Character, referenced

I’ve been thinking about that word a lot lately.  Partly because I’m participating in NaNoWriMo (32000+ words on the go), so character development is something on which I’m pretty keenly focused as I attempt to unfold the story from the recesses of my imagination.

Creating someone believable out of nothing is always an interesting endeavour.  I like to think that I have always been a writer.  Even as a child my imagination allowed for the creation of friends and scenarios- for my own amusement and that of others (ask my sibs sometime about the entity known as ‘Baby YumYum’- as space alien who accompanied us on family vacations).  They all had back stories and hometowns, histories and very specific likes and dislikes.  I remember it being fairly simple to come up with one character or another, pretty much at the drop of a hat.

As I’ve been an avid devourer of books since I learned how to read, the characters of favourite novels (and periods of history) tend to stay with me, and they sometimes take on a life of their own.  Strong characters become friends- to be cheered on as they reach goals or mourned as they pass on, and remembered as though they were real in moments of passing fancy.  Any number of times I’ve had to catch myself thinking about someone- missing them or thinking about how much they might enjoy a particular event- only to realize that I’m in fact recalling a character rather than a ‘real’ person.

Strong fictional character can become fully realized to those who love them.  When I first read Anne Rice- way back in the Dark Ages before Lestat started looking like Tom Cruise (shudder.  BOWIE- okay, maybe Sting- should have been Lestat…)– I often caught myself having conversations with her characters- particularly Marius- that vampiric remnant from the height of the Roman Empire- since his worldview and personality were companionably comparable to my own.

Somewhere along the line of my heavily invested reading, I sort of started believing that the characters I loved existed out there somewhere- waiting, perhaps, to be met in unlikely circumstances.  I mentioned, when talking about the wonderful exhibit at the AGO celebrating the amazement that David Bowie has brought into our collective existence, that I once wrote a stream-of-consciousness piece in which the narrator carried on an ongoing dialogue with the spirit of Ziggy Stardust.

I talk to characters like that all the time.

Flip side of this?  If the GREAT characters can get out there into the world, then so can the ones who aren’t so nice.  As a consequence of this little peculiarity of belief, I can’t not finish a book- even if it’s terrible (IMHO)- because leaving it unfinished maximizes the possibility that the horrible characters WILL make it into our world (this belief unfortunately meant I had to read the first Twilight novel in its entirety.  That’s a couple hours of my life I’ll never get back.  I didn’t speak to the person who gave it to me for at least a couple of days after, as revenge).

I mentioned this little eccentricity to a book loving, like-minded friend of mine.  Her response was to stand in line at the Ottawa Public Library for hours in order to get me a autographed copy of Timothy Findley’s Headhunter.  Here, from the talented pen of one of Canada’s literary treasures, was a story that included my own pathology.  The characters of Heart of Darkness escaped into a dystopian version of Toronto.

In addition to being a wonderful read that I revisit over and over (and which holds pride of place on my bookshelf), it was proof that I’m not (completely) crazy.

This love of character and story is one of the many reasons why I so love– and emphasize the importance of- myth.  Characters that were envisioned millennia (or centuries, or decades, or weeks) ago STILL capture our imaginations and are part of our common communications.

We constantly recall and revisit and remake these figures from our past stories- guys like Gilgamesh, or the patriarchs and other happening dudes of the OT (Melchizedek is my personal fave exemplar of the Super-Priest- and there’s a movie about Noah and his Ark coming out in the Spring), Jesus, the Buddha, Confucius, Mohammed… our mythologies are filled with amazing characters who continue to resonate with us- through the stories about their words, actions or the things they left behind them.

But that may also be why I’m struggling a bit (okay, a lot) getting these characters of mine fleshed out and onto the page.  I have a longlonglong history of hero worship to reconcile as I attempt to give life to my own fictional people.

(Another ‘waiting in line for an autograph’ story?  Since I was just talking about her… Anne Rice at the Chateau Laurier in Ottawa after Servant of the Bones was released.  By the time I got to her- and had my PICTURE taken with her- I was so overwhelmed with the memories of the characters she had given me I was pretty much a blithering idiot.  Did manage to stammer something about missing Ramses and looking forward to the continuation of the story of The Mummy, to which I’m sure she said something courteous and respectful- she’s a truly lovely person- before I stumbled away)

And add to that the fact that recent events here at home (you might have heard something about what’s going on by now.  Assuming you don’t live on Mars) have had me thinking more about the development of moral character than fictional character development.

Oops.

According to the Wikipedia:

“Moral character or character is an evaluation of a particular individual’s stable moral qualities. The concept of character can imply a variety of attributes including the existence or lack of virtues such as empathy, courage, fortitude, honesty, and loyalty, or of good behaviors or habits. Moral character primarily refers to the assemblage of qualities that distinguish one individual from another — although on a cultural level, the set of moral behaviors to which a social group adheres can be said to unite and define it culturally as distinct from others.”

The word comes from Greek, with an original meaning pertaining to a mark of some kind which is impressed on a coin.  There is a sense of indelibility about the word.  True character cannot be erased or washed away.

Character, as a quality, is at the heart of discussions of ethics and morality- things that form the core of most of the religions and philosophical systems we find across the world.  Morality is also defined by our cultures and the mores of our secular societies.

Caricature comes from a Latin word that means ‘to load’.  A picture that is a caricature is ‘loaded’- with either simplified or exaggerated characteristics.  They are rarely complimentary, and often used in political editorial commentary.

We’ve seen a lot of that up here lately.

“Maybe I’m too nice.”  He actually said that in an interview during his press jag today.  He was trying to answer a question about why he was hanging about with known criminals and writing them letters of reference.

Although some citizens of his Nation remain steadfast- distinct as it is from the rest of the us- the society seems to have crumbled somewhat over the past few days.

The television show has been cancelled- apparently ‘production costs’ are too high for the small television station to handle.  The locks at city hall have been changed.  And now federal Conservative leaders are telling him he should step aside.

Still, he continues to ignore the tide of opinion while remaining a caricature and refusing to demonstrate an iota of the moral character to which he lays claim.  Like Kurtz, in Findley’s novel as in Joseph Conrad’s original novella and Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, his delusions of grandeur have damaged the city and those around him.  So it’s past time for us to close the book and walk away.  Stop feeding his narcissism and his inability to look beyond his own ego as he continues to believe his own press releases (or those that his brother creates for him).

Whether he is a created political character or a sad caricature of what can happen when a life of privilege is not tempered with education, experience or any attempt at critical analysis, I’m writing him off, once and for all.

I, I will be king
And you, you will be queen
Though nothing will drive them away
We can beat them, just for one day
We can be Heroes, just for one day

And you, you can be mean
And I, I’ll drink all the time
‘Cause we’re lovers, and that is a fact
Yes we’re lovers, and that is that

Though nothing, will keep us together
We could steal time,
just for one day
We can be Heroes, for ever and ever
What d’you say?

I, I wish you could swim
Like the dolphins, like dolphins can swim
Though nothing,
nothing will keep us together
We can beat them, for ever and ever
Oh we can be Heroes,
just for one day

I, I will be king
And you, you will be queen
Though nothing will drive them away
We can be Heroes, just for one day
We can be us, just for one day

I, I can remember (I remember)
Standing, by the wall (by the wall)
And the guns shot above our heads
(over our heads)
And we kissed,
as though nothing could fall
(nothing could fall)
And the shame was on the other side
Oh we can beat them, for ever and ever
Then we could be Heroes,
just for one day

We can be Heroes
We can be Heroes
We can be Heroes
Just for one day
We can be Heroes

We’re nothing, and nothing will help us
Maybe we’re lying,
then you better not stay
But we could be safer,
just for one day

Bowie placed the title of the song in quotation marks since the subjects of the song are only ironically “heroes”.  In their own minds and only for that limited time period.

Time’s up, Rob.

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6 comments on “Character, referenced

  1. Fascinating piece… as I read the definition of character, I thought, it would come from Greek, so many of the words that contain the spirit of our lives seem to come from the Greek… I always wish I’d learned it, I feel it would give such a depths of understanding of thought, meaning and vocabulary…

    • colemining says:

      Valerie- I love being able to break down words to their components and according to their origins. For that alone, learning ancient languages was well worth the blood, sweat and tears. And you’re right- the origins help us to access the great depth of meaning and nuance that well-used words can offer us.
      Thanks for reading!

  2. bethbyrnes says:

    For me, the place I go to find beautifully drawn and developed characters are the children’s books of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, like Elsie Dinsmore, Peter and Prue, Rosemary, Mary Poppins. Those were the books I read when I was young because they were handed down through my mother’s family. I don’t think there is a better series to stimulate the imagination than P. L. Travers Poppins or Beatrix Potter’s illustrated naturalist tales. More time away from computers is in order for small children to grow up with properly stimulated creativity, imho.

    • colemining says:

      Beth- I completely agree. The characters of childhood help determine the shape of imagination- and imagination is becoming an underrated commodity these days. We seem to value those who ‘think outside the box’- but only if their ideas are marketable and have the potential to go public an generate (more) money for shareholders. We’ve lost the concept of ‘play’ to an alarming degree- and we are seeing the results of this in all aspects of our society. I don’t make the time to lose myself- and the ‘real’ world- in well-written characters nearly as much as I used to- that’s something I plan on changing in the New Year.
      Thanks for reading!

  3. Ste J says:

    Yay for the Greeks and their words and then for the internet which I bet Plato foresaw. One of the most interesting characters I ever came across was a robot who played with young children’s toys…oh yeah and the robot could rip a man in half and frequently did.

    Okay so off topic a tad there, I do wonder how many great characters we miss in real life due to the love of book characters. I like your words and i have decided not to steal them…I shall now reconsider the world. Now that’s showing you have character!

    • colemining says:

      Ste J- not off-topic at all. Good characters stay with you- regardless of how homicidal and/or robotic they might be.
      All too often, when meeting someone new, I start comparing them to someone I already know (as one does- to help remember names and such), only to realize that I am, in fact, comparing said individual (usually unfavourably) to a fictional character. Oops.
      I greatly appreciate the demonstration of your good character.
      Thanks for reading!

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