For today's Friday Forum, I visit creating believable characters again. This part of the profiling deals with the sociological parts of our lives and how those impact on who we become.
All Living Things React to Their Surroundings
It may be a subtle, yet powerful, change as in Clarissa Dalloway in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway or dramatic as Flannery O’Connor’s characters in “A Good Man is Hard to Find.”
Woolf’s book details a day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, a high-society woman in post-World War I England. Clarissa is giving an annual party that is a tradition. That fine morning, as she walks through London, a skywriting plane captures her attention—the perfect metaphor for the loopy-de-loop day Clarissa is about to have. Those whose lives brush and disrupt her good mood during the day include: a man she spurned years ago who dumps his confidences and criticisms, her daughter’s angry teacher, a war-shocked man sinking into madness, her husband’s invitation to a luncheon and her conjectures as to why she was purposefully excluded. The outside world bleeds into hers and threatens to overwhelm her. With stiff upper lip, and all that, she marches on, but her marriage is permanently wounded and her mind-set about the relationships between women and women and women and men suffers (a significant change).
In O’Connor’s story, a selfish, conniving grandmother goes to great lengths to hide her racism and elitism under a blanket of politeness only to find that her ingratiating behavior won’t save her. She is shot and killed—a significant change—by a serial killer, which O’Connor went to a great deal of trouble to create with a warped history and philosophy to explain his motivation to murder.
Transformation plots primarily examine how a character’s sociological influences affect them. Eliza in Pygmalion and the movie Kramer vs. Kramer are good examples. Both show physical, psychological, and sociological changes in the primary characters. Eliza changes the way she looks, speaks, acts, dresses, and views the world. The two Kramers change their look, their vision of what is important, and how they world sees them.
Strong Belief Systems: Examples of starting with one strong belief system, having it deflated, and then reconnecting with those core beliefs strongly is indicative of many plot styles. In The Devil Wears Prada by Lauren Weisberger, Andrea takes a job as the lackey for a powerful and bitchy magazine mogul and discovers who she is and what she wants to do with the rest of her life, and ditches the cheating boyfriend.
On the TV show Happy Days Mr. Cunningham, who owns a hardware store is the steady force in the weekly plot line. When he decides—in a moment of mid-life crisis—to run away to Tahiti, the Fonz helps him get his head on straight. Mr. Cunningham has come to believe that his pre-held beliefs are old-fashioned and life has passed him by. At the moment of truth with Fonzie, he makes a decision about his future. This show frequently used the differences in sociological groups to reveal the universal truths of all man. Fonz, the biker dude and Lothario, taught truths to the Cunninghams as well as their friends and they taught him in return.
Pygmalion: Eliza is upset when she is first “kidnapped” into the professor’s home, but she grows to love the more posh environment, then shifts back when she sees the professor’s indifference to her as a real person, then shifts back again when she visits with his mother, and finally, she has a decision to make. 2013 women might chafe at her final decision; I prefer to think, she had him whipped into shape in no time.
The Emperor of Ocean Park by Stephen L. Carter weaves an intense intrigue about a group of people who have all arrived at the altar of their careers and acquired their cherished career More serious forms of the Doolittle character changes are when core beliefs are tromped and goals—partnerships, professorships, judgeships—and look around at the angry, empty waters to realize they have arrived with nothing. What do they do with the rest of their wretched lives reveals character change and growth of one sort or another.
People are an amalgam of physical, psychological, and sociological input, some involuntary but most voluntary.
Spend a lot of time getting to know your characters in all three ways. While most of what we should know about our characters will never directly hit the page, 99% of it will infuse the pages with characters so believable, they resonate with readers permanently.
How many times have you been in a class or read in a book on the art of writing a reference to a famous book? How many of those times did the setting or plot leap into your mind first? Probably close to none. Characters. It's all about the characters.
Who are some of your favorites?