Closing with Character

The New Year and Reviewing Character

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Defining character means many thing for writers. (“Character” by NY is licensed under CC by 3.0. )

The closing of the year is a jumbled-up affair: The summing up of another year juxtaposed with setting up the next year. It’s not dissimilar to beginning a revision, which I’m (finally) undertaking for a short story I recently wrote. Both processes involve reviewing what you did, what you wish you did differently, and what you will do going forward. And, in both cases, it’s a good time to think about character. Writers use numerous techniques to make their fictional persons feel alive, something that greatly interests me as I edit that first draft where the protagonist feels a bit lacking in, well, character.[*] I recently read two books, one a novel and the other a short story collection, that approach the idea of character in compelling if divergent ways that illustrate what we as writers can really do to with our characters.

Unknowable Versus Lacking Character

A clear sense of character or even lack of character, for example, isn’t necessarily a handicap to tale well told. In The Vegetarian,[†] Yeong-he rarely speaks throughout the haunting tale that chronicles the manifestation and evolution of her madness. With the exception of an unsettling dream sequence she recounts (presumably to Mr. Cheong), her story, her words, and her life’s details are told through the perspectives of her husband, brother-in-law, and sister. She is in essence a negative presence, and each narrator can only react to her mysteriously changed behavior and/or guess at her actions. We, as readers, experience their bewilderment in tandem. The result is remarkable: Yeong-he, much like roots of her madness (and seemingly, all madness) remain unknowable.

In contrast to her absent presence, Mr. Cheong (Yeong-he’s husband) defines a lack of character in an altogether different and entirely unpleasant manner. The Vegetarian is not a story for the fainthearted, and Mr. Cheong is clearly the most reprehensible of its denizens—chiefly because he lacks empathy and compassion. The marriage between the two is not a love match: Mr. Cheong aspires to the “middle course”[‡] and finds it “only natural that [he] would marry the most run-of-the mill woman” available (12). Clearly, he represents a certain patriarchal extreme, where marriage means about his needs are being met and indifference to his wife’s interior life, interests, and even mental health. Or, as he puts it, “The strange situation had nothing to do with me” (26). Eventually, her decline, undoubtedly worsened by his neglect and mistreatment, cannot be ignored. Of course, he abandons her; after all:

her expression, which made it seem as though she were a woman of bitter experience, who had suffered many hardships, niggled at my conscience. (38)

Characters at Crossroads

Where loss seems to shatter and/or disrupt the characters of The Vegetarian, characters in the collected stories of If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This frequently find themselves at crossroads in their lives where they struggle to cope with their losses.[§] “Pine”, an exemplary story of the collection, features the widowed Claire who marvels at the choices Heidi made with her kitchen: Claire decides that, were she in Heidi’s shoes,[**] she would have chosen a smaller, easier to navigate kitchen with a pine floor to deaden the clumping gait of the prosthetic leg (155). Claire’s choices unsurprisingly are for muting: when her daughter questions her about her “friendship” with Kevin, she “think[s] about reassuring that no one could ever replace her father for me. I’m sure that is what she’s really asking” (164). It’s not. Alyssa suspects that Kevin has feelings for her mother and, in insisting Kevin is welcome to attend her soccer game, is assuring her mother that she’s okay with Claire moving forward. Claire instead focuses on how soon she will be losing her daughter to adulthood (165) and keeping Kevin as her “yes-man”—or more accurately, her emotional crutch that prevents her from moving past her widowhood (158-9, 172-3). Both Heidi and Claire have suffered terrible losses due to cancer. Their approach to these losses comes down to character: Heidi eventually found within herself the grit to get on with her life, while Claire (for now) remains exactly where she stood when Joe died.

Defining Character

Character, as Merriam-Webster has kindly reminded me, is complex word that refers to  more than persons of fictional works. It ranges from alphabetic markings to reputation. It suggests moral make-up of individual as well as the identity of groups.[††] It is word that encompasses much, and you need context to understand which character you happen to be dealing with, whether they lack, morals, or strength. Characters of fiction, too, need that complexity or even that mystery to make them real. As I go forward into the New Year, editing away, I’ll be sure to keep my character’s character and this complexity in mind. And, perhaps, mine as well.

Happy New Year!

Which characters caught your attention in 2016? Tell us about whom and why in the comment section below. Also, sign-up to the Sequences’s newsletter to keep current with the latest posts.

NOTES:

[*] New Year’s resolution #1: take it easy on puns.

[†] Kang, Han. Vegetarian: A Novel; Trans. by Deborah Smith. New York: Hogarth, 2015. Print.

[‡] I’m uncomfortably reminded of the advice that Robinson Crusoe’s father gave him about choosing the “middle state” of life at this moment. (Defoe, Daniel. Robinson Crusoe. New York: Bantam, 1991.)

[§] Black Robin. If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This: Stories. New York, Random House, 2011.

[**] And resolution broken! Amusingly, Claire also considers whether Heidi is “more in denial” about her circumstances (155).
[††] “Character.” Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 29 Dec. 2016.

 

Christmas Stories and the Naughty List

The ruiners of Christmas are all about wish fulfillment. Just not yours.

For the last several years, my husband and I have hosted the Christmas Day festivities.[*] When we’re finally alone and things have been cleared away enough for now, we kick off our own holiday celebration by watching The Ref. After weeks of holiday hustling and making the feast festive, we’re ready for a grittier Christmas tale.[†]

And there’s nothing quite like watching the holidays go a bit off the rail.[‡]

You see, Christmas stories can’t seem but to help ending well.[§] The question is really how does everything go wrong and then get righted. Because most stories about Christmas tend to capture our anxiety about making the holidays perfect—the just-so gifts, the traditions warmly observed, the delicious spread, the making of new, joyous memories—in contrast to the more likely realities of working late on/through holidays, indifferent gravies, suspect presents, and cranky kids. Christmas isn’t going to be perfect.

But in Christmas stories, there’s at least someone to blame.

Enter the villains of Christmas, the wicked and nasty folks who won’t let the rest of us have our fun. In sharp contrast to our real lives, the rotten are readily reformed—or at the very least, they are thwarted. Some are one-dimensional characters, really more plot devices than people (the Grinch). We delight in their nastiness and cheer for their comeuppance (the thieves from Home Alone). For more complicated characters, writers have the trick job of convincing us that these characters can be cruel while remaining capable of recognizing that they are the problem (Scrooge). We’ve got to believe they can see the world through other people’s perspectives.

And that may well be the ultimate fantasy fulfilled by the Christmas tale—the gift of understanding. We witness the remorseful father who accepts a child for whom that child actually is (Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer), the miserly bosses who finally understand how their workers truly need funds (A Christmas Carol, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation), and the green men who finally get holidays are bit more than consumerism (How the Grinch Stole Christmas!). However cheesily and unrealistically, we are filled with hope. Perhaps we, too, can find a way to open our own hearts and understand or make ourselves understandable to others.

Or at least thwart those who won’t be nice.

Happy Holidays! And be good to each other.

Who is your favorite Christmas villain and why? Post in the comment section below! Also, sign-up to the Sequence’s newsletter to keep current with the latest posts.

NOTES:

[*] This is meant to be a lighthearted holiday piece. If you are among those for whom the holidays are a difficult time and are reaching a crisis point, please seek help. You are valuable. For more support, check out https://psychcentral.com/lib/telephone-hotlines-and-help-lines/.

[†] To be honest, there’s a small part of me that identifies with the Grinch railing about all the “NOISE, NOISE, NOISE” of the holidays, all of which deserves a few humbugs.

[‡] Or, rather a lot, in the case of The Ref. Larceny, divorce, and blackmail aren’t your typical holiday tropes.

[§] Except, I’m told, the movie Krampus. But it is mostly comedy/horror film, so it’s not exactly in the standard Christmas genre.

On Reading, Compassion and the Way Forward

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Drunken Man. Walter Geikie [Public domain], via Wikipedia Commons

When I read Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition,[*] I was on a semi-reading hiatus, although not necessarily by choice. My drunk-love affair with reading novels was temporarily on hold because I lacked the energy to immerse myself in these all-absorbing worlds.[†] While I felt a certain grief for this change (and still do), I re-routed my reading to shorter works of fiction, tried to carve out times when I could read novels, and contented myself with reading other writings ranging from the news and nonfiction.[‡]

Hence, I found the Last Call, a lengthy meditation on period of American history I never fully understood. How did religious and/or conservative groups manage to impinge on everyone else’s freedom to drink? Or ineffectively, considering the rumrunners and speakeasies that resulted.

How indeed.

Because nothing is so straightforward. The “drys” effectively represented what Okrent called “five distinct, if occasionally overlapping components made up this unspoken coalition: racists, progressives, suffragists, populists…and nativists” (42). Of these, the reasons many women had for supporting prohibition were all too sobering. Women often were the victim of husbands whom spent their paychecks on alcohol, frequented prostitutes—passing along diseases to their unknowing spouses—and abused their spouses and children. And so they protested, because it was the means to gain control of their lives (Okrent 12–19). It’s difficult to disparage teetotalism when faced with this suffering. Prejudice’s role against immigrants (characterized as drunken) was also tempered by the ideals of some progressives who wished to improve the life of immigrants—even if that meant repressing them. While I don’t condone the latter, I at least now appreciate that there were those who felt empathy for urban immigrants  (48–50).

It’s a powerful lesson, examining the underpinnings of a puzzling era. There was no monolithic group who demanded the end of drinking alcohol so much as a series of actors doing what they thought best.

I’ve often thought of this book a great deal recently, marveling how many disparate threads were woven to limit the rights of the United States’ citizens and the consequences. In a time where we might angrily denounce other people’s political choices after a highly contentious election, it’s tempting to forget that people wanted change and chose what they thought was the right way forward.

We might benefit from examining what we learned, lost, and gained from Prohibition and other contentious eras—how we might protest for positive change and compassionately help those who need our assistance without trampling their rights. During these difficult days, we might not anticipate how our lives will change but we can choose how we handle those changes.

How has reading helped you find compassion for others? Post your comments below. Also, sign-up to the Sequence’s newsletter to keep current with the latest posts.

NOTES:

[*] Okrent D. Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. New York: Scribner, 2010.

[†] Results of the post-pregnancy period and raising of young tots vary among individuals. But prepare your reading time accordingly.

[‡] I remain uncertain as to why I was able to focus on nonfiction works versus fiction. The possibilities range being able to easily regain my spot in a narrative with which I had some familiarity (Prohibition) to the relevance of certain subjects (baby books). Either way, I’ve never read so slowly as I did then.

Writing Holmes: How Conan Doyle Harnessed Hobbies for Sleuthing

“And that recommendation, with the exaggerated estimate of ability with which he prefaced it was, if you will believe me, Watson, the very first thing which ever made me feel that a profession might be made out of what had up to that time been the merest hobby.”

Sherlock Holmes, from “The ‘Gloria Scott’” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle[*]

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous character, Sherlock Holmes looms large in detective fiction. Although he is based on Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin,[†] Conan Doyle wrote far more extensively about his characters. As a result, Holmes’s personality is developed to a greater degree. He has quirks—Holmes, often described as an eccentric, once shot “a patriotic V. R.” in his sitting room wall (“The Mustgrave Ritual”)[‡]—as well as vices (cocaine use) and hobbies. Of these, I find how authors of fiction use hobbies in their stories particularly interesting because hobbies represent a versatile means of characterization that can make a character more complex or succinctly communicate certain ideas about the character—almost like shorthand—that inform character behavior and even the narrative itself. In this first essay of a series that explores how writers use hobbies in fiction, I will discuss how Conan Doyle judiciously gave Holmes certain hobbies to create his great detective.

“The Merest Hobby”

Sherlock Holmes's sitting room. Photo by R. Gould
Sherlock Holmes’s sitting room (as reproduced by The Sherlock Holmes’s Museum) featuring “the patriotic V.R.”. Photo taken by R. Gould.

Conan Doyle uses hobbies to accomplish much in the Holmes stories. For example, we learn that Holmes is talented violinist in A Study in Scarlet. Mentioned alongside his other pursuits, this hobby demonstrates the diversity of Holmes’s interests. Arguably, the violin also gives him an emotional outlet: Watson speculates that the strange violin solos may reflect Holmes’s moods. While such descriptions suggest Holmes’s complexity, there are three instances in which Conan Doyle actually uses the word hobby[§] that illustrate more about Holmes’s character and his profession.

In his first case (“The “Gloria Scott’”), Holmes describes his “habits of observation and inference” as “the merest hobby”. This opinion alters once Mr. Trevor, staggered by how much Holmes could infer about a stranger by mere observation, informs him “that all the detectives in fact and fiction would be children in your hand. That’s your line of life, sir.…” Devoted readers of Holmes know from The Sign of Four, published prior to this story, that Holmes considers observation and deduction to be “two out of the three qualities necessary for the ideal detective”. Rather than informing the reader about detecting, Conan Doyle inserts this epiphany to show both Holmes’s backstory (How did Holmes become a detective?) and his evolution. The younger Holmes, like so many others, once was clueless about his future after he finished college. But as Holmes matures, so does his hobby. “The merest hobby” proves to be the basis of Holmes’s career in disguise.

The Dilettante’s Hobby

But the idea that observation and deduction could be a “mere hobby” is an important consideration that Conan Doyle explores in a second instance where the word hobby appears. “The Greek Interpreter” introduces Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock’s elder brother, who apparently surpasses his younger sibling in these qualities. However, as Sherlock drily observes, “If the art of the detective began and ended with reasoning from an armchair, my brother would be the greatest criminal agent that ever lived”. Since Mycroft Holmes is a lazy man, both lacking the interest in confirming his theories and incapable of obtaining proof to support them, Sherlock dismisses his brother’s efforts as “the merest hobby of a dilettante”.

But Mycroft’s passivity allows him to act as Sherlock’s foil (i.e., the hobbyist versus the careerist) in another manner, as his aversion to exercise is contrasted to Sherlock’s energy. Clearly, Conan Doyle considered the physical abilities[**] a sleuth might need, keeping in mind the dangers connected to catching criminals. Hence, he provided Holmes with suitable hobbies that would make him fit to be a detective.[††] In Sherlock’s college days, his athletic interests were boxing and fencing (“The ‘Gloria Scott’”); Watson later describes Sherlock as “an expert singlestick player, boxer and swordsman” (A Study in Scarlet). As is seen with Holmes’s other “mere” hobby, these activities transform from sporting pastimes into useful tools for self-protection and/or subduing dangerous persons. From these examples, we can see that Conan Doyle uses this notion of hobby to delineate the difference between amateurs and professionals by insisting that a true detective needs to be an active investigator, seeking proof of his deductions and capable of handling whatever dangers and difficulties that arise during an investigation.

The Wearisome Hobby

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Sherlock Holmes seeking clues.

The importance of seeking proof, however, naturally leads us back to the third quality of the “ideal detective”: knowledge. Holmes mentions to Watson that he (Holmes) has written monographs on tracing footprints and preserving them in plaster of Paris, distinguishing the various types of tobacco,[‡‡] and how different trades affect appearance of the human hand, a conversation he concludes by noting “But I weary you with my hobby.” To understand what Conan Doyle is doing here, we must unpack this scene further. Holmes’s monographs on “technical subjects” result from seeking this knowledge (The Sign of Four). As detailed in “The Mustgrave Ritual”, Holmes spent all his free time studying “all the branches of science that might make [him] more efficient” as a detective once he embarked on his career. And this knowledge (referring specifically to Holmes’s monographs and how they are useful for solving crimes and presenting evidence in court) is of “interest to the scientific detective”—meaning that Conan Doyle views the ideal detective as the scientific one (The Sign of Four).

This discussion of Holmes’s hobby, the writing of academic treatises on said “technical subjects”—what we’d know call forensic sciences—is important because it firmly establishes that Holmes’s detective work is based in a scientific approach. Although Holmes is not an academic, his work is of sufficient merit to be published for scientific community and this confers on him authority.[§§]. And he needs to claim this authority: Although his scientific studies are extensive, they are not attached to a specific degree program (A Study in Scarlet) since forensic sciences were not yet a formalized field of study. Similarly, Holmes is not a government detective, like Lestrade or Villard (the French detective who consulted Holmes and intends to translate his monographs; The Sign of Four). To justify their regard and validate Holmes’s presence at the crime scenes, it’s important to show that he has certain qualifications (observation, deduction and knowledge) that these regular detectives lack. To summarize, Holmes’s academic hobby neatly serves as his detecting credentials.

Conan Doyle’s compelling use of character hobbies serves multiple purposes in the Holmes tales. Beyond the role of providing character description, they define both Holmes and his approach to detective work: methodological observation, analysis and confirmation backed by scientific knowledge. But Holmes’s is not merely an academic or even armchair detective—he also possesses the necessary abilities to gain information, apprehend felons, and defend himself. He essentially is the fictional CSI of the Victorian era. And in this case, hobbies make the Holmes.

 

Interested in Holmes’s hobbies? Post your thoughts in the comment section below. Also, sign-up to the Sequence’s newletter to keep current with the latest posts.

 

NOTES:

[*] For my quotes, I indicate the stories in which they appear because page numbers vary among the numerous anthologies, and it’s impractical to presume we’re all looking at the same book. For the record, the anthology I referred to was: Conan Doyle, Sir Arthur. Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Novels and Stories, Volume 1 and 2. 1920. Reprint. New York: Bantam Classics, 2003. Print.

[†] It’s well established that Conan Doyle loosely based Holmes and Watson on Poe’s Dupin and companion/roommate, respectively. For further reading, the reference lists of Holmes’s Wikipedia page is suggested—Wikipedia articles themselves are not good primary sources!

[‡] Yep, Holmes is that roommate. Also, this episode suggests that Holmes is a decent marksman.

[§] The three instances of the word hobby are discussed in their order of importance to the stories, not in order of story publication. Similarly, discussion of the actual hobbies tends to follow least to most important hobbies.

[**] This is not one of three qualities a detective must possess so much as a useful fourth.

[††] While Holmes’s marksmanship and acting ability are invaluable to his detective work, it’s difficult to term either as a hobby. We do know that Holmes started disguising himself as he grew famous, which—coupled with Holmes antisocial tendencies—signals that he adopted acting for his profession (The Sign of Four). For marksmanship, it’s unclear whether it was a sporting pastime prior to his career or again something he learned for his profession.

[‡‡] This monograph is also mentioned in A Study in Scarlet.

[§§] You could literally state that he doesn’t just know about tobacco ash, he wrote the book on it. Well, the monograph at any rate.