Tuesday, March 18, 2008

"Messed-Up, Untidy" Characters

Via Curiosities at The Millions:

Richard Russo: "My fictional Eliot [Spitzer] would be complex, would contain paradoxes. He would not be a hypocrite. My Eliot would believe with his whole heart in his crusades against the corrupt and the powerful and the privileged, even as he worked studiously to undermine his legacy. Fiction can accommodate such paradoxes, provided they're explained."

I'm sorry, fiction cannot be stranger than truth. Complex is a buzzword so overused that it has lost all meaning. A complex is a personality trait reflected backward, reversed, folded back in the opposite direction. For example, an inferiority complex(ed) comes off as a superiority act.

Therefore, what is more complex than a self-righteous hypocrite?

Ah, the "banality of evil" again. The "intellectual" take waters it down to "illicit sex" and says that Spitzer's worst crime is "cluelessness," "blowing it."

Oh, so he's just like the rest of us, right? How banal.

Yes, some people like reading the banal, but that's not where the money is in this market.

But I don't mean to jigger the facts; fictive Eliot will do exactly what the real Eliot has done, only my guy almost never imagines getting caught.

How can you say that when he signed into the hotel under the name of a well-known close friend and benefactor? He was setting up this close friend and benefactor to get framed for his (Spitzer's) own illegal activity.

First, I'd like to know how you are going to square this fact with your Spitzer never thinking about getting caught. Second, I'd like to know how you are going to characterize your Spitzer as a basically good man (no worse than rest of us) who just happens to do a shockingly vicious, despicable, stomach-turning thing like that TO A FRIEND AND BENEFACTOR!

Not banal. Not banal at all.

Real-life Eliot has few friends, we're told, the natural result of what some people like to call his arrogance, though my Eliot has never thought of it in those terms until now.

These are fellow Democrats who have had to work closely with him over the years. Like the Republicans who have had to work closely with John McCain, they are known to hate him but are very reticent to admit that to the press, let alone be quoted as to why. That MEANS something, because these are the people who know these men best. And their fear of speaking up about the "steamroller" is a red flag.

But you discount it. Again, fiction cannot be stranger than truth. Your Spitzer must be congruous with that fact. Nothing in the story that doesn't belong there, no extra pieces of the puzzle. It all must fit. This isn't religion, where you can just throw up your hands and say, "Well, it's a mystery."

And then the call girl must call in immediately afterward to let her handlers know she's OK and that he wasn't "difficult" this time. Just "illicit sex," right?

Now you know why very few people read literary fiction anymore: the banal ain't entertaining, and most people read to be entertained, not to be edified by the reduction of everything to the banal.

Make your characters make sense. To real people.

Richard Russo's fictional Eliot Spitzer - whom he himself says is a "messed-up, untidy" character - makes no sense at all. And it's remarkably like the fictional character many have made of the real Eliot Spitzer. A con artist who fooled the whole world with his crusader act.

The great Gatsby was great, for he loved greatly, purely.

But, especially considering how this foil of Gatsby recently tried to frame his friend and benefactor, the Attorney General of New York should go back and make sure he didn't steamroll innocent people into prison.

Make sure your characters make sense. Don't try to preach some doctrine, or you'll end up warping your characters into nebulous, banal messes like this.

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