Sunday, May 8, 2011

The flavor of fictional characters

Reading Victoria's review this morning on Eve's Alexandria of an Orange long-list book, The Invisible Bridge, I found her discussion of characterization particularly interesting:
Orringer's characters don't feel like characters.  They feel like people, real people that actually lived, because the things that happen to them have the flavour of biography and not of make-believe.  This might sound like a Good Thing.  Surely it makes them better than 'just' characters?  But I disagree: characters in novels have to have their own reality, from their own world.  Do you see what I mean?  It's clear that Orringer has drawn upon the experiences of her own relatives for the shape and arc of the novel, and especially towards the end of the book there is a distinct flavour of non-fiction about what happens to her players.   It is as though she has been recounting what she has been told about the models for her characters, and not what happens to the characters themselves, in their own right.  I'm always suspicious of this muddying of the waters between fiction and biography when the subjects are intimately connected to the writer; it means they don't feel able to do what authors should do, which is throw away the script.
The intimacy of Orringer's connection to the events she describes also imbues her characters with an aura of...well...holiness, of family sanctity.  It detracts from their roundedness: they are too perfect to be true.   Andras is the Good Man, an honest, earnest figure with principles and family values.  He entertains almost no internal conflicts - any doubt, anger, uncertainty in him is only a reflection of the big events going on in the world around him. His love for Klara is life changing, earth-shattering, pure and never tested.  At the Ecole Speciale Andras' three best friends are also types: Eli Polaner is the gentle, thoughtful homosexual; Rosen is the flaming political radical and activist; Ben Yakov is the handsome, damaged rogue.  Similarly, Andras' parents are cut-out figures - proud, clean-minded, good-hearted; his brothers are perfect contrasts to him: serious, productive Tibor and flighty joker Matyas.  They all move about the plot, and play their parts, and never do anything unpredictable.
Writers learn early that just because a sequence of events have taken place in real life doesn't mean that it will be plausible when inserted into a piece of fiction: au contraire. But I hadn't given much thought to the plausibility of real personalities anent fictional characterization. Fictional conventions have a lot to do with plausibility. Though we all no doubt understand real persons through our own personal sets of conventions, I suspect most of us aren't too conscious of that. All this becomes a bit easier to get hold of when one compares the genre conventions of biography with those of the literary novel, as Victoria does here.

The second paragraph quoted above, about "family sanctity," reminded me of the process involved in my writing "The World and Alice." I gave Alice bits of my own family history, in particular, grandparents similar to my own, and used some of my own memories--something I rarely do in my fiction. Interestingly, I had to keep reminding myself that I was writing fiction and therefore could depart from the truth for the sake my story-- that I wasn't, after all, writing autobiography (and in any case, Alice's personality was not mine), but fiction. But I found that the use of real memories generates a powerful compulsion to tell the story one already knows, rather than messing with it. And so messing with the stories I lifted from my memory felt transgressive-- reminding me, constantly, that writing is active.

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