Monday, December 17, 2012

A Brief Ramble on Character and Self Consistency

Lord, I love Zadie Smith's essays, like this wonderful piece in last week's New Yorker on Joni Mitchell, changing artistic tastes, changing selves, and artistic continuity:

Who could have understood Abraham? He is discontinuous with himself. The girl who hated Joni and the woman who loves her seem to me similarly divorced from each other, two people who happen to have shared the same body. It's the feeling we get sometimes when we find a diary we wrote, as teenagers, or sit at dinner listening to an old friend tell some story about us of which we have no memory. It's an everyday sensation for most of us, yet it proves a tricky sort of problem for those people who hope to make art. For though we know and recognize discontinuity in our own lives, when it comes to art we are deeply committed to the idea of continuity. I find myself to be radically discontinuous with myself -- but how does one re-create this principle in fiction? What is a character if not a continuous, consistent personality? If you put Abraham in a novel, a lot of people who throw that novel across the room. What's his motivation? How can he love his son and yet be prepared to kill him? Abraham is offensive to us. It is by reading and watching consistent people on the page, stage, and screen that we are reassured of our own consistency.
This made me think of the fact that often the moments I love most in fiction or film are the moments where a character does something that is seemingly inconsistent with his or her outward character, but completely consistent with his or her inward self, which we've glimpsed throughout the proceedings . . . a sacrifice, an unexpectedly marvelous dance, a moment of honesty or tenderness they weren't capable of at the beginning. It is often the revelation of that character's strength through the demonstration of their vulnerability, and it shows us layers, dimensions, complexity, reality, all the things I like best.

That said, I disagree a little with the last few sentences of the paragraph I quote above because I don't find Abraham inconsistent at all; his obedience to his god simply outranks his love for his son, which could certainly be found offensive if you disagree with those rankings, but which is not a matter of discontinuity. And I think I like watching consistent fictional people not because I am like them, but because their dependability, the cleanliness of their consistency, anchors and comforts me in my own wild ups and downs. One of the great joys of fiction is that it can be neater than life; the best fiction either organizes the reader's emotions completely, I think, or just barely manages the messiness of reality. 

Agree? Disagree? In my inconstancy, I'm open to persuasion.

Finally, this essay also reminded me of this extraordinary version of "Both Sides Now" -- made famous in the Emma Thompson weeping scene in "Love, Actually" -- which almost makes me cry every time I hear it with its texture of pain and wisdom. It is worth stopping what you're doing to breathe and to listen:


  1. I'm good at guessing plots, so I especially enjoy being surprised in a way where the ending was inevitable (but I didn't see it coming). I love it when everything clicks into place.

  2. Oh, and I agree with your assessment of Abraham. By the time he's asked to sacrifice Isaac, Abraham has come to trust the providence of God. God Himself will provide, he said to Isaac.

  3. Cheryl, I just happened to pop onto Twitter and saw this link :) I was thinking the same thing about Abraham's consistency because I couldn't see why she considered him INconsistent.

    And Joni Mitchell is an amazing talent. I became a fan when I was young, back in the late 70s. I have the vinyls (all quite scratchy) of "Clouds," "Hejira," and the vinyls AND CDs of my favorites: "Blue," and "Court and Spark."

    Btw, 'cause you wouldn't know, I'm the one who helped you sell your WONderful book, SECOND SIGHT, at NJ SCBWI's 2011 Craft Day and enjoyed sitting by you at dinner. Kathy told me you finally discovered, in a pile of mail, the bookmarks I made you. I'm glad you liked them :) I made one for myself which resides in your book :) Thanks for the fantastic insight. I think all writers should own it!

  4. A perfect and fascinating choice to play this relatively recent version of BOTH SIDES NOW in a post about consistency. How amazing that Joni Mitchell could write that song when she was so young! A song that confesses a world-weariness that is utterly convincing. But how different it sounds in the lower, smoke-ravaged version of Joni Mitchell's voice, beautiful in its own way, but a completely different instrument than the one she used to command.

  5. If I could "like" Arthur's comment, I would, because it's exactly what I was thinking. And I agree with you about Abraham. I think that the key, in creating stories, is to allow a character's inner self to show through just enough that when the character does that seemingly incongruous thing, there is that flicker of recognition within the reader that at a fundamental level, this character's behavior makes sense. It's a tricky thing.