Outside books, we avoid colorful characters.
Characters drive fiction. As Faulkner said, we create them, then “just run along after them and put down what they say and do.”
Today I thought to talk not about heroes and villains – the archetypes that form the moral (or immoral) heart of a tale – but about the supporting and cameo players who are like diamond chips, reflecting all about them.
More than short stories, novels lend themselves to these flashes of light and color. The scope of a novel, even if not epic, almost demands supernumeraries as flesh upon bones. Think of the multitudes inhabiting Shakespeare, Dickens, Hugo, Austen, and Twain – each so alive you could pick them out in Grand Central Station at rush hour.
“Hamlet”’s gravedigger, the porter in “Macbeth,” Bumble the Beadle, Wilkins Micawber, Mr. and Mrs. Palmer, Azelma Threnardier, Sid…
When I was a little girl (a very, very long time ago), I used to love learning new, really big words like ‘discombobulate’. As I grew, my love of words grew too, until I loved them so much, I could not stop writing them down.
One day, as I was scribbling a particular word, a very peculiar thing happened. The word shouted at me, “Stop! Don’t put me there!” As you can imagine, I was shocked and nearly fell off my chair. When I recovered somewhat, I said to the word, “Could you stop shouting, please? I am not used to it.”
Can you guess what happened next? No! I thought not. The word said, “I might be small, but I will misbehave if you do not use me properly. I will not tell the story you would like me to tell. I will say something entirely different!”
I dropped my pen. I hoped that by dropping my pen, the word would stop talking. Alas! It did not. It carried on chitterchobbling, even after the ink had dried. I was in a pickle. I could not allow my words to run away with my story, now could I?
I don’t know about you, but when this sort of thing happens, there is only one thing left to do if you prefer not to spend your time arguing. “Very well,” said I. “I will do as you ask if you will just be quiet and allow me to concentrate.”
Since that day, I have been paying special attention to every word I invite into my stories. After all, a story should say exactly what it means to say and not be led astray.
With love from Dr. Niamh,
Ph.D in Learning Through The Imagination and Founder of Dr Niamh Children's Books. www.drniamhchildrensbooks.com