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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

digging for character

Well. I've been away from the blog for about a week now, mainly because Kimmie has taken the week off, so it's vacation-time and we're not using the alarm clock. That means later sleeping and a more free-flowing lifestyle. We both really like it.

Also, I have been working on my book, and the time not spent drafting blog-posts I have actually poured into real writing (or, in my case, preparation for writing). So that's all to the good.

But I don't want to drift too far away. I feel a slight twinge when I check StatCounter and see that regulars have visited the blog, only to find the same old post staring at them. So I thought I'd get on the case first thing today. It's the last day of Kimmie's vacation in any case; tomorrow she'll be back at the corporate rockpile.

Where am I. I'm on chapter 30, still doing preparatory notes. The toughest job I face is trying to understand my own characters. I started the whole project thinking I had a rough idea of who they were and what they were up to, but that sense kind of disappeared somewhere along the line. Now, finally, I have come to see that the discovery of what my characters really want, and why, is the major quest before me. I'm astonished at how difficult it is.

In this chapter, the point-of-view character is Menahem, the Babylonian-Jewish magician. Some time ago I decided what it is that Menahem wants to achieve, but now I need to know more--I need to know why he wants to achieve it. In quest of this knowledge I pore through my research notes, highlighting more, typing more. Why? I suppose because there is no direct way of accessing him as a person. Indeed, he is a historical character, but very little material exists that talks about him. He is essentially a fictional creation. As such, he's a blank. There's no way to learn more about him except by knowing his world better.

That might sound strange. As a fictional character, surely he is just simply whatever I want him to be. I don't need to "discover" him; I just need to "make him up". Make a couple of decisions, and get on with it. Why make things so complicated?

All I can say is, I've tried that. That's how I started out. I sketched a character, gave him an objective--something he wanted to achieve--and started writing. But a fuller character needs more. For one thing, a main character needs conflicts--not just conflicts with other characters, but internal conflicts. That means opposing tendencies within his own soul. What are these? And where did they come from?

In history, Menahem shows up in Josephus as the Essene who prophesies to the young Herod that he will be king of Judea one day. I've created Menahem as a character to whom the monarchy of Israel--the monarchy lost 500 years earlier in the confusion of events surrounding the return of the exiled Jews from Babylonia--is important: a personal mission. It's easy to believe that there can be such a character: they're all around us. Political junkies of one kind or another, ardently seeking to see their political vision realized, spending much or all of their time on the project.

But why? At bottom, why are people political junkies? What are they hoping to achieve, really? What's really driving them?

It would help to know what's driving oneself. If I want something, why do I want it? Why, really? In a certain sense, the more you want something, the bigger the mystery becomes. You think something is going to be satisfied, but what, exactly?

I'm working on this large and difficult book. Why? It represents a challenge of a certain kind. It calls on my abilities and powers, as well as on my curiosity and my impulse toward self-expression. Ego and pride are involved, as well as a readerlike curiosity to see how this story is going to work out. Will I actually be able to create a book that I would want to read?

In the end I might not have any better explanation than "it's in my nature". And maybe the same applies to my characters. I choose actions for them, and that is their character, full stop. But I still need to know their thoughts on the matter--what they think they're trying to do, and why they think they're trying to do it. Whatever they think, they're probably wrong in any case.

Warren told me that he was inspired by the work of an Amercian artist named Robert Henri, who painted in the early years of the 20th century. When I looked him up on the Web, I found this quote by Henri:

Most folks don't think what they think they think.


Yes. Now: how to write that?


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