Sunday, June 07, 2015

The Canvas for Painting Dreams

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.

Rudolph Valentino

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.


  1. Kathleen, I know you know about me and Sherlock Holmes - brilliant, intense, unattainable. But let me go on a bit about one of my other book boyfriends, Captain Frederick Wentworth from Jane Austen's Persuasion. He's a poor young naval officer turned down by his first love Anne because of his poverty, so he goes off to become a hero of the British Navy and wealthy by his efforts. If he were the subject of a current-day movie, he'd be a badass. When it's time to return to England to find a wife, he finds that he is much sought after by beautiful, young women; Anne is considered by many to have faded, to have lost her youthful bloom. And, after misunderstandings and complications, who is it that he truly loves? Anne, the one he has never forgotten and who has never forgotten him. From his letter to her, " You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone for ever. I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own than when you almost broke it, eight years and a half ago."

    This might be heresy to a lot of Austenites, but this guy is better than Darcy.

  2. Mo, I agree with you 100% about Captain Wentworth. I loved him--I never did see what the fuss was about Darcy! I think there is a movie version of that in which Ciarin Hinds plays Wentworth and he is PERFECT! So glad you brought him up!!!

  3. Kathleen, this character Sayid is the same actor I have loved since Kip, in The English Patient. I think its his incredibly sensitive eyes and his beautiful voice. So much depth and feeling, he evokes a deep compassion in viewers. I love him. I don' know what he's like in real life but as far as the characters he portrays, this is a man I would give my life for! Easily.

    thanks for the reminder! Other than that, my big crush has always been...Hannibal Lecter. So deep, so twisted, so tortured. So sexy Or maybe its Anthony Hopkins I yearn for. He could eat my liver any day.

    Cheers! Kiana

  4. Thanks, Kiana. Yes, he is a beautiful man but it is the way the public has responded to the character of Sayid that fascinates me. By rights, we should despise him and yet we keep falling in love with him and we feel compassion for what he has been through and what he has had to do. Throughout the series, he keeps trying to give up being a violent man yet he keeps getting dragged back into it to protect people he loves. It really is a fascinating character treatment.


If you enjoyed this post, please comment and leave contact information if you would like a response. Commenting rewards the authors/artists and pretty much makes our day!