CHARACTER DEFINED BY A DEED
Dreamed 1992/3/13 by Chris Wayan
I'm reading LANGUAGE OF THE NIGHT, Ursula Le Guin's study on fantasy's essential differences from realism. I'm particularly struck by her chapter on the use of realistic characters in fantastic fiction; she uses the Lord of the Rings as an example, claiming that Frodo the hero, his sidekick Sam, and the profoundly ambivalent monster Gollum, are three facets of one large, quite realistic protagonist! She make a strong case for it; and the point can be generalized to a lot of the best fantasy. Individual characters may be extreme, archetypal, and to realists they may seem simple; but they often group to form complex models of the mind, just as sophisticated as (and often clearer than) anything in realism.
I don't find her argument radical, since I deal in dreams. Same thing happens.
I dream I'm in a group discussing books they like. Someone says "Ursula Le Guin is one of the few science fiction writers who have three-dimensional characters."
Another adds "There aren't many who write three-dimensional fantasy either."
I ask "what do you think of the Lord of the Rings? Are those characters real?" Turns out all of us read it as a kid, some many times. We go round, naming our favorite characters.
Strange. Not one of them mentions the lead characters: Frodo, Sam, or Gollum with his multiple personalities! All their favorites are characters defined by a deed, or by their form, or race, or nature--Treebeard, Gandalf, Aragorn, Galadriel.
There's a lesson here! People SAY they want complex three-dimensional characters--detailed, contradictory, and human. But what they really love and remember are the ones with a clear striking character, and not always human--one who embodies an archetype, or a powerful part of a reader's personal unconscious.
So what's going on here? People SAY they want realism, but seem to REALLY want vividness!
What's a writer to do?
"Character isolated by a deed." That's what they like, the readers, so let's apply it to THEM, too. Forget what readers say, look at their deeds! Look what they like! Archetypes.
So make it clear, vivid, extreme. Give them archetypes--role models--useful tools in the mind! Photographic realism? Phooey. That's all around them.
And then I wake... to that photographic world. Where I fight to find a way of telling dreams that waking folk can hear. But it seems my dreams already have a dream-form in mind... and their own view of what "real" people long for.
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