Lex Enrico Santí, LCSW, MFA
The Character of your Character
Letter from the Editor, Winter 2010 originally appeared here at Our Stories Literary Journal
THE MAIN CHARACTER IN YOUR WORK IS THE LIFELINE THAT YOU HAVE WITH YOUR READER AND THROUGH THIS CHARACTER YOU PRESENT THE STORY'S MORAL, SOCIAL, SENSORY, POLITICAL AND EMOTIONAL MORES. Your character is going to reside somewhere in between two moral or ethical polarities to present the story. The two examples that come to mind are The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexandre Dumas and Filth, the novel by Trainspotting author, Irvine Welsh. Your plot is then framed by your character’s actions and meaning derived from the story and thus articulated through the character’s actions. In the case of the The Count of Monte Cristo, we feel the entire novel that the character has been wronged and hence we feel this pain and a catharsis by way of his agency to right the wrongs that have been done to him. In this case, he works against the system of power and exacts his revenge against it; the reward we feel at the end of The Count of Monte Cristo is one of redemption and wrongs being righted. To speak about a much lesser known novel, Welsh’s, “Filth” takes a Scotland police officer who is a despicable, insect of a human being, who does nothing but wrong. In this case, he is the system of power, he takes advantage of everyone around him and by the end his wrongs are righted. The goal of this structure is we feel a much different catharsis as he gets everything that he deserves because of the wrong he has done. These two are sited to give you the polar opposites of characters and the process of catharsis in the novel. However, any character in your writing will do essentially the same thing. The elements of your story’s plot are hidden in your character’s judgment, actions and sense through the story’s development. Your story or novel will lay its character development somewhere between these two novels to give the reader a moral and ethical compass to steer them along their way.
Let me give you two examples, that I feel may be able to better hit upon my point: the first being a short story I recently reviewed who missed its mark but showed great promise and the second last year’s Pulitzer prize winner The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz.
The short story example is as follows: the plot is of a woman in the midst of truly hard times, we find out she is an addict. She lost her daughter. We find out her husband threw her out. She’s at the end of her rope and turns to working the streets. I’ve left a lot of the details out here but you catch the drift. Unless you’ve got a heart of stone you--the reader--care about this person and feel just awful for her. Despite this woman’s low self-esteem and her tough as nails attitude, there’s a John who cares for her and she meets him for coffee by the end of the story. Now, here’s where my trouble with the story shows up. Rather than stay in the moment and show some compassion for this character, to give them a moment of connection to the one person in the world that cares about them, here’s what happens. The woman finishes her coffee, she walks outside and is hit by a truck. That was it. Tough stuff. Here’s my point: the reader identified, in whatever way we could, with the main character and when the truck hit the main character—it hit us as well.
A while back I took a workshop with Allen Wier, who I’m hoping will agree to be our next interviewee. We were reviewing a short story where one of the characters had an egg salad sandwich thrown in their face, a character that had not particularly seemed as if he deserved a douse of mayonnaised, hardboiled eggs and mustard tossed on their noggin. Weir piped up when we hit upon this action in the session, “you need to respect your characters and give them some dignity here.” He took issue with this egg-salading and in turn told us the anecdote of a novel he read, about the tension between a father and son. For pages he was gripped by the process of their family dynamic. He was enjoying it for the most part and then the two men came to blows. The father and son slugged it out—and in the middle of this bout of bashing, the full-grown son pisses his pants and begins to weep. Wier told us he threw the novel down with disgust and picked up his point there, “you can’t treat your characters like they don’t matter.” You could just as easily say that Oedipus should never piss his pants but the point is quite clear—the characters matter—and being careful about how to articulate the nature of your character and providing action to show who they really are, in a sense the character of your character, gives us a window into how we should feel about them.
Take these examples—would there have been a way to justify these truck hitting/egg-salading/urinating events? Of course there would! In my opinion, you would need to move the story less than in the direction of the Count of Monte Cristo and more towards the direction of Filth. So here’s some suggestions to pull that off: Instead of the woman losing her child let's say she beat her to death, then maybe she would get hit by a truck and then run over again when backed up to check it out. If the guy gets pegged by an egg salad sandwich, I hope he would’ve been mean to his girlfriend and finally if the son pisses his pants I hope the father was sick and in a wheel chair and he’d been deprived of food for four days. In short, without justification you’re essentially flying blind, letting random events sit in for your writing and random is bad. Very bad but that’s another essay for another quarter.
Onward to Oscar Wao. I am probably going to get my share of hate mail because of the following statements but why should that stop me? I don’t particularly care for The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. For those of you who have not read the novel I will give a brief synopsis here: (Spoiler Alert!) It follows the life and times of a friendless, sexless, brainless, lifeless, Dominican, super-geek Oscar Wao as he plods his way through life until he is left with his head bashed in a sugar cane field. To me, Díaz goes to great lengths to suffocate all humanity, all hope that his novel will come to some sort of graceful conclusion, that the character will evolve or develop into something other than what he is from page 1 which is, essentially: pathetic. We hope as readers that something or anything will positively happen to Oscar Wao the entire novel—following him from birth to his twenties—but nothing does. He makes one poor decision after another until he meets his untimely death. In the end there is no catharsis, Díaz leaves us with no change, only the sadness of negative hit points. Who knows—maybe that was the damn point of Oscar Wao, how should I know? I certainly have not been elucidated by his interview with us last year. In fact, he went to lengths not to explain Wao as his character, and when I asked him whether such a character could actually exist as he is described him on page 20:
“Had none of the Higher Powers of your typical Dominican male, couldn’t have pulled a girl if his life depended on it. Couldn’t play sports for shit, or dominoes, was beyond uncoordinated, threw a ball like a girl. Had no knack for music or business or dance, no hustle, no rap, no G. And most damning of all: no looks.” The link to full interview is here. He replied as follows: “You mean a human being like Oscar? Of course he does. There’s one in every damn high school in the country. And who knows: that person might be you".
How do you process this statement? You may be drawn to the conclusion that he doesn’t truly care for his character as he is using him as a way of insulting someone—that someone having been me. Ah but no, I don’t take it that way—because that would be to take it too personally, right? No, I just take it that Díaz doesn’t give a damn about his main character and uses him as a puppet with no human characteristics and doesn’t develop past who is on page one and writes a subsequent four hundred pages to just kill him off in the end.
Now, it should be said, that Díaz carries the weight of his novel on his writing and his writing alone is what is remarkable about the novel in my opinion. I give him that. It is what makes it a joy to read. It is not the characters, the plot, or even the sensory details that are present but the flair of Díaz’s writing and the audacity of his mixing of Spanish and English and the postmodern self interest of his work. Is it a good novel, sure, does he get away with treating his character like garbage—sure he does! because he writes like a bat out of hell.
So here’s the bottom line folks, the character of your character matter as much as it is the character in your novel that your reader will identify and process the actions of the story through. We may despise these characters, we may adore them but you cannot believe that we will be unaffected or you will have undone all your work before you have written your last line.