallet and not support. That's not cancellation, it's just "you and your music suck". But of course, there are more contemporary examples... Kevin Spacey, brilliant actor... for example.
On the other topic, character in literature... I would find it nearly impossible to write one myself, but it is certainly one that I have examples of in my collection. Richard Powers creates amazing, complex moral characters that show development throughout the narrative. But some. less literal ones would be the sketched out inhabitants of the short stories of Magnus Mills (who I highly recommend), or the complex morality of Joy Williams' characters ("Breaking and Entering"... a must read).
Food for thought, Adam!
I can’t answer the cancellation question for the same reason I can’t answer the question “When did you stop beating your wife?”. It requires me to accept a premise with which I don’t really agree, which is that cancellation - or at least what is commonly understood by it these days - is a moral act. I wonder if we have the same understanding of the term.
A challenge of character in this post, and this will reveal something about me and make my point. I believe that a) you shouldn't assume people are guilty when you don't have enough information and they haven't been convicted and b) you have the perfect example and a record cover that says "BAD." A better person than I would not have used the example. Polanski would have been better. But, I, having a lesser character, went with the one where I would have been ashamed to meet the person directly. Sorry, Michael. I did meet you directly, and I would never have said any of this to your face.