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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Thursday, April 19, 2007

humanizing the character

After yesterday's post examining my quickie rewrite of scene 1 of The Da Vinci Code, I was talking with my mother, who'd read the post, and she was expressing how the character of Robert Langdon needs to be developed more, made to seem more real. To her he doesn't feel like an academic who is passionate about his subject--as presumably he must be in order to have written several books on it, and to have become famously associated with it.

When he is awakened by the ringing phone, she thought, he might even be thinking or have been dreaming about some problem or subject related to his work. Sure, I thought--why not? As a student of symbolism, he might very well get an idea or inspiration from a dream (I thought about the famous story of how the 19th-century German chemist Kekule solved the problem of the structure of benzene by dreaming of a ring of dancing elves, or some such). If Langdon were to awake excited by an idea arising from a dream, he might be eagerly groping for his bedside notepad to scribble it down before he forgets it.

Notice what this would do for his characterization. First, it would show him to be passionate about his field--he's doing it even in his sleep. Second, the problem or image itself could eventually plug in to the mystery of the main plot. A nagging puzzle that he brings into the story could relate to the story puzzle, and get its kickoff here, right at the top. Third, the fact that he might jot down a dream-image before answering a ringing phone at night tells us something powerful about his values: it's a choice he makes, and the choices that characters make are exactly what tell us about their nature--what is interesting about them. This guy is a symbology nerd who puts symbolism ahead of ringing phones.

So that's a good idea. Mom went on to imagine some other possible details, such as whether Langdon might not have his own bathrobe from home instead of using the hotel's silk one. That might be her own preference if she were in the hotel, and giving the character similar preferences helps to humanize him and make him more self-assertive on his environment: he's not just a passive user of stuff provided by others, he brings his own choices along with him. A comfy old bathrobe would be a piece of home you could take with you, and the prof might lounge in it while working at his laptop in the hotel room. Such a Langdon is starting to feel more real to me.

These ideas are things to help with the characterization of Robert Langdon--crucial if he is to be an interesting and believable character. But characterization, defined as the details by which a character manifests him- or herself, is not the highest or first job of character design. What the main character should really have are contradictions in his nature that create conflicts for him. I haven't read the actual novel, but the level of writing suggests to me that Brown does not design his characters at that level of depth. A paradoxical Robert Langdon might be, for instance, an expert student of religious symbolism who was also a passionate atheist. Such a person makes us wonder what makes him tick; it suggests complexity and personal history. He might find himself getting, almost against his will, into heated arguments with clerics and believers, attacking their naive faith even as he knows more about it than they do.

That's just an off-the-cuff example. A well-designed story brings out the contradictions in a character, and leads him to tough choices that put his values to the test. A writer can't even begin the task without a lot of self-knowledge. You need to know what your own contradictions are to be able to get inside someone else and feel theirs.

So my own rewrite was more of a technical exercise; I did not set out to rewrite the book or recreate the character, only to render scene 1 in a way that did not violate my sense of the characters' personhood, if I can put it that way. At the very least I need to be able to sense that I'm reading about people, and not just looking at words printed on a page. The task of deep character means going up the levels of story, getting into it at the level of theme, and that means taking on more and more "story responsibility"--assuming the burden of knowing what the story is ultimately about, why it is worth telling, and how these particular characters are the best for telling it. It's a heavy burden.

Still, it might be tempting to try a rewrite based on that more fully characterized Langdon. On the other hand, aren't I supposed to be doing some writing of my own at some point?

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  • Well, I'm an atheist who has a minor in Theology, so that combination does exist. :)

    I'd see him as someone so living for his work that he doesn't care what bathrobe he wears, but it might work in connection with his fear of darkness - he needs something 'from home', from rooms he can navigate at night.

    And yes, that idea of sneaking a story-relevant symbol in early, is a good one.

    Like Arminius' crane shaped brooch from my NiP A Land Unconquered. :)

    BTW, I've done reading up on all the Da Vinci posts and commented on some of them.

    By Blogger Gabriele C., at April 19, 2007 4:35 PM  

  • Hi Gabriele--thanks very much for looking in and supplying come comments. (In fairness to Brown, it was Louis XVI--Seize--and not XIV; thought I'd made one of my typos!) Or was Louis XVI Rococo? (Not my period!)

    Your points are all fair ones. A character I think can be whatever the writer wants; my concern in the exercise was to have a character who is active and imposing his will on his situation, not passively accepting it. There are infinite ways to do that.

    I appreciate your engagement with the topic and your willingness to contribute--thanks. Fun, no?

    By Blogger paulv, at April 19, 2007 5:51 PM  

  • Oops, my bad, I read XIV instead of XVI, but Louis XVI is even less Rennaissance, I think the style in his time was called Émpire (Biedermeier in German). Though he could have had mahogany furniture.

    Next time I'm in my father's flat, I'll have a look at my late mother's collection of books about building and furniture styles. It was one of her interests.

    By Blogger Gabriele C., at April 19, 2007 7:01 PM  

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