Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added) is the best-kept secret
among contemporary American writers. --John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture Marly Youmans is a novelist and poet out of sync with the times
but in tune with the ages. --First Things

Monday, December 16, 2013

Out-of-fashion characters, creation, one writer's mind--

Image by Clive Hicks-Jenkins from Thaliad
(Phoenicia Publishing, 2012)
www.phoeniciapublishing.com
Certain subtleties of character creation are seldom seen in the novel these days. And they are hard to catch. They are difficult to portray in our time, being rejected by the various gatekeepers of the novel, those who know best or feel that they do.

I'm thinking about someone I know, someone I hardly noticed for a long time because she was very quiet and modest and also there was nothing to call attention to her appearance. She did not put herself forward in any way, and clearly did not think particularly highly of her own gifts, though she often admired others and their abilities. Yet she grew on me over time for the simple reason that she seemed to have a lovely quality of goodness--a steady, shining light.

Such a character is entirely out of favor as a subject for the literary mainstream in our time, and no doubt would be considered unbelievable or sentimental by many critics. Mere inclusion of such a figure would be difficult; could a writer even get away with it? And yet it is as true as many another character, and a wonderful example of noiselessly bearing up under life's slings and arrows and witnessing to the nobility of human beings.

This person shed light elsewhere on other characters as well, and is a good example of how many fictional and real people bump up against each other and illuminate one another. (If fictional characters do not collide and illuminate in a story, well, the tale is less true to how we live and learn.) That is, when I finally began to notice and admire her light-bearing character, it struck me how quickly a newer acquaintance of mine had been drawn to her, and how he had seen in her a lovely, tender light it took me years to perceive.

And that understanding told me several things about character. It told me that my newer acquaintance was a person with a delicate, discerning sort of mind, and that he had no care for what the world thought in establishing his friendships. I admired both those qualities. It also suggested to me that I was often a little too busy to pay attention and that I was not as discerning a person as I might like to be, no matter how many paper characters I had created in books.

It also suggested to me that I might like to pay a little more attention to the more subtle ways that light (or dark) is shed from one character to another in my books. It suggested that I might want to be a little more alert to these linkages in real life. Suddenly I knew myself better, and almost felt myself to be a character in a story, one whose world had suddenly turned a little faster on its axis and who had come to a greater self-knowledge.

12 comments:

  1. A lovely tender treatment of a real life character that reads as well as a story. I would imagine she would become a model for a character in one of your tales, never mind the fashion. And he sounds lovely too.

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  2. In a world where 'edgy' trumps the benignly lovely, this does not surprise me. Those who can appreciate goodness in others shine out like a beacon.
    People want so much excitement from others, but that usually requires drama and exaggerations…

    The quietly lovely person should never be overshadowed by the flourishes of others.
    People complement one another.

    What a lovely blog, Marly!

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  3. Marja-Leena and Paul--

    Well, there are two who would like something of simplicity and light! Still thinking about how one would handle such a character in a 21st-century tale...

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  4. Lovely! Both for the character you have drawn here, and for the fun I'm having imaging a critique group's response to this character--She must be more active! She must have choices and make decisions! Can't you make her a bit more, I don't know, energetic?

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  5. This is why the phrase "realist fiction" always makes me laugh.

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  6. Alisa,

    Yes, your imaginary critique group must give her a conflict, or maybe a quest... when all the time she seems on a kind of inward journey, a very quiet one, far superior to any outer quest.

    Scott,

    I laugh with you!

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  7. What you have said interests me. I would restate the notion in my simple way that there must always be conflict--either internal or external; simple or complex; obvious or subtle--involving any character; otherwise, what motivates a person to act (or not act) in situations? Sometimes, the more subtle the conflict, the richer the character. I go back to the Greek words, protagonist and antagonist: the character on the positive side of the agon (struggle/conflict), or whatever or whoever is on the negative side of the agon. As I tell students, if they cannot identify and explain the agon, they cannot understand and explain the character. Perhaps, though, this is all too simple. After all, I defer to writers. I merely teach. And you know what they say about teachers (i.e., the comparison between those can do versus those who cannot . . . ).

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  8. Yes, I would say that the character/woman I described does indeed have a conflict, but it is one in which she has bent and continues to bend her will because she has renounced many worldly things and set her heart on one thing. In another age, she would have been a contemplative nun.

    Teachers are fine, or have the potential to be! Professors and teachers have a beautiful call... That's such a silly saying, you know, because teaching takes a great expenditure of creativity. Teaching is a form of doing, after all. Any slogan that comes too easily and too often to people's lips is something to distrust.

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  9. re: teachers . . .

    You do know that my tongue was in my cheek when I made the self-deprecating comment . . .

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  10. Oh, yes, but all the same... People say it seriously all the time!

    It's Polonial.

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  11. I believe there are some who have managed to write about such a person in the 21st century quite successfully.
    Those novels are sometimes referred to as 'autobiographies', Marly. HAHA!

    Benign characters have no need for, and do not attract, drama. It is a problem indeed!

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  12. Paul,

    One of the facebook comments on this post (from a writer) was about people loving their anti-heroes too much, and how there is a place for such a character. But you're right; it is tricky...

    Perhaps the strongest way such things have been handled might be in a book like "Middlemarch," where the rocky path to a lamplit state is revealed in a protagonist like Dorothea. She is much like the woman I described, at least by the close of the book--the invisible, needful, helpful woman who makes the world a better place and is then not remembered in the annals of history. She is an under-achiever in the worldly sense; she is a high achiever in a spiritual sense.

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Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.