Wednesday, October 30, 2013

A Lack of Character

It has come to my attention that there is a dreadful shortage of fictional characters in the world, forcing the few who do exist to do the work of a great many. Jane Austen's weary characters can't get a moment's rest. They're constantly being dragged out of their stories and made to be the pawns of any unimaginative and unscrupled Austen wannabe with a keyboard.

Existing literary characters are in high demand. After all, why should you go to the trouble of creating your own character when all that's necessary is to pick up a book, say... Pride and Prejudice, open it up and snatch a ready-made character for your very own. Elizabeth Bennet is very popular. As is Darcy. Go ahead take them. Everyone is doing it.

I mean, making up a character from your own head is such tedious work. You have to close your eyes, picture the person, then give him a name, think up a few details--his weaknesses, his strengths, his favorite color. You mustn't forget to throw in a childhood trauma or two. Exhausting.  How can you be expected to put in so much effort for your sure-to-be-a-bestseller? You're far too busy rehearsing your interview with Oprah.

And it's so wasteful. Why create when you can recycle? You're all about conserving resources. Green literature is all the rage.

Most importantly, the tried and true characters are profitable. And that's all that really matters, isn't it? Giving the people what they want. Market research clearly shows that Elizabeth and Darcy sell books. Why fight it?  If Elizabeth Bennet was good enough for Jane Austen, she's good enough for you. And that Darcy! Of course you want a piece of him. He's good looking.  He's got ten thousand a year. And let's not forget his fabulous estate, Pemberley. You couldn't possibly conjure up such a catch with your own fingers. So why bother?

If you're concerned about the ethics of using someone else's brainchild, someone who cut out a  piece of their own soul to give the character one, don't worry. It's all good. Readers love characters they already know. It's asking a lot to introduce them to someone new. Why else would there be 12,137* different books featuring Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy when Jane Austen only wrote one? You're doing the reading public a favor. Well done, you.

I, myself, would never think of doing such a thing. I'd as soon take another woman's child as another author's character. It's just as well since, like my children, I prefer my own characters to anyone else's. No offense. I'm sure your characters are sweet and precious. Doesn't mean I want them tugging at the hem of my skirt with their grubby little hands all day long .

While giving your character a face and a name takes relatively little effort, allowing her to develop into a living, breathing person with thoughts and fears (not to mention  a compelling backstory), requires love. Authors love their characters. A character isn't die cast to easily fit into any story you might have lying around. Each one is carefully, thoughtfully crafted by and for the maker. Look, but don't touch. If you want one, make your own.

John Lennon once chided someone who presumed to know what his lyrics meant better than he did. The listener fits lyrics into his own understanding of the world, but he does not--and never can-- know what was in the mind of the songwriter. With one or two exceptions, of course. I'm pretty sure I get what the guy who wrote You Shook Me All Night Long really meant. Doesn't leave a lot of room for conjecture. I'll give you that one.

The same is true of a novel. Not the You Shook Me All Night Long part, but the bit about not being privy to the writer's thoughts. Each reader relates to the story and the character in their own way, but no one can presume to know the character as well as the author does.

One of my favorite books is Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy. The main characters are well-drawn and, as a reader, I feel I understand who they are. Though the book is long and detailed, there is much Hardy left untold. We don't know why Bathsheba is self-centered and thoughtless, we just know she is. We don't get to see the relationship between Frank Troy and Fanny Robin until she tells him she's pregnant with his child. And what on earth did Farmer Boldwood do with his free time before Bathsheba Everdene sent him that ill-considered valentine? Did Gabriel and Bathsheba live happily ever after, or was their marriage haunted by the memory of Frank Troy? So many questions.

I could write half a dozen novels by stealing Hardy's characters and extending his storylines in various directions. But, if Thomas Hardy had wanted all those stories to be told, he would have written them. To presume I know Bathsheba's backstory or the nature of her love for Gabriel Oak, would show far more arrogance than I am willing to admit to.

I clearly remember the public excitement and anticipation for the sequel to Gone With the Wind. I worked in a bookstore at the time, and purchased my own first edition of Scarlett. It sits on my shelf still. Unread. I may have started to read it, I really don't recall. What I do recall is watching part of the mini-series and seeing Ashley Wilkes portrayed as a drunk. Ashley Wilkes? A drunk? Not the Ashley I know and love. Sure, he was good enough at pretending to be drunk that he was able to fool Ward Bond** into believing he was at Belle Watling's and not attacking a shanty town. But, the idea of him turning to drink after Melanie's death offended me enough that I made the conscious choice to skip over any sequels not written by the original author. I keep the book because it's a first edition and might be worth something someday. Interested buyers may contact me by email.

I was persuaded to suspend my self-imposed ban on repurposed characters after repeatedly seeing Wide Sargasso Sea  by Jean Rhys on lists of great books. For those of you who don't know, Wide Sargasso Sea is the prequel to Jane Eyre. It tells the story of Rochester's first wife, Bertha (the author changed her name to Antoinette with the unconvincing explanation that it was Rochester's idea to call her Bertha. Apparently, it's not enough to take someone else's character, you're entitled to change her name, too. How nice).

In the book, we see how Bertha/Antoinette was misunderstood and Rochester was the nineteenth century equivalent of a douchebag.. Okay, thanks. It  ruined Jane Eyre for me. But that's forgivable, I suppose, since this book was such a fine piece of literature in its own right. At least, that's what I've been told. Frankly, I didn't understand what was supposed to be happening in ninety percent of the story. Had I been forced to read it during a fever-induced delirium, it wouldn't have made any less sense to me. But it is on a list of great books, so someone liked it. The guy who made the list certainly must have.

If, for some unthinkable reason, I were persuaded to write a sequel to Far From the Madding Crowd, (it would only be under extraordinary someone offering to pay me)  I would take the opportunity to change Bathsheba's hair color. Hardy wrote her as dark-haired, but I really see her as more of  a blonde. And the bit about Fanny Robin dying was far too sad. So, with just a few keystrokes, I'd make it into a case of mistaken identity. Fanny's alive and well in the next county with her little baby. So much happier that way, don't you think?

No one, to my knowledge, has taken one of my characters for their own. I'll admit I'd be giddy with excitement if they tried. Because that would mean someone has actually read my book. Woo hoo! But, as soon as I got over the initial glee, I'd be calling my lawyer. I don't actually have a lawyer. I'd have to get one. It just sounds more intimidating to say "call my lawyer" than "hold on, I'm going to find myself a lawyer on Yelp and then you'll be sorry".

Sadly, Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte don't have lawyers. Nor can they stand up and say, "Hey! Stop that! She's my character. You might think you know her but only I really know her. I know what makes her tick. I make her tick. I gave her her soul. Her thoughts. Her compelling backstory. Her afterward, if she has one, is mine to tell, not yours. Let her be. She belongs to me."

I can only hope that a hundred years from now, my books (yes, I said books...plural...there are more to come, you lucky, lucky readers) are so well-regarded that Beth Anne Niemela wannabes of the future are tempted to appropriate Lissy Porter and Tom McGarry to fill the pages of their very own sure-to-be-a-bestseller.

A note to those potential grave robbers, I'm not above haunting you. Not the "Ooh, I just felt a cold draft" kind of haunting either. It would be full-blown, screaming, jaw-less, Japanese woman in an attic kind of haunting. I won't be messing around. Fair warning. Hands off. Yes, I mean you. Make up your damn character.

Now, you'll have to excuse me while I get back to my newest character's compelling backstory. It's a doozy.

*Hyberbolic number pulled out of the air for purposes of amusement. At least, I hope it's hyberbolic. If it's in the least bit accurate, God help us all.

**Yeah, yeah. I know Ward Bond wasn't the character's name. The character's name escapes me at the moment. I could Google it, but that would be cheating. Ward Bond is the actor who played the federal soldier who was so chummy with Rhett Butler in the movie. He also played Burt in It's a Wonderful Life. I love that guy.

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