fictitious characters

Being or Knowing: Characters and Readers

Reading an interesting post recently on the estimable Story Ape’s blog got me thinking about the relationship between fictitious characters and readers — main characters, known in some circles as “protagonists.”

Some characters are primarily vehicles by which a reader may experience the events of a story. The character is a type — an amateur sleuth, a woman seeking romance, a young person on a perilous quest. Their physical characteristics and personalities may be specified, but they’re actually elaborate costumes. Readers climb in and they’re there — solving the mystery, finding romance, or surviving the perils of the quest.

In other works of fiction, characters are equipped with complex personalities and backgrounds. Their needs and conflicts are not immediately evident. The reader must get to know them in order to discern their issues. It’s quite possible readers may not be able to identify with these characters; they may not even like them, but if the author has done the job right, the reader will find the character and his or her situation interesting enough to keep reading the book.

The “wearable” character is generally associated with plot-driven genre fiction; the “get to know” protagonist is more often typical of character-driven literary fiction. Readers have different expectations for these character types; getting acquainted with the character before you know what might happen to them requires some tolerance for uncertainty on the reader’s part. Writers of literary fiction must make their stories sufficiently alluring to keep readers hanging out with their characters.

I’m fairly sure authors don’t decide, as they begin writing a story or novel, which of these types of characters they will create for it. They usually do know whether they’re writing genre fiction or literary fiction. Characters evolve accordingly.

It doesn’t have to be an either/or. Really well-written works feature complex characters and compelling plots. Readers decide unconsciously whether to become a character and ride their rollercoaster, or to observe and ponder the character’s dilemmas.

The four novels of my Herbert West Series have five different narrators — six, actually, because Herbert West is quite a different person from Francis Dexter. Each of these people has his or her own style: Charles Milburn, diffident librarian; Andre Boudreau, amnesiac Acadian; Margaret Bellgarde, widow of the Great War; Herbert West, amoral scientist, who becomes Francis Dexter, wounded healer; Alma Halsey, disaffected journalist. And The Nexus, one of the short story supplements to the series, is narrated by eccentric professor and sometime occultist Professor Augustus Quarrington.

I’m thinking all these different narrators may be somewhat disconcerting for readers who expect more uniformity among books within a series. And I’m sure not all readers have found it easy to slip into these characters and share their lives. Over the course of the series, however, they have a good selection from which to choose.

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Image courtesy of Pixabay

 

The books include elements of different genres and of literary fiction. Some readers may find the fit a little uncomfortable. I am biased, of course, but I can honestly say no one who spends time with my characters will be harmed by the experience, and some may be entertained.

Featured image created with Canva using free pictures from Unsplash and Pixabay.

 

Unreliable

If I had not caught a glimpse of the opening words in the second act I should never have finished it, but as I stooped to pick it up my eyes became riveted to the open page, and with a cry of terror, or perhaps it was of joy so poignant that I suffered in every nerve, I snatched the thing from the hearth and crept shaking to my bedroom, where I read it and reread it, and wept and laughed and trembled with a horror which at times assails me yet. This is the thing that troubles me, for I cannot forget Carcosa, where black stars hang in the heavens, where the shadows of men’s thoughts lengthen in the afternoon, when the twin suns sink into the Lake of Hali, and my mind will bear forever the memory of the Pallid Mask. I pray God will curse the writer, as the writer has cursed the world with this beautiful, stupendous creation, terrible in its simplicity, irresistible in its truth — a world which now trembles before the King in Yellow.

The unreliable narrator. What a great driver for a piece of fiction!

I’ve been thinking a lot about this because of extensive pondering of Robert Chambers’s story “The Repairer of Reputations” (quoted from above), especially after also reading (and looking at) I.N.J. Culbard’s graphic take on it. I think it’s the best story in the collection entitled The King in Yellow, first published in 1895. I recently rediscovered that book, and found (to my surprise) that Culbard’s graphic novel adaptation made this story a vivid and striking experience. Disturbing, too.

Here are the elements of the story:

A futuristic setting (1920), in which America is a militaristic, grandiose empire that has just repealed the law forbidding suicide, and has inaugurated the first Lethal Chamber in New York City.

The narrator is a young man (Hildred Castaigne) whose head injury four years earlier led to confinement in an asylum for the insane. He believes that to have been a mistake and intends to be revenged on Dr. Archer, whose error it was. He has read the notorious play called “The King in Yellow,” which is reputed to drive its readers (note, readers) insane.

A young cavalry officer (Louis Castaigne), who is Hildred’s cousin. He’s courting Constance Hawberk, the daughter of an armourer (with a singularly apt surname). Hildred frequents Hawberk’s shop, not because of Constance, but because he is delighted by the sound of hammer on metal and the scintillation of light that strikes it. He is also a friend of the eccentric who lives upstairs…

Mr. Wilde, short and grotesque, with a mutilated hand, wax ears and a streak of masochism he exercises by provoking his cat to attack him savagely. He is the Repairer of Reputations, a kind of blackmailer who supposedly employs hundreds of men to supply him with information. He is also the keeper of documents proving that Louis and Hildred are members of the Imperial Dynasty of America and heirs to its vacant throne. Hildred, whose injury changed him from a fun-loving man-about-town to a brooding scholar, has ambitions to displace his cousin and claim the throne. Both Hawberk and Louis believe Mr. Wilde to be insane (and have doubts about Hildred as well).

Things come to a head when Louis announces his impending marriage to Constance. Hildred sees this as an obstacle to his ambitions and asks Louis to renounce the throne and not marry. Louis agrees to renounce (clearly humouring his crazy cousin), but draws the line at not marrying. Things happen pretty fast after that, and end less than happily for Hildred, Mr. Wilde and his cat.

Weird, eh?

The whole thing gets weirder the longer I brood upon it, which is a point in its favour. Stories that end cleanly and neatly, with no unanswered questions, fade quickly from the memory. This one does not.

The real question is: How unreliable is this narrator? The story begins with an observation on life in 1920s America — except the book was published in the 1800s, so this is a futuristic projection. The Wikipedia article about this story suggests the action doesn’t take place in 1920 at all; that is part of Hildred’s delusions. Which leads one swiftly to the conclusion that the entire narrative is the ravings of a madman. Which flattens everything out and makes it — for me, anyway — less interesting. I prefer to toy with the idea that at least some of Hildred’s statements are true. The very strange Mr. Wilde knows where the missing bits of a famous suit of armour can be found. Mr. Hawberk is disturbed by Wilde’s declaration that he (Hawberk) is actually the Marquis of Avonshire. Hildred is totally aware that others look at him with tolerant pity — but he also knows he will be king.

Behind the onward-and-upward facade of a fascist America, something else is going on.

One interpretation might be that the shadowy, yellow-garbed King (whom emperors have served) is taking control of susceptible individuals (artists and the head-injured) as they read the perilous play, and eventually he will gain the ascendance. But given the outcome of this particular episode, it could take a while.

One thing every unreliable narrator needs is the sympathy of the reader. If the narrator is presented as completely deluded and evil, the reader regards him or her as “someone not like me” — the Other. It’s easy to give up on that person and leave them to their fate. But if the character snares the reader’s sympathy, even a little; if the reader involuntarily identifies with him, the situation instantly becomes complex and fascinating. So it is with the unfortunate Hildred Castaigne. If I think about him too much I might find myself writing a piece of fan fiction that turns into a series of novels. Oh, wait — I’ve already done that — with H.P. Lovecraft’s Herbert West.

A fascinating book club style discussion of “The Repairer of Reputations” may be found here. I would advise reading the story itself first.

Authors And Their Characters

The other day, on Mike Davis’s Lovecraft e-zine blog, I read a post about a recently-discovered letter by H.P. Lovecraft, written in 1924 to J.C. Henneberger, the publisher of Weird Tales, the pulp magazine in which many of HPL’s stories were first published. A scan of the complete letter is available here. Each page may be displayed and enlarged for easier reading, and it’s definitely worth reading in its entirety. An interesting detail quite apart from the content is that the letter appears to have been typed on hotel stationery, with the hotel’s logo appearing upside-down on alternate pages.

The letter is revealing in many different ways. Lovecraft’s command of the language (and of typing!) is impressive, as is his committment to weird fiction. He recommends several authors of his acquaintance as sources for new work for the magazine, showing an admirable consideration for writer colleagues. He describes two novel-length works he was hoping to complete and publish, although it seems neither of them ever saw the light. (A comment to the original post about this letter suggests that one of these works may have morphed into the novella The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath).

HPL also speaks of stories he wrote at the bequest of the editor of a publication called Home Brew. One of these was a set of six serialized tales under the collective title “Herbert West, Reanimator.” Those familiar with this blog will recall my special interest in these stories and their principal character, Herbert West. HPL clearly describes his antipathy for the stories — not so much their content as their format. The serial aspect required each story after the first to recap the preceding one, a process HPL found tedious, and which, I suspect, coloured  his attitude toward the entire project. “I was sick of the job before I was half done,” he wrote. “The necessity for the completeness of each instalment spoiled the artistry of the whole thing — involving as it did the wearisome recapitulation of former matter in each instalment, and the eternal repetition of the description of Dr. Herbert West and his unamiable pursuits.”

As a writer, I can understand these sentiments, but as a reader, I did not find this to be a problem. In fact, those repeated descriptions of Herbert West — variations on “slight, blond, blue-eyed and bespectacled” — made him, in my mind, a more vividly realized character than the protagonists of many other Lovecraft stories, in which setting and atmosphere are primary. As the series progressed, HPL added additional elements to his descriptions of West, such as “a soul calloused and seared,” and “behind his pallid intellectuality, a fastidious Baudelaire of physical experiment — a languid Elagabalus of the tombs.” So vivid, in fact, were my impressions of Dr. West, that he took up residence in my imagination for several years, during which I wrote his entire life history, one never imagined by his originator.

All of this shows that written works have a life beyond that intended by their creators. Every time they are read — casually or critically, for purposes of entertainment, scholarship or research — written words may set up a resonance in the reader’s mind, may link up with other writings to generate something entirely new, that goes on to have its own influence.

 

Creators and Creations: Writers and Their Characters

Few things in writing are more thrilling than seeing the characters in your novel come alive. Instead of forging scenes with great labour out of dead material, suddenly you have real people interacting on the secret stage in your head. All you have to do is transcribe their conversations and you’ve got great dialogue. And yet — you made these beings. They are (almost) entirely in your power.

Almost, indeed. Every writer has probably created a character who has not turned out as originally envisioned. When I began writing The Friendship of Mortals, the first book of my Herbert West Trilogy, I was certain that Herbert West would be a villain rather than a hero, as he is in the original story by H.P. Lovecraft on which the book is based. He was an amoral type who used other people, both dead and alive, as experimental material. Lacking a freshly dead corpse to revivify, he made one by killing a man. How could such a person be other than a villain?

Complicating all this was my narrator, librarian Charles Milburn. To Charles, Herbert West was not uniformly black, but a multi-hued creature at once repellent and fascinating. By associating with Herbert, Charles became his friend as well as accomplice, and so presented him to the reader in an ambiguous way.

Members of my critique group have suggested that I became enamored of my version of Herbert West, sometimes making things too easy for him as a result. After some defensive huffing and puffing, I had to admit that this was so. My Herbert, like H.P. Lovecraft’s original, is slight, blond and bespectacled, but he is also well-dressed and charming — an enigmatic, possibly dangerous dude in an attractive package. I preferred to have someone like that living in my head, rather than a garden-variety grotesque geek. Coming up with a background for him that would explain his corpse-revivifying interests, and devising a more interesting end to his career than being ripped to shreds by his own monstrous creations necessitated three books.

How did this happen? How did a fictitious character who began as amoral, perhaps evil, turn out to be almost (but not quite) the opposite? I blame Charles Milburn and Loreena McKennit. Charles allowed himself to be charmed by Herbert into helping him with his dubious experiments. And while I was writing The Friendship of Mortals, I listened repeatedly to Loreena McKennit’s CD The Mask and the Mirror. I was especially taken with “The Dark Night of the Soul,” her arrangement of a poem by the mystic St. John of the Cross. Something of this song seeped into my writing and turned the course of the narrative and the natures of my principal characters.

This example illustrates the complexity of the relationship between an author and his or her fictitious characters. Reaching into yourself to create fictional people is a potentially powerful process. Those characters are in some way slices of yourself, shaped — perhaps distorted — by conscious and subconscious impulses not entirely under your control. That’s one of the things that makes writing so exciting, and perhaps a little dangerous.

And be careful with music when you’re writing! It has a potent effect on the brain, so it’s no wonder that it can get in there and mess with your imaginary creations.