Aug 2008

A person of good character (pt 1)

The book-meme post got me thinking about literature (as it was bound to do) and about what makes good literature. Leastways in my eyes. Clearly I’m not the first person to tackle that question, and I suspect there’s little truly original to be said on the matter. So this won’t be a long insightful (or inciteful) essay on the subject of literary value. Instead it’ll be another bloody list, which takes far less time and effort, and won’t be out of place here in the blogosphere.

And it’ll be a list of characters. You see, I thought about literature and the myriad interacting factors that make for a good piece of fiction. There’s plot, characters, dialogue and that indefineable thing called “style”. Those would be — for me — the Big Four. Obviously there’s plenty of other factors too (political position, theme, structure, setting and so forth). And there are those who would insist that “theme” is a far more important factor than “dialogue” for instance. Or that the political message of the book is as important as anything else. It’s a subjective thing.

The best novels have them all of course; a great plot, wonderful characters with whom the reader can strike up a relationship based upon empathy rather than mere “interest”, believable dialogue all tied together with a writing style that allows the words to flow into your mind, rather than appear before your eyes. Add a political message that one agrees with, a theme that flirts with redemption but never to the point of fantasy, a story structure that doesn’t have you wondering what the hell is going on half the time (occasionally being forced to wonder what the hell is going on is a good thing; do it too often and the book becomes less interesting), a setting you can either identify with or is gloriously exotic, and so forth.

Eventually you end up with a Pynchon novel, of course. But you knew I was going to say that.

I figured the easiest of all those factors to identify would be “good characters”. Incidentally, good characters almost always need good dialogue… otherwise they cease to be good characters very quickly… but the two are indeed quite separate and I’ve read books with great characters but iffy dialogue (The Great Gatsby) as well as the converse (can’t think of one off the top of my mind, but there’s more than a few dull characters in the world of literature who are rescued by the author’s ability to write a good line of dialogue or two… in most of Woody Allen’s movies for instance, the characters rarely get truly fleshed out, but who honestly cares when they’re saying the things he writes?)

Anyways, as an antidote of sorts to the book-meme post which contained a good deal of negativity, I now present my list of the finest fictional characters ever created. Not a duff one among them. And these are “fictional” rather than “literary” characters as there are one or two from more modern media. As usual… no specific order to these… just writing them down as they come to me.

  • John Constantine: My favourite fictional character by a country-mile. There’s no order to his list, but if there were, John Constantine would still be first. Originally a creation of Alan Moore in his Swamp Thing stories, John Constantine is nonetheless as much a Garth Ennis character as a Moore character. Ennis wrote many of the best Hellblazer stories (the graphic novels in which John Constantine is the anti-hero) which is really where the character sprung fully to life. Constantine is a magician. Not a stage illusionist, a real-life magick-user who consorts with demons and angels as well as all manner of low-life human nasties. He is bitter, cynical, self-obsessed and haunted by a horrific past… yet he’s also incredibly likeable. He cannot be relied upon to Do The Right Thing, though he often does so reluctantly. In fact, in probably the best of the Constantine stories (The Long Habit of Living) he knowingly and deliberately places the entire human race in serious jeopardy in order to cure his lung-cancer. He’s an utter bastard who you’d stay as far away from as possible were he real (he generally ends up being responsible for the grisly death of his close friends) but who you root for without reservation while reading the stories. Never, ever, ever, ever see the movie.
  • Sherlock Holmes: Most people know all about Holmes, so I won’t go on too much about him. Like most of the literature of that era, the Sherlock Holmes stories often feel — to me — as though they’ve been caged by the culture they came from. As though there was so much more beneath the surface that had to be left unsaid because of the phoney morality of the time. All the same, Holmes somehow escapes the cage (I think Mycroft may have smuggled in a key somehow) and becomes a wonderfully 3-dimensional character as the stories progress. Most of the other characters are merely props, of course, with which to explore the methods and psychology of Sherlock himself. All the same, because he is such a wonderful character, that flaw (and the many others) don’t overshadow the stories. Personal favourites? Probably the two stories that introduce his two greatest opponents; The Adventure of the Final Problem (Professor Moriarty) and A Scandal in Bohemia (Irene Adler). Jeremy Brett is the definitive screen Holmes.
  • Agent Dale Cooper: Created by David Lynch for his TV series Twin Peaks, Dale Cooper is an FBI agent with a difference. When I mentioned him before on this blog I wrote: “A latter day Sherlock Holmes (who switched the cocaine and opium for something a little more psychedelic), Cooper attacks problems with a singlemindedness that usually appears anything but, and a method that is often – quite literally – madness itself.” Mind you, there’s an obvious mistake in that description (Sherlock Holmes’ narcotic of choice was morphine rather than opium).
  • Zoyd Wheeler, Brock Vond and Frenesi Gates: There’s just no way I could pick a single character from Pynchon’s Vineland. Like almost all of his novels, it’s an ensemble piece, and choosing one character above another would be impossible. As it is, I’ve left out a few others who are worthy of mention (Takeshi, Prairie and — of course — DL). Yeah, I’ve heard the objection that “they’re not characters at all!” and certainly Zoyd is not merely a man, he’s also the unrealised dream of the 1960s, Frenesi isn’t just his ex, she’s also the inherent contradictions of feminist politics and Brock isn’t just a total asshole, he’s also The Law. But that’s what makes Pynchon so wonderful in my eyes. They feel like real people to me, even in those passages when they are obviously being used primarily as symbols to make a political point.
  • Doctor Benway: OK, hardly a well-rounded character. Hardly more than a scary bogeyman in fact. But this Burroughs creation is nonetheless one of the all-time stand-out characters in modern literature. “Did I ever tell you ’bout the time I performed an apendectomy with a rusty sardine can… … …?” The following short scene says more about Benway than I ever could…

    … incidentally that line near the end is “some fucking drug-addict’s cut my cocaine with sani-flush!” The bizarre decision to cut the word “fucking” makes it a little difficult to make out.

  • Harry Haller: The protagonist of Hesse’s Steppenwolf, Harry Haller is a total outsider. Alienated from society, from almost all human contact, he sees clearly the absurdity of human existence. He is at once repelled by, and attracted to, a society he can never be part of. Haller is Nietzsche, he’s Hesse himself, he’s even — some have argued — Carl Jung (the “magic theatre” he discovers and explores being no more — or less — than his own psyche). Certainly for a period in my teens, Haller was me. Losing himself in the intoxication of alcohol and narcotics, and finally in his desire for Hermine, the beautiful dancer, he seeks salvation in oblivion. The ultimate existential hero. “The thought of suicide is a powerful solace”, writes Haller reproducing one of Nietzsche’s more famous aphorisms, “by means of it one gets through many a bad night”. Haller’s subsequent abortive suicide attempt is one of the funniest tragic scenes in fiction.

Hell, this could on forever and I’ve left out some true greats. It’s a decent start though, and I’m going to add a “Part 1” to the title of this entry in the possibility (though not the assurance) that I’ll continue it later.

Notable absences

  • Leopold Bloom: despite being the central character in the finest novel ever written (actually, I have some sympathy with the view that “Dublin” is the central character of the book, but all the same) Bloom wouldn’t feature as one of the great literary characters. Which is clearly deliberate on Joyce’s part. Bloom is a passive observer (almost always). A rather limp Everyman who, even when he provokes a reaction from the world around him, is generally doing so accidentally, and as a result of being misinterpreted or misunderstood. It is only at the very end, with Molly’s wonderful “Yes!” that he finally escapes his role as voyeur and fantasist. Bloom is not a Great Character, because Ulysses is about viewing the world through impotent eyes. Eyes that have no Greatness behind them until that very last scene.
  • Legolas (the elf): Tolkien was a master at creating an internal world for children (or adult fantasists) to disappear into. He wasn’t necessarily a great writer of characters. But Legolas deserves a mention, even if only in this second list, because I probably spent a good third of the time between my 9th and 11th birthdays being Legolas. Outwardly, I was a very quiet child. What was going on inside, though, was anything but.

Posted in: Opinion