Sunday, November 12, 2006

Contradictions in Character

By Susan Helene Gottfried

One of the benefits of being a writer is the chance to become many different people. When I created ShapeShifter, it was so tone-deaf me could be a member of one of the world's biggest rock bands. Kerri is an artist; my children draw better than I do. Pam is an aerobic instructor; I have orthopedic issues that give my sports medicine doctor nightmares. About the closest I've come to fictionalizing myself is my newest character, Chelle LaFleur, a journalist with attitude.

In fiction, the best characters are the ones with a contradiction. I know this intimately; most of the time, I feel like a living contradiction. This is something that I've wrestled with for years; I suppose I always will. Usually, it's a dormant issue, something I try not to dwell on. But it came back up for me recently, when I was wandering through a crafts show and realized that one of the vendors was a woman I knew.

I didn't say hello, partly because I couldn't place exactly where I knew her from. But also because this was a craft show that featured struggling artists with visions of the off-beat. These vendors were the way cool, grungy, creative, artist-types I used to hang with.

And there I was, with my North Face fleece jacket, two kids, handsome husband, wallet stuffed with twenties, luxury car parked three blocks away, the alarm armed. The bland, blasé picture of a conventional lifestyle.

I was actually sort of embarrassed. I felt like this woman I knew had also recognized me and was shaking her head, proclaiming me a sell-out. Even if she wasn't, I can see how the charge would stick.

That's only the surface, though. I was at that craft show because I was searching for the funky, for the off-beat. For the remade t-shirts that scream Rock and Roll. The earrings shaped like pink ESP Explorer guitars. To support the people who were braver than I was, who chose this lifestyle as their own because of their dedication to their art. They didn't sell out, and I wish I could do more to help them succeed.

It's a trade-off, I tell myself. My mainstream lifestyle lets me do what I do best: write fiction. I have the comfort of a home office, a cat curled in my lap and my satellite radio playing away, while I dream up characters who live the lifestyle I didn't have the guts, or the patience, or the desire to.

I've always tiptoed that line between funky and mainstream, but I jumped firmly to one side so I'd have the freedom to be right here, doing just this.

It's a contradiction in who I am, absolutely. But it's also what defines my fiction -- as well as my self-image. Just as I define myself by the twin pulls of books and music, so, too, do I have the twin pulls of funky and mainstream.


Anonymous said...

I dunno S, I think most people who are "alternative" have the same doubts you do. Some people would view me that way and some would think I was way mainstream - all in the eye of the beholder isn't it?

And you are right - why does one feel guilty about not struggling away, scratching your prose in a darkened attic room? Daft really - I mean yes, adversity does produce soom interesting stuff but does it count if we court it?

Anyway - look at me I've actually commented on a blog - not actually a first but almost!

Anonymous said...

Great post, Susan! I agree that the best characters have contradictions.---Which is tricky, of course, because you don't want to get caught creating characters reviewers will someday call "uneven." It takes a writer who thinks long & lovingly about her characters to write books about people who feel real. (Love the North Face gear among the artists!)

The sentiment of our post reminds me of the quote Mike sent us last week. Flaubert's advice to writers: "Be regular and orderly in your life, like a good bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work."

Anonymous said...

Great post! I think more people than you know feel the same way. Some days I'd like to chuck my conservative suburban life, too. That's when I turn on my laptop and write-an escape to where my character does everything I'd never have the guts to do!

Meryl Neiman said...

I think there's also the component of growing up, realizing that sometimes you can accomplish more in life, both for yourself and for others, by accepting certain conventionalities. There's a reason why so many people like North Fleece jackets. They are warm and comfortable.

Why shouldn't you be warm and comfortable and quirky all at the same time?

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

Hey, Gizzie!! You -- and Joyce and Meryl -- raise an interesting point: at what point does a struggling artist give up the struggle in order to make art? Or maybe I did. I'm not sure.

And yes, Nancy, you're right. You can't create a contradictory character just for the sake of contradictions (Chelle aside, but it's her quirks that make her who she is). A real, well-fleshed-out, rounded character is what we're after, ultimately.

It's just that sometimes, those characters feel more real and settled than those of us who create them.

Anonymous said...

I realized the other day that in my private practice I've acquired a specialty without ever intending to do so or even realizing it till after the fact: starving artists. Great clients, though I have to take on more than I want with reduced fees.

Still, after I work with them a while I notice that they usually become less "starving" and more able to integrate their art into their life.

I feel that my life work is about integrating opposites. That's why it works much better for me to be a part-time therapist, part-time researcher than one or the other. I wonder if many of us on this blog have that same theme in their lives.

There are a few people who throw away the world and only work on their art, but they're not really that common. I think those of us who try to integrate two lifestyles can get a bad rap, but there's something really creative that comes out of it!

Anonymous said...

Nice post girl. I enjoyed your insight into your characters. I don't think you are a sell out. You are what you make of yourself. I see a great author and friend.

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

Cheez, you're the best. *sigh*

I think Tory's got some fascinating insights. Maybe I ought to create a psychologist character next? Think I could pull it off?

Anonymous said...

Awesome post. I love layered quirky characters in life and in my books. I know how you feel about your own layers sometimes pulling at who you are and causing trouble with who you think you should be. Balance, does seem like a great solution. Because it's so easy to achieve.