Monday, January 26, 2015

Strength-Building: Part II, Internal character

In pumping up characters and building up stronger characters, the detailed writing of the modernists like John Steinbeck help us to learn about using dialog and actions to show about characters.

There is so much more.

Another genre of novels, the propaganda or thesis novels, are a great example of how to demonstrate the internal dialog of characters.  These novels are typically novels that have some sort of social thesis or agenda--think of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle or anything by George Orwell.  Most any novel that is post-apocalyptic or anti-utopian would fall into this, too, because these novels are trying to make a point about the society, culture, government, or whatever.  Internal ideas and philosophies become complicated to show through actions and dialog.

One of my favorites in this genre is Taylor Caldwell.  Certainly, The Devil's Advocate is an excellent example of internal, political ideas, but here is a passage from Ceremony of the Innocent:

The pastor knew all the gossip of the little village of Preston.  He had often heard, snickeringly, that Mrs. Watson was no "Mrs." but a stranger from another place and that Ellen was not her niece but her illegitimate daughter.  She had arrived in Preston from"upstate" when Ellen was but an infant, and said she was a widow and a dress-maker, and she would "help out" in any household which needed emergency aid.  She never came to church, though she sent Ellen.  The pastor did not question the slanders, the innuendoes, the slurs.  Ellen was enough to arouse instant hatred in the drab, and instant rejection from the dull and sly.  It was rumored, whisperingly, that she was often in the fields "with some boy," at night.  Her beauty did not move anyone but an occasional youth or lustful field hand.  She was considered "showy" and repulsive, and ignorant, above all.  For she never seemed aware of the animosity which was constantly about her.

Because she was so unusual--a bonfire on the cobbled streets--she was detested and avoided by the other girls, who were of a piece and as undifferentiated as the kernels on a cob of corn.  She was singular, uncommon, spectacular, both in face and body and in movement, and so she awakened enmity among the uniform, who could endure no variance, no distinguishing characteristics.  Ellen's very innocence, obscurely recognized, was an affront to those who were not innocent however they were meek and conforming in speech and manner and opinion.  She was suspect of every vileness, of every corruption.  She was accused, among the girls, of acts and behavior and words that were unspeakable and not to be openly mentioned and designated.  Of this, too Ellen was unaware.  She accepted jibes and sly smiles and insults with a still serenity and patience wish confirmed the slanderous whispers and made heads nod.  If a classmate lost a cherished ribbon, a five-cent piece, a book, a pencil, a pen, Ellen was the thief.

Taylor Caldwell, 1900-1985

This brief section of description and background juxtaposes how the townspeople and even the pastor don't question the appearances of Mrs. Watson and Ellen.  Because they are unusual, the people of Preston believe this easily.

How does Caldwell do this so smoothly?  Probably a lot of revision and a lot of working and reworking.  But within her description and character development is a simple idea: a universal idea works within the details and thoughts to show the individual character.  The character is unique but universal.

Ellen is a powerful character in her details and thoughts, but we can relate to her alienation and obliviousness, which makes her an effective, interesting character.  No matter who we are, we have all felt the fear of being misunderstood and laughed at behind our backs.

This again is simple in premise and difficult to do effectively.  Finding the universal in the specific becomes a game.  What makes this character powerful and interesting?

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