Thursday, February 18, 2010

Character is destiny (Heraclitus)

“Character is destiny” (Heraclitus, 544-483 BC)

I took classical Greek in college. I loved it, sort of like doing word puzzles. What letter is this squiggle, what is the meaning of that series of squiggles? One thing I learned was that spacing between words and punctuation were relatively modern conventions meant to make literacy more accessible for larger numbers of people.

Since few Greeks learned to read, it was assumed they could figure out the meaning of the text. Admittedly, Greek was a highly inflected language (word endings signaled part of speech, verb tense, etc.) so an ancient Greek kid just had to attend to those things to make sense of the sentences. I guess. I used to be a first grade teacher and someone who worked with struggling readers, so there had to be some problems with that theory (or why invent spacing and punctuation?).

I digress. Heraclitus was a pithy kind of guy, lots of quotes are attributed to him. Like the one above. Tammy Greenwood (latest novel, The Hungry Season), one of my session presenters at the SCWC last weekend, used this quote as she discussed a topic many conference sessions addressed.

At heart, a novel is about characters. The plot is just a device for showcasing their human frailties and strengths. The humanity of the characters is what keeps us reading, not that they solved the problem in this book, or didn’t. It is the quest to solve the problem that reveals those aspects of the characters we can relate to, or not.

Tammy said, “Getting to know your characters is your main job as a novelist.” Until you know your characters as well as you know your best friend, you can’t reel in the reader with characters who don’t jar. That got me thinking.

Even when the reader doesn’t know what a character will do, once the action is revealed the reader knows it was an appropriate action. One of the roads the character could have taken on the way to resolution. And, if it is not a consistent action, the author reveals something about the character that justifies an act seemingly out of character (so to speak).

I am thinking about some of my WiPs that are giving me fits. In every one (so far), I am struggling because the characters are the glue holding my great story premise together, not the propelling force that will move the action forward. So, looks like I am going to be spending a lot more time in conversation with Doris, Spinks, Jan, Cliff, Samantha, Jake, and oh, so many others. Character IS destiny. Who they are, what they need, how they react. That is what makes a novel compelling.

No comments:

Post a Comment