Male. Twenty-three years old. Six-foot-five, Slim Build. Irish. Atheist. Hobbies: Cinema, Music. Qualifications: Bachelor of Arts in English and Film Studies.
Do you get the full measure of a character from such a list of information? If you were writing as a journalist and were given that information about a person who had just died to write an obituary in a local paper, you would be expected to expand it to some degree, find out some specifics but effectively communicating little more than the above facts. A “good” journalist would also be expected to add “will be missed by his family. Considered by all to be an all round good lad.” It’s an uncontroversial, unchallenging representation of the skeleton of a character. The things everyone can agree on and a polite side-stepping of any perhaps uncomfortable details.
Every single one of those above terms used to describe one person could be expanded upon, the type of writer is what decides which way things get expanded. Take the term “Atheist”. The word itself tells less than half the story. In direct opposition to his wishes perhaps this character might find that his parents, Roman Catholics (by habit rather than by choice) have decided to hold his funeral in the local church. In his eulogy, perhaps the priest might decide to erase this word from the above list. Otherwise, chances are he’d say “Christened and Confirmed in our church, he in recent years had wandered from the flock. We can only hope that, had he been given the chance, he would one day have wandered back”.
Perhaps that would be the final word on the matter. It would be the only written interpretation as there is probably not another character in the deceased’s life who both knew and understood his religious beliefs and who would be able to communicate it to others through writing. Probably the best his most honest acquaintances could manage would be “atheist, but not a nihilist,” or “atheist, decidedly anti-religious,” neither of which would satisfy his own view on the matter.
If he could be risen from his deathly slumber before the congregation of believers and be given a voice with which to express himself (he’d see the irony of this little miracle of course) he’d explain that we are all born Atheists, then many of us are brain-washed with mantras and rules that have come down to us through the generations unquestioned. His current state of non-belief is a return to his original position, but it in itself is not a belief. He doesn’t like the word “Atheist” because it’s been hijacked by people with an agenda, who start arguments on the internet and mock others relentlessly. Plus it’s an ugly word, ugly to look at and ugly to say.
It is a lack of belief. But he doesn’t believe in nothing. It is a flat area on which to build and any book or video or film or conversation can become a building block. He doesn’t believe in gods, instead he believes in people. Not all people, or at least not in all people in the same way. He believes there are certain people you meet in your life who you connect with profoundly, who make you feel more at ease in their company than you do in private, on your own. He believes that all the systems of communication humanity has either designed for itself or been granted by nature are desperately inferior methods of linking two human minds together, but also that the fun in being alive is the uncertainty of it.
He believes in these big ideas but he also believes in little ones; the sound of a melodica, the sunlight through the trees, the taste of a good ale, the smell of rosemary, the feeling of light rain, the crescendo in the first movement of Mahler’s ninth symphony, the way the patrons of Rick’s Café Americain sing La Marseillaise louder than the Nazis sing Die Wacht am Rhein. He believes in people’s eyes, people’s walks, people’s voices and he loves the cinema because he loves what can be expressed through the human face; in a Melodrama, everything, in a Bresson film, nothing. That would begin to explain the word “Atheist” as it applies to him.
Self-Awareness, Communication, Clarity
In A Portrait of the Artists as a Young Man James Joyce represents the workings of his own mind from a very young age until young adulthood. When writing Ulysses he goes a step further by not just representing the inner workings of the mind of his stand-in Stephen Dedalus, but also that of a number of other characters around Dublin at the beginning of the 20th Century. His method is similar to that of the Lee Strasberg school of acting, in which the thoughts and motivations of characters are buried beneath the surface, causing them to do and say things that are prompted by their true emotions but can seem totally random. Why does Marlon Brando put on Eva Marie Saint’s glove when they are talking together in On The Waterfront? What is the purpose of the long rambling description of hell in Portrait? It’s all about the mind, and how the world impacts it and how it in turn manifests itself in the world.
This is one reason why Joyce’s writing appeals to some people and seems tedious to others. If you find yourself fascinated by the inner workings of the mind then the fact that he’s the most obsessive writer in that style is a draw. What it shows is that even the individual is fatally inept at interpreting the workings of his or her own mind, so the idea of communicating completely with another human being is impossible. Molly Bloom in her soliloquy can’t even land on one solid opinion of her husband. She goes between feelings of his inadequacy and pride in her own acts of adultery to fondly recalling agreeing to marry him. This is a long leap from the writing just thirty years earlier of Henry James, whose characters could almost communicate with each other telepathically through facial expressions.
To be able to write believable characters we have to know what we don’t know about other people. So much of human interaction is misinterpretation, and of course the comedy of errors was a popular theatrical style long ago where the comedy arises from the audience knowing who the characters are but having the characters be confused or deceived about one another. Clarity is crucial to this style of writing because if the audience is not completely confident in their knowledge of who the characters really are then they will not laugh.
In contrast take a film like Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret. Anna Paquin plays the lead role in the film, that of a teenage girl who witnesses/is partly responsible for a horrible accident involving a New York City bus and a woman crossing the road. The film is a brilliant example of how difficult it can be to communicate. Every relationship Anna Paquin has in the film, with her mother, the bus driver, her classmates, the friend of the dead woman, begins in a position of inability to adequately communicate in words her abstract reaction to the dreadful events she witnesses and every single time these interactions devolve into screaming matches as each party in each conversation gets frustrated at her lack of clarity. We, the audience, feel her guilt and her trauma so we sympathise when she can’t express herself, and the final scene at the opera when she and her mother finally cry for their respective isolation is the most expressive and honest these two characters ever get.
Ingmar Bergman’s Persona plays these two types of characters against each other, on one side Elisabet Vogler who doesn’t talk and on the other side Sister Alma who takes Elisabet’s silence as an excuse to completely divulge her deepest secrets and fears. The film’s brilliance lies in the fact that the audience believes Alma is honest and really looking for someone to communicate with, whereas with Elisabet, an actress, we can never be sure anything she expresses is genuine, except perhaps when she screams in fear as Alma eventually cracks and makes as if to throw boiling water on her. Even Elisabet’s horror-struck reaction to the self-immolating monk in Vietnam we can’t believe to be truly genuine. Alma’s feelings are uncomplicated. She is hurt and betrayed when she reads Elisabet’s letter to her doctor revealing Alma’s secrets and later in the film we get Alma’s deconstruction of Elisabet’s feelings of disgust for her infant son shown in two separate takes, one focusing on Alma and her spiteful delight, the other on Elisabet and her discomfort with the horribleness of her own emotions, not just having someone else know them but being made aware of them herself.
Writing for Satisfaction
The literary mode of writing strives towards satisfying its audience through a game of revelations and concealment. To let it all out from the beginning is purposeless, because if we know everything about what a character will do or say at the beginning of a film then what is to keep us interested for the following ninety minutes? It’s the main reason why teen slasher films tend to have such generic characters, instead of revealing their individuality over the ninety minutes they begin to revert back to their primal natures, fighting for survival. Stories of this kind reveal little about humans that we don’t already know and to dedicate entire films to them seems pointless. This is more suited to single moments in stories, like when danger arises and a moment of self-sacrifice or self-preservation are the only choices. One of the best uses of this survival instinct is in Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel Persepolis, when during an air-raid in Tehran a woman runs up to Marjane, drops her baby in her arms and flees to the underground bunker. Marjane writes that since that day she has doubted the presupposition towards an innate sense of motherly protection.
Survival tends to reveal little and rarely manages to satisfy an audience’s curiosity about a character, tending more towards thrills and questions as philosophical as a schoolyard game. Curiosity is what needs to be satisfied when writing creatively and often a story can start because of an author’s own curiosity. Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood is such a novel. The horrible murders of a well-liked and innocent family in Kansas by two ex-convicts is just one example of the hundreds of stories reported in newspapers every day as facts. When we read things like “man shot in North inner city” it is never explained to us by the journalist what kind of person was shot or did the shooting. For convenience we disconnect ourselves from both victim and perpetrator by telling ourselves that these were probably both drug-dealers, drop-outs, hardened criminals who had it coming. Capote’s motivation for his novel was to satisfy his own curiosity about who were the people who killed and how innocent really were these people who were killed (it won’t offer the good citizens of the world any solace to read the conclusions he draws for that last question, they certainly did not have it coming).
Perhaps the most satisfying of stories are those in which the protagonist, after we have gotten to know and like him, can be seen to have cheated the system, gotten one up on the rest of the world. When Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, despite the questionable morality of his vigilantism and his disturbing levels of racism, ironically gets painted as a hero by the news media for saving a young prostitute by murdering pimps and drug-dealers, isn’t there a sense of satisfaction there with the journalistic style, knowing that the medium in its quest to simplify people into four inch columns will never know all the questionable details we know about this man. How fatally antisocial he is, his attempted assassination of a Presidential candidate, his procuring and using illegal weapons. Our satisfaction in Travis’s success is not just in his having saved Jodie Foster, but of pulling the wool over the rest of the world’s eyes in the process.