"The characters in my novels are my own unrealized possibilities. That is why I am equally fond of them all and equally horrified by them. Each one has crossed a border that I myself have circumvented. It is that crossed border [the border beyond which my own "I" ends] that attracts me most. For beyond that border begins the secret the novel asks about. The novel is not the author's confession; it is an investigation of human life in the trap the world has become." -- Milan Kundera from The Unbearable Lightness of Being
I understand completely what Kundera is saying here. For me, my characters are a way of exploring the big “What if?” They allow me to bend time and space and logic. They allow me to investigate the philosophical conundrums of life, and they allow me to do it outside of my own “I.” They allow me to indulge the darkness and expand and exaggerate my own idiosyncratic view of humanity. I can take an existential theory and push it to excess, push it beyond mere obsession, push it into that dark place where every human thought and action is sublime and grotesque at the same time. I can give them the superhuman ability to endure and the enlightenment to rise above their own mortal reasoning.
For me, my characters are the embodiment of an idea: its knowledge, its feeling, its concepts, and its truth. In order to do this, I must first understand the idea, and in order to understand anything, I must tear it apart: deconstruct it down to its intrinsic elements. Then, and only then, can I not only see but also embrace its extremes. Eventually, while exploring these extremes, I inevitably stumble across something dark. Now, I am no vulgar ghoul. I desire a happy ending and sympathetic characters as much as the next person, but I cannot let my mind find itself lost amongst folly so much so that I deceive myself and forsake the truth. The darker extremes of humanity -- the unsympathetic characters -- make for compelling art, for they invoke emotion at its deepest, basest levels, and that depth of emotion creates profound impact. Whether the characters be vile and depraved or ethereal in nature is really irrelevant. Pushing the boundaries of the extreme with my characters allows me to experience the emotion wholly, unrestrained by fears and beliefs, unrestrained by my "I". Would we fully appreciate the warmth of a sunny day had we not reluctantly savoured the savagery of a stormy night? By that logic, all things in life, especially human emotion, have an extreme duality: a dark and a light. With my characters, I seek to embrace that philosophy by exploring those extremes of human emotion—its treachery—and that is the “what if” I attempt to answer with my characters.
Some of my characters and their motivations may disturb the reader to the point of revulsion, but sometimes it is necessary to push beyond the boundaries of an idea in order to achieve clarity of emotion, an understanding of its duality: tenderness and violence, trust and betrayal, sacrifice, triumph and suffering. We instinctively fear certain aspects of human nature, aspects that appear base, almost monstrous, and that is why when we are confronted with them, in life as well as in art and literature, we recoil violently. We resist our need to understand them. There is no less stress for a reader to read the darkness than it is for the writer to write it. There are no radiant princesses in my stories, no heroes no heroines, no knights in shining armour, and no divine intervention. My characters are, in actuality, studies in truth however abstract they may seem. The characters presented in my stories are very, very human—including the immortals—, and to me they are flawed, pathetic, and monumentally beautiful even in their moments of madness. They suffer beautifully, torturing themselves and each other, and by consequence, saving each other and their own souls. In their moments of enlightenment, I seek to expose the dichotomy of the human condition, the divide between thought and action, between reason and indulgence, and between death and sensuality.
Sure, every single one of my characters starts with a bit of me at the center, one aspect of my “ID” if you will, and so my stories revolve around the idea of “what if” this character lived and breathed by that bit of “id” in the extreme. How would they live? How would they justify their actions? How would they, could they, achieve enlightenment in that state of obsessive being. Can they endure and survive themselves in a world that they, by their own choices, denials, and refusals, have turned into a trap?
So to say that a character is a direct reflection of the author would be an egregious misstep. Even if it’s a first person narrative, the character the author has created has -- if the author was careful with their explorations -- moved well beyond the “I” of the author’s nature. Those are the characters I want to read as well and will be reviewing one such book next week, so stay tuned.
The Art this week is "The Silence" by Johann Heinrich Fussli 1799-1801
Cheryl Anne Gardner