As we live in an age where we are producing novels and stories en masse it would seem that we should be somewhere near to perfecting the art of characterization in our fictions. Any writer worth their salt will know of the deep necessity to intrigue, titillate, harangue, inspire or simply relate to their readers, a notion that goes all the way back to Aristotle and his advice as to the formation of dramatis personae. And yet our books seem to become increasingly plot-driven, where narrative purpose is compelled through action rather than rhetorical study, in subservience to the old ‘showing vs telling’ motif drilled into most of us at primary schools. The in-depth character observations of the Victorians, for example, have now become a somewhat antiquated notion, even if we still love Dickens’ skilful use of caricatures and archetypes, though through active and selective exampling rather than narratological observance. In fact, a close examination of Aristotle would bear out the primacy of mythos (plot) over ethos (character) in support of current trends. What Athenian tragedists we would all make!
But given this proclivity to dramatic flow how does one avoid the reductive representation of the ancient stage and flesh out a novel accordingly? Surely we can’t throw out all the wisdom of the early fictioners who gave us lasting portraits from Tom Jones to Magwich to Holden Caulfield. How does one, say, create the sort of ‘round’ character that E.M. Forster advocated for in his Aspects of the Novel? As much as we don’t want to be ‘flat-earthers’ – we equally don’t want to be flat character creators where such are reduced to an actant with just a name and a voice. And yet modern fiction is full of unchanging two-dimensional characters storming through all manner of exotic and explosive plot. Surely complexity and development within a character needs some other expositional treatment that just shadowing and reporting the action that surrounds and binds said character. We would not have our microcosmic Blooms or our zoomorphic Samsas were we so narrowly restricted.
Recent readings have reminded me that one way to create a round and dynamic character is to immediately divest them of the corporeal, thus severing the intelligence or what we might call the ‘soul’ from the bodily subservience that so often captivates the writer. One such severance can be found in the challenging novel, Voice of the Fire, by Alan Moore – his first breakaway from graphic fiction. Voice of the Fire is a brilliant character study by an author obsessed with a singular place, his hometown of Northampton (England), and the type of humanity that it historically produces. My favourite story in this novel-in-stories collection is a clever tale narrated by a disembodied head residing post-mortem on a pike as a direct result of the Fawkes/Catesby ‘gunpowder plot’ rebellion. A strong character emerges despite the fact that he is entirely reduced to scant physical form, wholly reliant on an external world to flesh in the details. A more comedic version of this can be found in Alan Richardson’s recent novel, Dark Light, where the Templar-revered severed head of John the Baptist embodies the notions of farce and enchantment despite post-bodily restrictions and the strong possibility of being inauthentic as a relic.
Of course, one can dispense with the physical state completely – or simply use the mortal coil to weave yarns past normal states of limitation. Tibor Fischer’s The Collector Collector invests consciousness into an antique bowl, a ‘ceramic sage’ capable of imparting the wonder of human history – but subject to the flawed tempers of humanesque existence. Animating such an object provides for a fascinating angle on human interaction and what would normally be undocumented moments. David Mitchell perfects the art of disembodiment in his astounding novel, Ghostwritten, where the main character is a migrating ‘noncorpum’ travelling through various human hosts, thus revealing the complexities of intertwining consciousness in a chanced contemporary existence. Allowing the central entity to shed skin and recoil repeatedly presents a roundly profound character, the compositry of which would not be serviceable in a single body.
So while writers are all the more exhorted to the common reading denominator of plot-driven verisimilitude of persons, there are breathing examples of characters that get beyond two-dimensionality to something especially human.
© Daniel Staniforth/2014