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.

TILT

The News is bad.

I know our neighbours to the south are dealing with an inexplicable situation at their highest levels of government and I honestly don’t get how it can even be happening.  I don’t know enough about how the system works- certainly not enough to understand how federal employees can be thrown out of work when a minority of extremists shut down the business of government based on even more inexplicable attitudes about points of policy that the electorate seems to favour- and, to be honest, I have neither the time nor the heart to research the situation in any depth right now.

I have read various takes on the insanity by some of my fellow bloggers- who, as Americans, know way more about it all than I would ever claim.  The most I can take personal issue with is SNL’s (hilarious as always) Weekend Update examination of the sitch- which blamed us here in the Great White North for the whole thing.  While you all were distracted by Iran and North Korea, a Canadian shut down the US government.

Please.  We don’t lay any claim to that Senator Cruz guy.  Even if we wanted to, you’d have to convince me that the majority political/ideological ideals out of Calgary are representative of Canadian political sensibilities in the rest of the country as a whole.  They certainly aren’t representative of mine.  That Harper guy spent his adult years there (I don’t count his early childhood in Toronto.  Would rather forget we hail from the same neighbourhood, actually) and represents the city in Parliament.  Their current mayor (who is AWESOME) notwithstanding, Albertan politics are faaaaaar more right-leaning than I am remotely comfortable with.

Cruz seems fairly intent on playing down any Canadian-ness anyway.  He wants to be President, so the ‘natural born citizen’ thing necessitates distancing himself from us.  Which, given his 21+hour performance in the Senate a few weeks back, is okay with me (and most of the people I know here at home).

We have enough insane politicians of our own.

More than enough.

The local 6 o’clock news started off by telling us the actual dollar figure that the taxpayers of Ontario are paying as a result of the Liberal government’s decision to cancel the contracts for a couple of gas plants in advance of the last provincial election- in a bid to guarantee two (yes TWO) seats.  1.1 billion (yes BILLION) dollars.  And if they’d just held off and let the proposal expire, it would have cost NOthing.

All in the name of political expediency.

Story number two?  City council back to the fighting board regarding the idiocy about the Scarborough subway– and how to pay for it.  I especially love how the Brothers Ford attacked Paul Ainslie- who actually represents Scarborough- for suggesting that a subway isn’t the most cost-effective solution to the need for public transit in the city’s east end.  He’s FROM Scarborough.  What could he possibly know about his constituency?  The Bros from the ‘Coke (on the opposite suburban side of town), as usual, know best.

Number three?  One of those same Senators who have been all over the news lately for wrongly claimed expenses?  He apparently paid a friend $65,000 (of taxpayers’ money) to do, well, nothing.

I guess I am either completely naive and clueless- or maybe just not quite cynical enough- but I honestly was of the opinion that people went into public service- as bureaucrats, policy makers and, most certainly, elected officials- in order to benefit society with the skills and perspectives they have to offer the general population.

Needs of the many over the greed and expediency of the few, as it were.

Not feeling like there is anything like truth in that particular belief these days.

Those who are drawn to public service lately seem to be attracted solely by the benefits and stability of government jobs- and those who run for office cannot possibly be considered altruistic in their motivations or actions anymore.  Maybe they never could.  I’d like to think that we have had public leaders who actually care about the public.  But whether or not history can back me up on that, the currently reality says it is now otherwise.

Big time.

Don Quixote, that pivotal, incredible staple of the Western Canon, tells the story of the idealistic and noble-of-spirit Man of La Mancha, who set out to perform acts of chivalry- those tenets of knighthood that focused on gallantry and service to others- in the face of constant deception and humiliating criticism.

Under the influence of Medieval tales about chivalry- and its lost values- Alonso Quijano remakes himself as Don Quixote and sets out to return the ideals he admires to a world that has ceased to value such things.

Miguel de Cervantes’ novel is so rich with characters and wonder and meaning that interpretations of his masterpiece are diverse and often disparate.

To me, the character of Don Quixote demonstrates- repeatedly- that individuals can be right while the larger society is wrong.  Unfortunately, like Don Quixote, such individuals are all too often viewed as ineffectual- if not completely crazy.  Ultimately his idealism is defeated by mundane realities- and by the grasping greed of those around him.  Even his patient squire, Sancho, tricks Don Quixote and earns himself a governorship (albeit a false one), in Part 2.

Don Quixote serves as social commentary and a satirical view of orthodoxy, nationalism and the pitfalls of slavish conformity to ideas of ‘truth’.  The putative knight sees his idealism dashed and finally- upon his deathbed and return to ‘sanity’- he renounces his attempts to restore the moral system of chivalry and apologizes for the trouble he caused.

This recanting is the real tragedy of Don Quixote.

Among other things, the chivalric code stated that its followers must protect those who cannot protect themselves- including children, widows and the elderly.  Chivalrous knights were all about honour- and respecting and protecting the honour of women.  They persevered and saw all tasks through to their conclusion.  And they despised pecuniary rewards.

Neither Don Quixote nor the knights he emulated were in it for the power or the money.  They did these things because they believed that they were the right things to do.  Yet such examples became ideals to be mocked in the face of the common reality.

To be quixotic is to be ‘overly’ ideal- that is, to subscribe to lofty or romantic ideas without regard to practicality.  To be quixotic is to be naive or impulsive.  I think that Don Quixote has gotten an historical bad rap.

In the context of the novel, those who tilt at windmills are perceived to be vainly fighting against an imagined enemy based on misinterpreted idealistic justifications.  But it can also be used to describe engagement in a fight in which the imbalance is pronounced- a lone man on a horse with a jousting lance against the power of the wind that causes the blades to continue turning.  Even if he is the underdog, the idealist sees the battle as one that must be met.

The Wikipedia notes that while playing pinball, ‘skillful players can influence the movement of the ball by nudging or bumping the pinball machine, a technique known as “nudging.” There are tilt mechanisms which guard against excessive manipulation of this sort… When one of these sensors is activated, the game registers a “tilt” and locks out, disabling solenoids for the flippers and other playfield systems so that the ball can do nothing other than roll down the playfield to the drain. A tilt will usually result in the loss of bonus points earned by the player during that ball. Older games would immediately end the ball in play on a tilt. Modern games give tilt warnings before sacrificing the ball in play.’

I don’t think that the adversaries are imagined.  I think our elected leaders have lost all sense of the honour that must, of necessity and design, come with public service.  I might be an idealist, but I think that my expectations of those who we choose to be put in charge are justified and in no way unreasonable.

I also think that those sensors that alert us to excessive manipulation are firing in a big way.  We have hit the tilt warning and it’s past time to stabilize the pinball machine of governance.  Our leaders must be held accountable and lose all those bonus points that were not earned through real skill or the honourable playing of the game.

Forty winks in the lobby, make mine a G&T
Then to our favorite hobby, searching for an enemy
Here in our paper houses, stretching for miles and miles
Old men in stripy trousers, rule the world with plastic smiles

Good or bad, like it or not
It’s the only one we’ve got

I won’t let the sun go down on me
I won’t let the sun go down
I won’t let the sun go down on me
I won’t let the sun go down

Mother nature, isn’t in it, three hundred million years
Goodbye in just a minute, gone forever, no more tears
Pinball man, power glutton, vacuum inside his head
Forefinger on the button, is he blue or is he red?


Nik Kershaw’s 1983 song was written in the context of the Cold War, the threat of nuclear annihilation, and politicians and politics in the US and USSR.  More than a little depressing that the themes are still applicable, 30 years later.

Break your silence if you would
Before the sun goes down for good

Think I’ll go fight me some windmills…