We have so much politics here in Washington that it slops and spills over where you wouldn’t expect it, like freakish levels of security in places that seem about as political as a Walmart. It’s what we do here. If you’re not wearing a plastic badge with your photo on it, you’re obviously not employed.
One place the focus on politics has shown up here in in the name of a very popular bookstore called Politics and Prose. When I first heard of it I figured it must be a political bookstore with books on American foreign policy in Indochina in the 1950s. Or something.
In fact, it’s just a normal independent bookstore (or maybe not normal, as it seems to be staying in business). Downstairs there is a large children’s section—maybe they’re political children—and upstairs is a wide space filled with books, and on frequent occasions the staff will clear a space, set out chairs, and let some writer be wise if possible, or at least try to seem human.
On Monday I braved the evening traffic to the bookstore, as I wanted to hear a writer who has done a new biography of Winston Churchill. Instead, a different writer showed up, so I listened to him instead. This was James Wood, and according to Wikipedia, he was born in Durham, England, where I once saw an interesting cathedral. James Wood (not James Woods—when you make him plural he’s an actor) is a critic who writes for The New Yorker.
Mr. Wood read us an essay about the idea of collecting huge personal libraries, and what such a library might mean in various ways. One thing it means is when you die, what do other people do with all those books they don’t want? After the reading, he took questions, and in the course of answering them, while talking about what happens in a piece of writing, he used the phrase “the mystery of character”.
I wondered just what he meant by that. I intended to go up afterward and ask him, but then I saw a line forming for people to get books signed, and I realized that even if I stood in line with no book, a normal conversation would hardly be possible. So I came home.
I don’t know what James Wood meant by that phrase, but it could mean the mystery of how the right words on a page make people begin to imagine someone who doesn’t really exist, to the point that in some cases, in some mysterious way, the literary character does exist. Even before the movies, didn’t Harry Potter seem real to a lot of people? How many people suffered with Dr. Zhivago as they read the book, because he was a real person to them?
For me as a writer, part of the mystery is not just that this can happen, but how to make it happen. For the kind of writing I do, trying to have “real” characters is extremely important. When we first introduce a character, there is never a fully developed person there, but this is true of live human beings as well. When we meet someone, they present us with the potential of what they might be if we get to know them, but we don’t know them yet.
For a literary character, if I say a man walked into the laundromat and sat down, that he was tall and thin and wore a cowboy hat, I have five elements that start to lean in a particular direction—the setting (which implies that he must not be rich or famous), the fact that the character is male, tall, and thin (these imply things about what he might do or could have done), and the cowboy hat, which of course carries certain cultural expectations.
And yet still there is almost nothing there. If we could talk to this guy, we might learn that he took two college classes, then dropped out to play in a band. We might somehow learn that he hates turkey, so Thanksgiving is not his favorite holiday. So now we have a slightly more filled out character, but still, a human being is so much more.
Let’s try taking him to a bar, and after a few beers maybe we’ll learn that he used to be in love with a girl named Bridget, but she wanted more stability than a traveling musician could provide, and now he doesn’t even know where she lives. And maybe he’ll tell us that in high school he wanted to play basketball, but he hurt his foot and couldn’t play. Then we recall that on the way to the bar, he was limping slightly.
And knowing his name is Roscoe, is he now a real character? But how would we ever know that sometimes at night he wakes up and is scared, and wonders if he will live until his next birthday, even though he has no reason to feel that way?
Part of the mystery of character, perhaps, is that a writer can choose words to go in literally a million directions. A woman named Amrita, wearing a green sari in a village in India, remembers songs her mother would sing in Bengali. Amrita thinks of this as she walks into a store to buy tumeric for a wedding ceremony for her brother.
This is certainly nothing Roscoe could relate to. But part of the mystery of character is to find what makes people human. Because Amrita also wakes up at night afraid, wondering how long she will live.
For me as a writer, however, creating a real character is so much more complicated than I’ve just illustrated. No matter how many facts I pile up, the character remains abstract for me. Only when I see them move and hear them speak do they come alive and turn real for me.
“Do you think it’s gonna rain?” Roscoe asks. He leans toward the window and frowns a little as he looks out. “I wore the shoes that have a hole in the bottom. I hate wet feet.” He turns back toward me, still frowning, then smiles.