I was listening to an NPR show one morning on the way to the lab, (a rerun, surely) and they were talking about books, interesting characters, the psychology of loss, and Scrooge. I never got the name of the show, but it had a varied and almost dissonant cast of professionals, including a psychologist, a book reviewer, and the host, among others. If I hadn’t been driving I’d have taken notes, but it’s a long winding country road to the lab, and so I didn’t. What I did was let the ideas being tossed around by the guests ferment in my brain and combine with the thoughts from the post that I wrote on the 6th about Chaos and Order. This could be part two. Or not. We’ll see how it plays out.
In the previous post I said that: Order without chaos is entropy, and entropy is death. That led us back to my usual posit that the best characters are broken, and the more broken they are the better the character and the more memorable the character. Not everyone agreed with my conclusion that every good character is broken. NPR said I was right. (cue happy music) I don’t get to be right often, and certainly don’t get any potential rightness to be affirmed by NPR—a media that generally looks down on all genre books, all genre writers, and all genre readers. I have been in a jolly mood ever since, let me say.
As I remember it, the psychologist and the reviewer were talking about loss and how only the best characters, and the strongest (real life) human beings accept and deal with loss. And they got to talking about Scrooge as the ideal vision of characters and humans and loss. Yes, they were talking about the Ebenezer Scrooge from the Charles Dickens’ play written in 1843, A Christmas Carol.
In the play, (movies, films, animations, etc. for the last 170+ years) Scrooge is always depicted as: a skinflint, a cold, hard, unyielding, self-made man, one who did it all his way, one with no regrets, one who fears nothing and no one, one who is totally self-satisfied, one who needs nothing, and most important for this post—one who is NOT broken.
The reviewer’s and the psychologist’s take on it was that Scrooge was in reality (or in fictionality) ultimately, truly, and totally broken. He just didn’t know it. Which made me go “Ahhhhh!”
The entire story of Scrooge’s change into a good kind human being, was dependent upon his acceptance of his brokenness and loss. He was forced to face his own emptiness, his loss of family, love, wife, potential children, joy, friends, hope, and community. It was his acceptance of his loss that made Scrooge evolve and develop and that made the play one that we still watch (and dissect) today.
Their conclusion made me look at a couple of characters from literature in a different way—based on the characters not knowing they are broken, and based on the readers (initially) not knowing that the character is broken.
I went back to The Red Badge of Courage and Moby Dick. In Red Badge, Henry is this naïve, idealistic character who thinks he understands what war is, a man who intends to seek honor in battle, though he’s never seen battle at all. The story not only breaks him, it reveals the cracks in his character that made him broken in the first place. Then it rebuilds him (develops him) into a character of worth and value of what it means to be a man.
In Moby Dick, Captain Ahab suffers from a major fatal flaw. Like Scrooge he believes he is perfect. The critic M. H. Abrams says that Ahab (and similar heroes) “moves us to pity because, since he is not an evil man, his misfortune is greater than he deserves; but he moves us also to fear, because we recognize similar possibilities of error in our own lesser and fallible selves.” Ahab was broken inside because of his self-confidence and hubris long before he came up against Moby Dick and (whom he considered the embodiment of evil).
So. What do I draw from this? That every decent character is broken somehow. Except for the Mary Janes and Mary Sues of the of literary world. And that they are useless for a writer, simply because they aren’t broken. We need brokenness. Even if it is only a chink in the armor that the writer can hammer away at to reveal the deeper weaknesses inside.
If you want to jump in here and argue, please do. I’d love to see some memorable not-broken characters. (Dorothy from Oz, anyone? Yes, I can find a brokenness in her!) Or you can offer up some broken characters from *literature*. Now’s your chance.