This is a piece about people who make up characters and watch them go, or who observe real people closely and take notes, or mix up composite human compounds in their alembic and . . . It’s about writers and their inward constellations of the real and irreal intermixed. It’ll take me a minute to get there.
Shortly before Shakespeare wrote Hamlet circa 1600, he wrote the King Henry plays, which co-starred the greatest male character he’d created up to that point—Fat Jack, the Old Man of the Castle, the False Staff—who is also far and away the most gloriously verbose of his creations. Falstaff emits a skyful of word-clouds not only because to live he must expand, disguise, and obfuscate every fact with multiple versions of his own remaking, but because he is so over-full of Being he must, like God, breathe out Creation in a breath that existentiates his dreamed particulars and grants them the mercy of words. In this respect Falstaff is a portrait of his author, and they’re both so prolix as to be impossible to read in full. We seize one piece, lose another and never quite catch up to the whole. All Shakespeare’s men are self-dramatisers, but Falstaff overstuffs the human frame to overwhelm the world he walks in—until, two plays later, heartless truth speaks and his knell is rung.
Hamlet—the play, the man—breathes a different air, and we know it right away. His language seems a more limpid flow than any that has preceded it in Shakespeare, a purification, a living vein of inward silver. When we meet him in Act One Scene Two he is a young man who has had some shocks that are nothing compared to what’s coming, and already in soilèd Denmark feels himself a princeling too good for this world. In his public speech at court he asks leave to go back to school in Wittenberg, but once alone he wishes his too too solid flesh would melt away from this gross and solid world and resolve itself into a dew. It’s as comprehensive a lemme outta here as one could speak, but circumstances have already come calling and he doesn’t know it yet. Ho, here comes Horatio with some soldier and the news about his father.
Hamlet’s got problems in his intellectual innards but he’s more intelligent and direct than anyone we’ve read before, and despite present confusions and those to come he is always focused on the essential matter, the quick and evanescent core of what confronts him whether inside or out: the deep and always self-transforming Real.
Once you’ve landed a character that compellingly, no absurdities of plot need trouble you overmuch. I don’t just mean the RosencrantzGuildenstern.doc switcheroo and a return to port via pirate ship but the nature of Hamlet’s central perplexity: we get it that he’s conflicted about his mom and at having to off Claudius for his half-departed dad, but what’s all this then, as soon as he gets the murder news, about him having to put on an antic disposition and play at madness? All right, it expresses his inner conflict but it’s externally unmotivated and excessively self-defeating, and it’s not really why he’s acting out. In Shakespeare’s Danish source-text our hero is named Fang and in that Danish court it’s widely known that his uncle zotzed his dad and shagged maman, so he’s as widely expected to take his just revenge on the king. He starts acting like a nutter in order to appear harmless and inane so he can stay alive long enough to do the needful; whereas our so far unsuspected Hamlet is the most immediate to the throne with ready access to the royal ribcage from the start, so that suddenly acting nutso only calls attention to him, so that he’s not just the glass of fashion, mould of form, and observed of all observers, but a clear and present danger and a walking target with a big red arrow on it, one he keeps pointing and repointing right back at him. Why doesn’t this huge implausibility ever bother us? Sure, Shakepeare can sell us anything, but that can’t be the whole story.
Here’s an interpretation—which is always a limiting factor—about what goes with him. Hamlet is too good for this world and doesn’t want to get involved in it, but comes upon him his father’s command, beyond deny, and he’s stuck with having to intermix with the gross in nature beings and doings that possess it merely; and it’s his sheer reluctance to dirty his hands and muddy his soul that makes him want to act out. He feels himself superior to the manifest order of worldly existence, and knows that anything that implicates him in it will have filthy, lethal consequences to himself and, inescapably, to anyone close to him. He would rather not have been born, and although many of us have felt something like that, he is now confronted with an extreme case of that repulsion. He has to act, in fact to kill—which is the ultra-type of every action within the sublunary, mortal sphere—and he doesn’t want to go there. Not without reason. If I had to direct a production of Hamlet, that’s the through-line I’d follow. It doesn’t eliminate the other currents in play and has the additional virtue of obviating the Freudian stodge.
One thing I’m sure of about the lad, who is affectionate, generous, and freehand with anyone who meets his true untroubled standard: we all want him to like us, to find us sound, unfalse, find us in accord with his supernal self-harmony now put tragically on trial.
I was rambling through these familiar thoughts when it occurred to me that all Hamlet’s inly wise mercurial predecessors in Shakespeare’s work all have names like Juliet, Rosalind, Beatrice, women always smarter and more subtly truthful than their men. Hamlet is a woman, or rather, male, he is a descendant of his author’s matrilineal line of transmission, hardly to be called descent. Or perhaps Shakespeare has achieved a greater integration of his masculine and feminine aspects allowing him to raise to a new height and depth his already virtuoso poetic and professional practice. (To add to this the poignancy of his son Hamnet’s death to plague is more than I can tally here; and Ted Hughes’ ‘tragic equation’ balancing the Goddess of Complete Being on his head would also make an unsightly bulge.)
Orson Welles, who would have known, pointed out that Shakespeare’s tragedies are sodden with melodrama, and in sum and action that is Hamlet’s condition daily: to be a tragic character stuck amid the melodramatic personae of Elsinore: to have one more dimension than anyone else in view: the only one who’d read Montaigne and overleapt him: a quality of apartness Shakespeare himself must have found a too-constant puzzler betimes.
I think that the best character-writing appears when the imagined character is most real to its author, a felt and palpable presence, and in contemplation larger than life, or in any case large enough to obscure the rest of it. Shakespeare appears to have had this capacity more continuously than any author. He seems able to inhabit from inside the anatomy of his leastmost atomy or functional human unit; but with Hamlet, as everyone already knows, he achieved an unprecedented depth. His river had found its sea, and in the years to come he would sail to its every shore.
Fine for him, but what about scribbler folks fashioned forth on our more modest scale?
I’ve written characters a few different ways. I’ve done it from inside and out, I’ve disguised people I know with alternate names or noses, have clapped a few friends together and played the accordioned result, and once or twice or maybe thrice I’ve had the full, most satisfying experience of cohabiting with someone made of my essential stuff who yet is not me, in fact is more, in fact is so real that I breathe and feel him fully present as someone no longer me. It’s the lifting of the burden of being oneself, a wonderful liberation that rings truer than you do, and conforms to a somehow higher world.
When I was a younger writer I didn’t want to be found out. Didn’t want to leave traces of myself behind as spoor to be decoded by any nosy readers. I must have had a guilty soul. Maybe you could write some stories in that condition, but a worthwhile novel? I doubt it. When finally I wrote a novel for real I was able to give up trying to conceal myself because I was no longer present when the Bear was. Actually we were pals. Good pals. He and Jones were a split decision on me and it was obvious. Jones was me without talent, but the Bear was a true himselfness, made of my stuff but betterly real. The book had to be written so I had to let my inmost self show itself and not care. It would have been scary had not the relief of escaping my selfsame prison been so satisfying. I’d suffered long enough from the rooted illusion that my characters should resemble me as little as did Raskolnikov, Fabrizio, Pierre, the Consul, or Molloy resembled, as I thought, their makers. So I guess that one of the keys that opened writing long fiction for me was becoming less afraid of my own human nature.
Another character I wrote who disappeared me, unpublished, was my first true villain, probably what I’d be like if I were a sociopath. I had good sport with him but he disturbed other people in a serious way. His look and manner and rhythm were drawn from a guy I’d known for a few weeks in Paris forty-six years before I wrote him into an imagined California, but his soul was pared from mine and the juices were inextricable from each other. Even the most detached great novelist of his epoch had to confess, with whatever ironic declension, “I am Madame Bovary,” just you and I are all the people in our dreams, differently portioned out.
Nowadays it’s been noised about that we’ve had it with well-rounded human-seeming simulacra, so how about some flat ones, or some cool attractive absences. Human nature has been disclosed as an empty subject, a haphazard pileup of evolution and accident. We’re tired of it, we’d like some cardboard, let’s throw out the pizza and eat the box. Film-acting has taken the place of character-making anyway. We mean just what we see and that is all. The sun’s only gonna last a few more billion years anyway. There is no there there, or if there is one we’re too tired to invest in it or care too much. On an impalpably higher octave a Buddhism might agree. But for now, once no one’s home, so disappears the point of interest. If there’s no heart, or a heart with nothing in it, who’s to care? I can read books that are done like that and even enjoy them if they don’t go on too long, but they never truly win my allegiance. I can’t help it. It’s constitutional: my reading of fiction is centered in character, and as a writing coach I make a special effort to bring it out, in whatever form it suits the writer in question. I don’t think fiction has had its day and its bags are packed and locked. There are dimensions of human nature that haven’t been reported yet .
So I’ll never make a good post-modernist, I guess. Or much of a Buddhist either—I think Identity is inherent in Creation. I’m so old and grey and set re essential preferences that I don’t innately regard, re music, say, the subtraction of melody from the traditional trinity of melody, harmony, rhythm, as a big advance, except into the post-human, which is a world hurrying toward us, and we toward it. I won’t be around for most of that and it’s too hot anyway so why should I care but I do. “Because” would involve a further discussion we ain’t got room for here.
When it comes to the actual writing of fiction, each writer finds his and her instinctive inner viewpoint, and has an instrument with which to find a proper depth of operative inner view, also optionally changeable with each character and different books. I tend to work close inside but I don’t think it’s the only true measure of the telling. If I could write like Chekhov, as clean and apparently simple as that, I would. If I could write like the world I’d open the windows wide and do a Tolstoy. If I could make Hemingwayan omission sail icebergs for me I’d open the biggest cocktail bar. If I could make Le Carré’s acute behavioral observations of mixed humans I would do them.
As for memoir, I walked into it thinking that it was just writing, and that I could deal with painful experiences without re-suffering them, but that turned out to be worng, real worng, not to mention the wounding blowback from someone who told me I could write anything I wanted about him but who did everything he could to hurt me when he saw the result in print. It was my fault, my own grievous fault. Caveat scriptor.
I think the best characters come out of deep process and inner transmogrification, but how many of those will we be capable of in our lives? And for us non-Shakespeareans, sometimes observation, imposture, compositing, cheating and lying well enough will sometimes have to do. As for those who have a never-failing spring of living water within, you don’t need to be reading this. I salute you.
Proust made one of his several million brilliant remarks when considering the received notion that Tolstoy was a great observer. He said T’s observations were not essentially those of the eye but of a thinking mind, one that sought out the general law beneath observable appearances. He might have added, with Isaiah Berlin, that when Lev Nikolaevich forsook his fox-eyed multiplicity of view and began thinking like a hedgehog he lost sight of the best treasures in his lair.
Our work is to prepare the place in ourselves and meanwhile learn the architecture, bring light to every stair and cornice, buttress the weakened walls, repair broken lintels, grout the tiles, paper or unpaper the walls of the house of revelation, or of memory, or reportage, analysis, jiggery-pokery, free improv, simple play, joyful sport, antics light and dark. Whether the place is a temple or a brothel, light up the space within. That is a kind of love, and love plumbed deep enough might save us yet.