Friday, January 12, 2007

A Tale of Two Novels: A Study in Characterization

I’m reading two books at the moment (well, two novels; I’ve got a couple of nonfiction books I’m also reading). My upstairs book is COLD IN THE LIGHT, by Charles Gramlich. My downstairs book is a spy thriller by a writer who shall remain nameless because I’m about to say some very unkind things about her book.

COLD IN THE LIGHT is a horror/science fiction tale. As I’ve said before, there are three genres I don’t read: horror, science fiction, and fantasy. So why did I pick up this book? Because Charles is a friend of mine. Now, for the sake of our friendship, I would plow my way through this book even if I weren’t enjoying it. But I’m not plowing; I’m savoring. Why? Because I love what Charles does with his characters. Even the ones that aren’t human. (The fact that it’s very suspenseful kept me up last night later than I’d intended).

This is a book with a lot of characters, and yet each one is wonderfully drawn. Charles is one of those rare writers with the enviable ability to understand and sympathize with a wide assortment of people (and non-people). He also has a gift for capturing the essence of experiences in a way that makes you say, Yes, yes; I know what that feels like. Doubtless, being a professor of psychology helps. But I think his skill at characterization also owes much to a lifetime of observing, understanding, and LIKING people.

Charles has helped me to understand one of the reasons I don’t like my thriller writer’s characters: I don’t think she likes people. Oh, she likes her heroine, because her heroine IS our writer—or, rather, the way she would like to imagine herself to be. But I don’t like her heroine. Why? Because she’s far too impressed with herself. And—like the author—she doesn’t seem to actually LIKE anyone else. I never sense any humanity in her or in any of the other characters (despite several heavy handed, melodramatic flashbacks that are intended to elicit my sympathy for the heroine). All characters besides the heroine are interchangeable within their good guy/bad guy routine: the bad guys are comic book villains (who seem to spend all their time killing and torturing kids, just to remind us that these are bad, bad men), while the other good guys are all too obviously there simply to move the plot forward.

My downstairs book has other flaws, one of the most offensive being the way the “good guys” constantly call Arabs “rag heads.” As far as I’m concerned, racism in any form is contemptible, and the use of the word “rag head” is just as unacceptable as the sneering, thoughtless use of the words “nigger” or “kike.” Plus, as the plot unfolds and we realize what is going on, anyone with any knowledge of modern German politics realizes that our thriller writer has imagined a situation that simply could not happen in our current world. Instead of experiencing suspense, I find myself saying, This is silly. But the main reason I put this book down 100 pages from its end and doubt I will ever pick it up again is that I simply do not care what happens to any of our thriller writer’s people. So why should I keep reading? Especially when I can go upstairs and read COLD IN THE LIGHT.


Anonymous said...

I've been pondering what really makes a scene interesting, and I think one of the most significant factors is character. I think a scene really takes life when it's experienced through a character's eyes and explained in a character's point-of -view "voice." Without the character it's just words.

You can read a passange of Raymond Chandler out of context all on its own and enjoy hearing Philip Marlowe talk, for example, or get drawn into a Ray Bradbury world in a similar way.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the kind words on Cold in the Light. I appreciate it. I don't think I realized until the last couple of years that what I really rememebered best about the books I loved as a kid/teenager was the characters. All the discussion of character that has been going back and forth on your blog and several others lately has helped me crystalize that understanding.

Anonymous said...

Your aversion to the use of bigotry-weighted terms is understandable. On the other hand, shouldn't the real focus be on whether the author's use of such language is true to her characters?

You can't escape the facts that many people use such terms, and many people are prejudiced against persons of other races, nationalities, etc.

For example, if a book has KKK members as characters, it would be unrealistic to portray them as using politically-correct terminology when they speak of minorities. However politic a media-savvy KKK member such as David Duke may be, do you really think he doesn't say "nigger" when speaking in private?

Sphinx Ink joins in your objection, on the other hand, if you feel the novel implicitly endorses the bigoted P.O.V. of the characters.

JR's Thumbprints said...

I've been reading Charles Gramlich's blog for the past month, and although I'm not an avid fan of science fiction, your glowing review of his novel has me wondering if perhaps I'm missing out on something. Perhaps it'll be next on my reading list. By the way, the cover art for your latest book is very cool. Hmmm... make that two books.

Anonymous said...

I recently wrote a story about a slave ship set during the Napoleonic Wars. I have hopes it will be published in an anthology next year.

However, how do you write a story about that time without using the word nigger? The editor and I discussed that for some time. I used "wog" and "darkie" but the term "nigger" couldn't be considered appropriate, even though it was an historical tale. The editor pointed out, and I think correctly, that the story was primarily a horror story, and only secondarily an historical tale.

But as I wrote the story, avoiding what some people call "The N Word" it occured to me how much power we give that word by designating it to be so horrible that it could only be referred to by using the first letter.

Ah the power of words. Bur do words have power? Or is the power something we give to them through our unwillingness to confront our own demons and society's demons.

cs harris said...

You're right, Stewart; in a historical work it's difficult to decide how to handle the use of words that are now recognized as being derogatory but were once commonplace. I remember being badly criticized for the opinions expressed by one of my characters in a book set in New Orleans during the Civil War. And I agree, Sphinx Ink, that the use of such words can be required for certain characters in a contemporary. For instance, in THE ARCHANGEL PROJECT, my bad guys use the term rag head. What I object to is when the HEROES constantly use those words. That's sending a message, it's okay to be racist.