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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Thursday, July 19, 2007

character, cont.

Back to regular life: rain plops from the gray sky outside; and upstairs Kimmie prepares to return to Mother Corporation, as a late colleague of our old training class used to call it.

I was talking yesterday about working on character. I didn't feel that I got to the heart of what I wanted to say--maybe because I don't know what I want to say.
Here is an extract of my highlighted notes from Malcolm Heath's introduction to Aristotle's Poetics (compressed):

Tragedy is an imitation of a certain kind of action. So one constituent part of tragedy is plot, the ordered sequence of events which make up the action being imitated. An action is performed by agents, and agents necessarily have moral and intellectual characteristics, expressed in what they do and say. From this we can deduce that character and reasoning will also be constituent parts of tragedy. Imagine that you have left me alone with your silver spoons. Broadly, there are two factors that will determine whether or not I steal them. One is whether I am honest; this is the kind of thing which Aristotle means by character--an agent’s settled moral disposition. The other relevant factor is how I interpret the situation: do I think that I am likely to avoid suspicion if I take the spoons? This is what Aristotle means by reasoning. Thus character sets my agenda (what would I like to do?), and reasoning relates that agenda to a given situation (what is it feasible to do in these circumstances?).


What he says about tragedy applies to other dramatic forms as well. The actions taken by characters, which constitute the sequence of events we call the plot, arise because of two things: the agent's "settled moral disposition" (character) and the agent's "reasoning".

The question of character (settled moral disposition) is interesting because, as we know, this may not be quite so settled. I'm inclined to use the word values to name this aspect. Each of us holds a number of values, and these can change with circumstance, and also over time. At work I might generally value efficiency, and behave accordingly, but on one project I might have political reasons for dragging my feet--a different value has supervened, at least apparently.

Closely related to our values are our beliefs--what we think is true. These seem to underlie, or perhaps simply provide the rational justification for, our values. If I value efficiency, why do I value it, at least in this one context? Why do I care? There must be some reason, whether I'm conscious of it or not. If you really examine this, it can be quite elusive.

In a work context, efficiency might seem an obvious value. The work exists to achieve some result; accomplishing that result in the shortest time, with a minimum of wasted resources, is clearly a higher-quality approach. And maybe in the case of a task that I have chosen all on my own, freely and willingly, and which I am performing myself, no further explanation need be sought. Efficiency then just means that I achieve my freely chosen aims as quickly and easily as possible.

But suppose I'm an employee. The work is not really chosen by me, but is something I've been hired to do by someone else. Now if I hold (or exhibit) the value of efficiency it has a slightly different meaning. Is it because I value the task as much as my employer does, and therefore completely identify with his values in this respect? Or is it maybe that I wish to get ahead, and therefore want to make a good impression? Or do I have a more abstract and philosophical belief that "whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do with thy might"--that any job worth doing is worth doing well? Or do I feel a sense of competitiveness with my coworkers, and want to beat them in a race to get things done? Or maybe I've made a promise to achieve something by a certain time, and feel that my word is my bond.

Now the beliefs underpinning my value of efficiency are less clear--maybe even to myself. To become conscious of them would be an act of self-knowledge.

I find that coming to this type of knowledge is as difficult with created characters as it is with oneself. There's an arbitrary aspect, in that a character's values and beliefs are just whatever I decide them to be. But that's not the whole story, because not all values and beliefs are equally interesting to me, or equally relevant to the story.

This seems to be a crux. For the story as a whole--any story--has a meaning, and many subordinate meanings. Only certain values and beliefs will show those meanings in the strongest light. But not even the writer can know what a story's meaning finally is until the work is done, and therefore it's not clear what values and beliefs the characters truly hold until the work is done. Until then it's all a kind of chess game: any given move may be simple, but its underlying rationale may be deep, subtle, and even mysterious.


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