Will You Remember Me?

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Taking Names)

I have always found it interesting which character names I am able to remember, and which ones I am not. For example, I struggle to remember the name of the young boy in the film Up. He is one of the two central characters, I can picture him and hear his voice, yet I draw a blank on his name until Google informs me that it is Russell. On the other hand, I can tell you that the old man and his wife are Carl and Ellie. No question about it, I just know it.

Carl is the other main character, of course, but Ellie is hardly featured in the film at all. And yet I remember her, simply because her character hooked into me through one of the film’s deeply emotional scenes. The scene in question takes place late in the film, when Carl looks through an old photo album Ellie had been filling out before her death. He finds a surprise towards the end of the book, she had left a hidden message for him, urging him to go and find a new adventure. It was, I thought, the most charged moment of the entire film. And so I remember her.

 

The Hook)

We often speak of a hook relating to the beginning of the story as a whole, but it also applies to a character as well. Writing a bland character with a colorful name isn’t going to be enough, the character also needs to have something about them which makes a strong impression in your mind.

Darth Vader’s memorability is not due to having a unique name and being the “main villain,” but because of his wonderfully haunting portrayal. Black, glossy, half-machine-half-skeleton, with a strained, laborious breath and deep, rich voice. That appearance is so striking and vivid that one can’t help but internalize his image forever. From the very first moment he appears on screen he is like no one else in that move, and remains so throughout the entirety of the saga.

Sherlock Holmes could have just been “that detective with a weird name,” if not for how distinctive Sir Arthur Conan Doyle made his introduction. In that scene Holmes effortlessly dissects even the minutest details of his new acquaintance, John Watson. Yes, that treat was then replicated so frequently that it lost its punch, but the first time you experience it, the effect is so novel and delightful that it will stick with you for a lifetime.

Oedipus has obviously come to be the punchline of an uncomfortable joke, the defining element of an awkward complex. But therein lies the evidence of how strong a hook he was written with. The uncomfortable nature of his relationship to mother and father has immortalized him, making his name long outlive his own story. For the masses have generally forgotten the narrative perfection of his tale’s irony, but the idea of Oedipus continues forever.

 

The Story of the Character)

Each of these characters becomes an icon of their story because they are, themselves, an entire story on their own. Even without telling the greater narrative of the one ring, I could regale you with the isolated account of Frodo leaving his beloved Shire to enter the wider world. I do not have to explain the international drama between England and France in A Tale of Two Cities to explain the aching beauty of Sydney Carton’s sacrifice. I don’t have to plot out all the twists and turns of Treasure Island to get you to appreciate the excitement of a young boy, Jim Hawkins, finding himself in possession of a Treasure Map.

Frankly these characters are sometimes even bigger than the story that contains them. Most people don’t know how the legend of Robin Hood ends, and those that do find it rather lackluster. But the idea of a brilliant archer traipsing around in a disguise, directly beneath his enemy’s nose, seeking to “rob from the rich to give to the poor” is so strong an image that his ending doesn’t even matter.

Thus these characters are immortal because their moments are immortal. Indeed, a character written well will not only survive longer than the knowledge of their tale, but even the lifespan of entire nations. Many governments have risen and fallen since the introduction of Gilgamesh, Arjuna, Juliet, Snow White, Aladdin, and Hercules, yet they continue to stand through every changing tide.

 

The Personification)

There is one other key element that defines all of these timeless characters. Each one of them is the definition for some idea or archetype. Robin Hood reinvented what it means to be an ordinary man standing against oppression for what is right. Any character that wishes to be as timeless as he, must reinvent that wheel in a way that somehow rings more true to us than his story does.

Tom Sawyer personifies rowdy youth, Captain Ahab relentless vengeance, and Romeo youthful tragedy. We remember Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde because of how well they speak to our sense of dual nature. William Tell sticks in the mind for the ingeniously cruel situation of only being able to save your son by shooting an apple off of his head.

Each of these characters takes an idea, and wraps it in a new invention: a story. Then, any time we think of that idea, we think of the character, we think of the story, and they become a shorthand for expressing the condition of human life.

 

With my latest story I have been trying to write an ode to impending doom, to inescapable fate, to incontrovertible destruction. My aim is to write something that captures the essence to such a degree that it redefines the term. I want my characters to live on as the personifications of these ideas. Difficult and arrogant? Absolutely. A story character only ever manages to accomplish this once in a very, very, very long while. But still it is the goal I always try to reach for. Otherwise, my stories and my characters are guaranteed to soon be forgotten.

A Story for Every Day

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I once had the privilege of knowing an artist. Sculpture was his primary expertise, though he made wonderful drawing and paintings as well. He took me to an art gallery once, and I of course wanted to know his opinions on all of the various pieces. He was quite resistant to divulging that, though, simply stating that if I liked a piece that was reason enough to call it good.

He did at least explain to me one piece of criteria he used when evaluating a piece, though, and I was struck by what he said. He explained that he would never buy a work of art on the same day that he met it. Rather he would remember it, and then wait until he had a truly joyful day. He would come to look at it again in that mood and see if it still spoke to him as strongly as before. Still he wouldn’t buy it though, now he would wait until he had a truly heartbreaking day, then he would come to look at it again and see how he felt about it then. He explained that if something was going to be in his house, it needed to be a work that could speak to him at all times.

With that I understood why he didn’t want to influence my opinion on any individual piece. In the end all that mattered was whether it spoke to me or not, and whether it resonated with all parts of me, or only during one particular mood.

I’m sure you have heard the saying “this too shall pass.” This quote is attributed to a time when a monarch commissioned his wise men to give him a quote that would both cheer him when he was sad and give him pause when he was joyful. “This too shall pass” was the result of their combined wisdom. A saying that has not one meaning, but many.

Some of my favorite stories are ones I appreciate because of how they are able to speak to me at any point in life. Although I also appreciate how I have been able to find meaning in books that once I disregarded. But what is it that makes a story timeless? How do you write a tale so that it can fit to every mood and every day? Well, there’s a few different approaches that seem to work well.

 

Speak to Many)

The first approach is simply to broaden the audience you are speaking to. Caution has to be exercised here, though, making a story too broad can also make it meaningless. A story that tries to be all things to all people tends to be too unfocused to have special meaning to anyone.

But consider how A Christmas Carol works to make Ebenezer Scrooge as relatable of a character as possible. It uses flashbacks to extend its story over the entire duration of a man’s life. So many moments are captured that almost any male will be able to connect with the experience at one point or another. We have the youthful version that has no friends, the young man who has no money, the driven man who has conflicting interests, the old man who is full of regrets. Wherever you happen to be in your own life arc there is an Ebenezer Scrooge for you.

I certainly have returned to this story multiple times and often find it is different scenes that speak to me most each time. For an added bonus, this approach also has the benefit of making Scrooge a more interesting and rounded character, one full of nuance and development.

 

Emotional Paradoxes)

Another approach is to write in a way that evokes two emotions at the same time, a phenomenon that arrests a reader’s attention and prompts deep introspection. A slight variation of this is to evoke the two emotions so closely to one another that the first is not forgotten before the second begins. To accomplish this one must realize that an emotionally charged scene creates an aura that lasts longer than the scene itself. When George Bailey desperately pleads for a second chance at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life, the shadow of his intense remorse still lingers even after he receives his wish in a moment of triumphant joy.

This enables the viewer to be feeling both emotions in the same moment, which disparity both confuses and fascinates the mind. If those two scenes had been separated so that they were experienced independently, then they still might have been moving but they would not have been timeless.

When our mind recognizes that we are receiving conflicting emotions it processes how this came to be. It looks for a meaning behind it all. For example, in this particular case one might conclude that because the happiness immediately followed the sorrow means that the former caused the latter. George Bailey was in a bind, and was only able to be happy because he was willing to first be sad, healed because he allowed himself to be broken. That learning experience makes the moment stick. Every time we see it the mind will remember the previous process, and either reaffirm the conclusions or else produce another interpretation.

 

Captivate the Imagination)

The last approach is to ask the reader to supply their own meaning. This is not to suggest that one should make a plot intentionally obtuse, but rather it is an acknowledgement that sometimes stories deal with elements that defy our human languages to fully express. Rather than try to find the right words, the author instead tries to find a way to replicate the right feelings. The reader will only be able to find closure by experiencing the story and then giving their own silent interpretations to it.

Franz Kafka’s Die Verwandlung (The Metamorphosis) is an excellent example of this sort of tale. In this book a man wakes up in bed, reminisces on his life situation, and presently comes to discover that he has transformed into huge insect! A very strange plot follows, detailing the way he deals with this embarrassing turn of events, the burden he becomes on his family, and the tragic demise that eventually befalls him.

As bizarre as the story may be, one cannot shake the sense that it isn’t simply weird for the sake of being weird. There seems to be some sort of purpose behind it, some allegory or moral to be revealed. In some ways these sorts of stories feels like reading through a dream, and people have long believed that special meaning can be found in their night visions.

 

With my next blog post I’d like to try my hand at writing a memorable story, and I’d like to try to approach it with the third of the methods I’ve mentioned here. I want to write something that feels different and even dream-like. Something that is based off of a sense or a feeling that I do not know the words to express, but which emotion I hope to recreate in the reader. If I succeed, then we will be able to mull these inexpressible things together, and maybe some good will be able to come of that. Come back Thursday to see how it turns out.