Wednesday, 26 October 2011

The "O" Word and Character Portrayal

Two recent experiences have made me consider yet again the subject of character development and portrayal. I've been reading a series of books by the late Michael Dibdin in which the central character is a detective named Aureleo Zen. In the seven Zen books I have read thus far, Zen is pictured in one as the only honest detective in Rome, in the next as bumbling and rather dull, in a third as intelligent and insightful, always searching out the truth, and in another as on the take, willing to accept money from a murderer in return for looking the other way. Will the real Zen please stand up!

Dibdin clearly never decided who his character was. The central character in each book is named as Aureleo Zen, but there the similarity begins and ends from book to book. I like and admire some of Dibdin's Zens, and detest others.

Why do I keep reading these uneven novels? Because Dibdin is a past master at setting a scene. His descriptive passages are unparalleled. His prose is simply gorgeous. There is much to learn by reading Dibdin. But at creating and maintaining character, he is hopeless.

My second experience with poorly realized characters was an opera. Now don't stop reading just because I used the "O" word. The stories of operas are the epitome of romance and romantic illusion. Their plots could have come from a book by Nora Roberts.

The opera in question is The Marriage of Figaro by Mozart. The libretto, the dialogue, was written by Lorenza Da Ponte back in the 1700's. Now Da Ponte was a man who knew how to draw characters. There are two interwoven stories in Figaro. The heroine, a Countess, is saddened by her husband's repeated infidelities. She suffers with great dignity and at the end of the opera, when the Count comes to her, repentant and contrite, she forgives him. The subplot involves the upcoming wedding of the Count's servant, Figaro, to Suzanna, the Countess' maid. There is brilliant interplay between the lightness of Figaro and Suzanna's love and the darkness and disillusionment of the marriage between the Count and Countess. Sound like a plot from a Women's Fiction novel? Da Ponte drew his characters with merciless precision and Mozart's music underlines these portrayals precisely and beautifully.

But the Director of the production I had the misfortune to see recently in Venice's La Fenice Opera House did not even comprehend, let alone reflect, the Da Ponte characterizations. The "updated" version I saw had all the sex and violence of a bad TV show, everyone attacking everyone else with guns and knives and poison when they weren't engaged in extraneous sex with varied partners. There was no differentiation at all among the characters. They were all dark and amoral. They were all violent and venal.

Only the valiant effort of a cast of first rate singers and Mozart's glorious music made the evening endurable. The audience at La Fenice had the good sense to "Boo" the director loudly when he came onstage at the end of the performance.

How can anyone so misread characters? There is no interest in any work where all the characters are cut from the same cloth, whether that cloth is light and bright or dark and dismal. Characters in a book, or in an opera, must be, as they are in life, diverse.

As writers, I believe we must know our characters well before we start weaving them into stories. Who are they? Where did they come from? What is their background, education, social position, religious persuasion? What are their emotional hang-ups and how do they cope with them?

In The Memory of Roses, my heroine, Brit McQuaid, is flawed. She distrusts men, and with good reason. Much of the book is about her recognizing and coming to terms with this. The Memory of Roses is on a certain level the story of a young woman's journey toward self-understanding.

Characters, to be real, must have flaws. On the other hand even the most villainous of characters must have some redeeming qualities if they are to appear to be more than comic book caricatures. If our characters aren't real to us as writers, they won't take on life for our readers.

To return to Michael Dibdin, his Aurelio Zen lacks the consistency of behavior we expect from well drawn characters. And as for last night's performance of The Marriage of Figaro, when the Countess threw herself out of a window in the last scene — something never envisioned by either Da Ponte or Mozart — I could only wish it had been the director making that long fall rather than the soprano.

It is to be expected that characters undergo change in the course of their stories. They should grow as they resolve their external problems and their inner conflicts. But at some central core they must remain true to themselves. This, I believe, is at the heart of good writing.

Written in Venice
15 October 2011

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Blair McDowell