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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Monday, April 04, 2005

searching for character

The document I've been working in lately has been "Character Profile - Marcus". Here I try to tease out his character, discover it for myself. As an Aquarian writer, I have always loved ideas, and for me it has been an effort over the years to improve my presentation of character. I make James Joyce my role model here: a fellow Aquarian, not necessarily best known for his characterizations (although he created some of the most famous literary characters of all, such as Molly Bloom), but whose treatment of character was superlative. Like a magician he could throw a few words onto a page and life would step forth. One of my favorite instances was in the story "A Painful Case". Here's the first sentence:

Mr. James Duffy lived in Chapelizod because he wished to live as far as possible from the city of which he was a citizen and because he found all the other suburbs of Dublin mean, modern and pretentious.


The long first paragraph is essentially a description of James Duffy's room. This room and its contents reveal the whole flavor of this man's personality and life. Paragraph 2: his appearance. Paragraph 3: his habits. Paragraph 4: a summary.

By the end of paragraph 4 we feel that we know this James Duffy almost as well as we can know any human being. He is vivid, unique, has strong attitudes, and makes a powerful and lasting impression. How many of us can say the same? Joyce's conjuring of human life in two pages is as striking as Yahweh's on day 6 of Creation.

So I study how Joyce does it. I'll never equal him, of course--but I can improve. This I have tried to do over the years.

Each of my main characters gets his own document. There I type character-building notes, descriptive ideas, anything I think might help me realize the character. Sometimes a character will come to life quickly, if you can find that conjunction of attitude and presentation. Other times it seems that no amount of effort can make a character sit up from the table. The heart paddles are turned up to "high", "clear!", zap, and nothing. You tried.

I know that Marcus has potential as a character. He has a certain solidity and life to him--I felt it when I reread chapter 1 after a long absence. "Oh! This guy has his own thoughts and feelings--he's real." And yet I still don't know him well enough to really be able to write him. So I'm back in his document, pasting in snippets from my research notes that might apply: material on Heracles, Stoicism, the Roman army, the life of Pompey. I've decided he comes from a wine-growing family in Etruria. He loves the countryside and the art and science of winemaking. How'd he wind up as a soldier?

I feel his career changed course early on, probably involuntarily. Yes, as I read up on Roman history at that time, around 83 BC, when Marcus would have been 17, the country was in chaos--paroxysms of violence as strongmen struggled to dominate. Easy for something terrible to happen...

A seasoned veteran now, he's killed a lot of people. How does he feel about that? What's his attitude?

So I wrote about 3 pages. His document is about 22 single-spaced pages. And still I'm searching for his essence, what makes him what he is...

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