Friday, March 2, 2007


This week's tasks in Daily Themes had to do with the creation of characters. I like the assignments: to characterize a person through a habit or trait; to observe a stranger and imagine facts about him or her (which, more often than not, illumines something about the observer); to describe someone you dislike, while removing your own point of view (which is to say, the enmity, so that, if it works, the person's behavior is justified by its own logic, no matter how infuriating it may be); to characterize someone through likely actions or unlikely ones; to describe how someone matches or doesn't match their own personal ad's list of attributes.

What's unfair about the assignments is the more interesting or complex a character is (especially when based on someone the writer knows well), the more difficult it is to sum them up in the required number of words. If one considers Henry James' dictum that "plot is the revelation of character" then it becomes obvious that "character" will not be revealed except through action and interaction within a plot. This becomes quite obvious when "a type" has to distinguish itself somehow.

Character is something that is best manifested in layers of time. This is even more the case if one feels, as I do, that character is the most fluid of attributes, unknowable except in terms of what the person has done, can do, or will do. Why plot is necessary: so that the character will have some incentive or catalyst that makes it knowable. People, I maintain, aren't anything, in and of themselves. This is not the same as saying that they are simply the sum of their actions and influences, since even if we knew their entire past and everything that matters to them (as we presumably do about ourselves), we still don't know for a fact what they (or we ourselves) will do, or, quite often, even what we're capable of, until some situation presents itself.

Of course the real meaning of James' dictum is that it's trying to explain what plot is. A plot has no purpose except to reveal character. Something has to happen. The basic version of this idea is that two characters are a dialogue, three characters is a plot. This I would say indicates the basic building block of the plots I conceive of writing: triangles, sometimes interlocking with other triangles.

Let's put some mountains here,
Otherwise what are the characters going to fall off of?
And what about stairs?

--Laurie Anderson, "Big Science" (1982)

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