In Search of Enduring Characters

By Francis H Powell

It is true for everybody that certain books and stories stay with us long after we have read them. Characters in books are mentioned in everyday life, take for example “Big Brother” by George Orwell. We live in a world dominated by many of Orwell’s visions and “Big Brother” has become emblematic of surveillance, ( I come from a country increasingly known as the “surveillance state,” there are up to 4.2m CCTV cameras in Britain – about one for every 14 people.)

Fears are spread through the media, the modern propaganda machine, resembling more and more Orwell’s 1984 world. The name “Big Brother” would normally indicate somebody who is “friendly” and supporting; that is what big brothers are supposed be like?

Another interesting aspect of “Big Brother” is that we don’t even know if he is for real or not. Interesting characters in literature are not clear cut, they are not all they seem, they are not one dimensional, but have many facets to them.

I like to create complex characters in my short stories. A man goes into his brother’s art studio and vandalizes all his brother’s masterpieces—total wanton vandalism apparently…However, later we discover he has reason to carry out such a drastic act. This story is called “Slashed” and is part of “Flight of Destiny.” The man Constanzi has lived in his brother’s shadow all his life. We learn that his brother, simply known as “Maestro,” has also taken from him the love of his life, one of many conquests made by Maestro, despite being married with five children. At face value what Constanzi does is abhorrent, (art vandalism is detestable) however, during the course of the story readers are led into re-evaluating both the brothers, including the much lauded Maestro.

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Cover for “Slashed”

As with the Big Brother character we have to question what is reality and what is not. This same questioning goes on in the mind of Patrick Bateman, the main character of American Psycho. This man is, on the one hand a clean living yuppie, but on the other hand a murderer; or contrary to this, perhaps the murders are just an insane delusion. This schizophrenic character, is used as a ploy to make the reader question what is reality and what is going on in the darkness of Bateman’s mind. Bateman has no strong personality to speak of, it is his imagination that has a richness, be it one of toxic evil.

Reality and paranoia get mixed up in the first story of my book. The story is called “Arrival.” A name pops into a man’s head, and he can’t place it. The name, Mr Weisler, becomes an obsession. Perhaps the crux of the story is when, the main character Branden Jay Houseman, believes that Mr Weisler is lodged in his stomach and then exits his stomach, in a manner not unlike the “creature popping from a man’s stomach” in the 1979 Alien film. We have to suppose that Branden’s imagination has gone wild, he is suffering a cruel hallucination. He simply has this absurd preoccupation with Weisler, who he fears is going to perform some terrible deed, steal his live-in-partner from him, for example. The story never genuinely introduces Weisler, he is a shadow.

arrival FINAL

Cover for “Arrival” — The task of placing a name, can be niggling, but what if this task becomes an obsession and the person behind the name a dark specter ?

Enduring characters are symbolic of a deeper point a writer is trying to make. In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest we find Nurse Rached, also known as “Big Nurse” – a name that mirrors the afore mentioned “Big Brother” and there are other similarities – as she is an oppressive and all-knowing authority. She does not commit a murder, her evil is more subtle, she is a cold-hearted machine, she uses divide and rule amongst the patients, as well as the strategic use of shame and guilt. We are governed and controlled in similar ways by the state. You could substitute Nurse Rached for Margaret Thatcher…The Louise Fletcher character in the film, seemed to have some Thatcher hallmarks, not a hair out of place, prim and proper, seemingly unruffled.

In my story “Gomford” there is a tyrannical priest called “The Reverend Salmon.” His authority is challenged when a young married woman moves into a remote village. The men of the village are overcome by her beauty and one by one they seduce her, only to be racked by guilt, following their illicit trysts behind her husband’s back. The men of the village go into a mass depression, the village is dying on its feet. The Reverend Salmon is forced to act. He has to break the young woman, before the village goes into a steeper decline. Again, at the end of the story we find out the priest is a flawed character, who has some dark shadows in his past.

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Cover for “Gomford”

Enduring characters are also often on a “mission.” They can be gifted, virtuous. Take Grenouille from the book Perfume. His virtuoso is that of smell; this gift leads him to do unspeakable crimes, in the pursuit of a creation of a master angelic perfume. He sets about robbing living things (beautiful virgins) of their smell. Here we have a character on a mission, his acts of evil are not just inane murders.

Writers need to build in a lot into their characters. It is often the psychological scars the characters have, the burdens they are carrying, that make them interesting. A “rampant slasher” on the loose may create a good story, but we need to know more, what is driving the character. Sometimes a writer can use ambiguity to his/her advantage…leave the reader to make up their minds about the character.

A hundred percent evil character is not particularly interesting. Even in real life many serial killers have something unusual about them; perhaps they themselves went through horrific childhoods. Great writers give their characters depth, and the reader is invited to go deeper and deeper.

Create a great enduring character and your character might be considered a “by-word” in the same way Orwell’s Big Brother is one for surveillance…many years down the line…


flight thumbThis article is written by Francis H Powell. With a degree in painting and an MA in printmaking, he is an artist, musician, writer, and video maker. He currently lives in France. Find Francis on his blog or on Twitter.

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Acknowledgements: This post is written by Francis H Pow more...

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