In/On Character

One phrase or oft-repeated concept that a writer might see on agents’ websites is that they are looking for character-driven fiction or strong characters. We might comment on someone we know who has a lot of quirks and a colorful personality as “a real character.” Children (both old and young!) love fantasy and mythological novels and media such as Harry Potter or The Game of Thrones because they delight in the archetypes and gods and goddesses and wizards and mythical figures that we do not see today in our very prosaic, pragmatic world. Someone might dismiss a novel as boring because of flat characters, or find a Hollywood blockbuster dull because the characters are nothing unique. In the opera world, we have to play a character and draw upon a number of conventions, as well as what the music indicates. Actors have to create a character without the tool of music, generate an entire human being who is separate from oneself, but that still draws upon him or herself. An icebreaker question at parties or literary events might often be, “Who is your favorite character from a book or movie?”

Why are we obsessed with characters, and take them so seriously? Why do some people hate a novel because the protagonist is “not nice” or unlikable? Why is there a whole industry of costumes and paraphernalia for us to purchase to dress up in for Halloween or other events? Why do some irrational fans detest an actor or actress personally, when he/she is merely playing a role? Why do virtually all religious traditions have sacred stories With characters of great religious figures that we refer to even thousands of years later? What does all of this mean?

Character gives us a starting point, someone to identify with and therefore we can launch the narrative. Many literary theorists would say that characters drive plot, or that plot really is just characters and what happens to them. We become attached to a character and go on a journey with them. I think roundness of character relates a lot to specificity. Nobody is one-dimensional, and what endears us to people is their quirks and various facets. How do they react in different situations? Because no two people will react in the same way to the same stimulus.

On the page, someone who is unique will grip our attention rather than “someone we have heard of before.” In highly plot-driven fiction, there is the danger of characters being flat, because they are there to serve the story’s (and therefore, the author’s) mission. Conversely, in literary fiction, plots can lag because nothing really happens, but we get a sense of real, rounded people. The best writers accomplish both. This is not an easy task, because creating complex characters is in itself an art, and then creating a strong narrative arc is also a challenge. In my work on literary retellings in the last semester of my MFA program at Warren Wilson, I found that the most successful retellings drew upon characters and themes from the original Urtext, so to speak, but fleshed them out or were able to take on a new life of their own in the retelling. John Updike and Jean Rhys were both successful in this regard with their novels Gertrude and Claudius and Wide Sargasso Sea, respectively.

In opera, as an emerging professional soprano, I am learning the importance of committing to character. This is a greater challenge than it is in straight acting, for we have the additional layer of music. To create the music ourselves, from our body, takes a tremendous amount of technical mastery and attention. The integration of character and music takes time. The majority of opera performed today, the arias we learn, are from much earlier historic times and from Europe. Therefore as American singers, we have arguably extra work with imagination and understanding the literary conceptions from earlier times. And, just as in straight acting, we are often playing or inhabiting characters that are very different from ourselves, And we must make that leap to completely immerse herself in character and lose all self-consciousness, which is the enemy of creating character in performance.

Literature and acting are two of our oldest creative impulses as human beings. We observe and we re-create. We like to tell stories, and any individual who jumps out at us as unique makes for an interesting character. We also like to observe and have the innate faculty of seeing and reflecting. As long as there are human beings, as long as we are social beings who interact with each other, there will be the phenomenon of character. And we wouldn’t want it any other way.

Hamlet Redux

(This post is adapted from an analytical journal entry I wrote this semester for my MFA program.)

We know John Updike from his Rabbit series (Rabbit, Run, Rabbit Redux, and the subsequent two novels and novella) and for his chronicling of suburban life. But one of his later works is a masterpiece, a prequel to Shakespeare’s Hamlet called Gertrude and Claudius. At the intersection of historical fiction and a retelling, the novel gives us the backstory to the play, and puts a unique feminist spin on it.

A major concept I have hit upon in my analyses of retellings is the idea of a “hinge.” In all of the retellings I have looked at, there is some element that connects the old work to the new one, some sort of a hinge. Very frequently, it is plot points, and almost inevitably, characters. But sometimes there are other elements that connect the retelling and the classic. Sometimes it is language or phrases, the use of diction. The novel makes frequent use of that, and the author adopts a very old-fashioned tone that seems fitting for Shakespeare.

Gertrude and Claudius is a masterwork that stands on its own as a successful “retelling” of  Hamlet. Structured in three parts, the novel is a prequel to Shakespeare’s play. It focuses on the backstory of two crucial characters, Hamlet’s mother Gertrude and his uncle-turned-stepfather Claudius. I have examined a number of retellings: how they function, how they are crafted, how they work. What strikes me so saliently about this novel is it is a retelling heavily built on character. Of course, this is only natural, given that it is a prequel; it cannot borrow the same plot as the original. But what the novel does so brilliantly is flesh out to key characters in Hamlet and show us their motivations for doing what they have done. This is not to say that there are not some overlapping plot points, especially at the ends of Part II and in Part III. But giving us the backstory of characters who have caused or triggered Hamlet’s grief makes the play so much more vivid. Showing us the actual murder scene with Claudius poisoning his brother is very satisfying, as we it learn only by hearsay in the play. Therefore, Hamlet is the aftermath of the novel, and it makes full sense when we know what evil machinations have happened before.

One of Updike’s motivations for writing the novel is to give the female character some agency. In general, Shakespeare’s plays heavily emphasize men; Hamlet is no exception. Gertrude is not a minor character, but she is not necessarily given her full due. In the play, she is a wife and mother. She is second to the men, and seems at times passive, an innocent victim, helpless in the sway of the powerful king, or too weak to stand up to her son. Gertrude and Claudius gives us the chance to see Gertrude as a key agent in her destiny and in the outcome that will happen in Hamlet. The title itself is a giveaway–she is included in the title and given top billing. Therefore, we can assume that Updike is taking a rather feminist angle upon retelling Hamlet. The presence of Ophelia also represents Updike’s woman-centered retelling.

Updike has essentially constructed the novel so that Parts I and II culminate in Part III, as any good novel should. Everything in the novel has been building up to the end. But what is especially brilliant is that Part III is building up to the play, so everything at the end of the novel will culminate in the actions of the play. “[Hamlet] was letting it be known that he resented his mother’s swift capitulation to his uncle’s suit.” Just before the end, we get the beginning of the play, where the watchmen see the ghost of the King. “It was rumored that battlement sentries on the midnight watch had been seeing an apparition in full armor.”

But the ending of the book belongs to Claudius: he has married his queen, he has been crowned, he has summoned Hamlet back to Denmark to train him to be the next King, and therefore has established his dynasty. Updike himself has lined up all the ducks, so to speak, in his novel, so that the play can shoot them all down. All of our expectations for a successful reign will be threatened by the vengeant Prince. The play is his story.

Foreshadowing is frequently used to hinge the two works: Updike is connecting us through the sense of doom. Also, there are frequent biblical allusions, especially to the Garden of Eden and snakes. The novel is also very much historical fiction, drawing on details of conquests and kingdoms. The sense of the past is palpable; we could truly imagine this love affair and murder happening as part of Danish royal history.

But none of these craft elements would matter, none of this analysis would hold any relevance if it were not for the fact that Gertrude and Claudius is just incredibly well written and a pleasure to read. We read the classics because they know they are time-tested and will please us. Hopefully the retellings should as well.