I've been thinking, and writing, a lot lately about the nature of characters and how powerful they can be in the lives of ordinary humans. In fiction, whether in books or in film, really good characters can not only fascinate and entertain us, but also serve as an impetus for things we decide to create in our lives. For me, and most likely for other writers, this is often other characters—characters of our own. I do not know how artists and musicians, etc., use this sort of inspiration although I suspect that they do, but regular, normal people sometimes find qualities in a character so appealing that it becomes something they find desirable in those around them.
The actor Rudolph Valentino once said, Women are not in love with me but the picture of me on the screen. I am merely the canvas on which women paint their dreams. For Valentino this became such a burden that he felt he had no control over his own life and that, as he grew older he was becoming a caricature of himself. Years ago, I used to say that I loved the actor Harrison Ford. Then I realized that, though I think he is a fine actor and a handsome man, it was really Indiana Jones that I had a crush on. When I realized that, I realized it is important to understand the difference. As my friend Clare says, “Characters don't leave the seat up.”
These days I hear the term “Book Boyfriend” used frequently. It's a cute term and I certainly understand it. My first Book Boyfriend was Laurie Laurence in Little Women followed closely by Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre. I know a lot of women who have had a life-long love for Sherlock Holmes. In fact Dorothy L. Sayer is alleged to have been so in love with Lord Peter Wimsey that he eclipsed all other relationships for her.
|Christian Bale as Laurie Laurence|
I know that men must surely have Book Girlfriends but I don't know as much about that. What makes a character so fascinating, so appealing, so alluring that a reader can “paint their dreams” on them? If I had an absolute answer to that, I'd have it made as a writer. But there are a few things that I think contribute to it. Physical strength and presence is part of it, intelligence is another, and the capacity to be both violent and tender—those things draw women in.
|Toby Stephens as Mr. Rochester|
Among the characters that I've found myself being mesmerized by is Henry Winter in Donna Tartt's The Secret History. Judging from what I've read in reader reviews, I am not alone in that. Henry is tall and aloof, utterly brilliant, emotionally distant and yet devoted to his friends, and a cold-blooded killer. I don't know about other readers, but that tender core always gets to me. It's why I fell under the spell, as I've mentioned before, of Sayid Jarrah, the Iraqi interrogator on the television show, Lost. Judging by the number of tribute videos for him posted on YouTube, I am far from alone there either.
Once, when I was younger and thought myself too mature for such foolishness, I resisted my infatuations with characters but these days I love them. I love falling for a character and then letting them grow and develop and transform in my imagination until they take on a life of their own and become someone I can write about. And, having said that, I think I'll go re-read Amanda Coplin's The Orchardist. I love her hero Talmudge and I think I need to spend more time with him. Who knows what might happen?
Thanks for reading.