Thursday, December 29, 2011

mythic characters

An interesting article, "The Absence of Their Presence: Mythic Characters in Fiction," by Steven Schwartz, appears in The Writer's Chronicle, Dec. 2011. Schwartz shows how developing a mythic character in a fiction piece requires some attention to the use of the point of view (POV) chosen to narrate the story. A basic concept is a need to stay out of the head of the mythic character. The reader gets to know him or her only through dialog and action, and through reports of the story narrator. Even in a third-person, omniscient POV, the narrator should not move into the head of the mythic character to show any of his feelings or thought process.

"What might seem less than more at first--an external perspective versus an internal view--turns out to be the necessary narrative device for creating their unique myths.
Using "Moby Dick" Schwartz illustrate's his point:
"With more conventional characters we may feel cheated when their motivations remain opaque, and their psyches, like Ahab's, ultimately unknowable. But we do not make the same demands of mythic characters, often because the prearranged audience in the story reflects our own bafflement. By their surrogate reactions and scrutiny, they preempt our silent protests. That is, we need (the POV narrator) to act as our agent of disbelief..." and, "...we may clearly see what (the mythic character) do(es), but not why, and it's the why that creates a chilling gap of suspense."

Of course the mythic character has to present actions and dialog that elicit a tension and bafflement which grow to suspense. Often appearing as an outsider, with abnormal behavior, the writer should avoid having the observer-narrator explain away the mythic character's motivations, and "never minimize the complexity nor the significance of the strange."

Schwartz explores the mythic dimensions of Jay Gatsby, in Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby," and of Bartleby, in Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener." I've read and enjoyed Gatsby, though he doesn't quite hold a mythic dimension for me. Still, we are never invited into Gatsby's head to discover what he really feels about his experience, and we have only Nick Carraway's first-person POV for a subjective opinion on Gatsby. Gatsby is an outsider in his society, but never really seems to show a strange or abnormal behavior. Bartleby, however, does seem to show such behavior, and in abundance.

Schwartz uses a Steven Millhauser short story, "The Knife Thrower," to illustrate other points about writing the mythical character. Interestingly, Millhauser uses the plural first-person, we, to serve as both narrator and audience watching the controversial knife thrower, Hensch, as he visits their town for a one-time performance. The narrator alludes to rumors that Hensch, in his early carnival days, had badly wounded an assistant. Now, the narrative leaves open a possibility that Hensch in his present performance mortally wounds an audience volunteer, a girl, who had wished to be marked by him. Schwartz discusses the story's use of the first person plural POV:

"All of which makes for a strangely normative viewpoint that in its plurality gives additional weight to its judgment of Hensch. On the other hand, this impersonal "we" relies on rumor and hearsay and is even more incapable of penetrating Hensch''s mystery than an individual observer-narrator such as Nick Carraway ... would be in gaining confidences, creating an extra layer of insulation from the subject. And Millhauser clearly wants it that way to promote the morally ambiguous atmosphere and mythic tone...

"At the conclusion of "The Knife Thrower," illustrating the elusive nature of the mythic, the collective viewpoint voices its frustration. The more we thought about it, the more uneasy we became, and in the nights that followed, when we woke from troubling dreams, we remembered the traveling knife thrower with agitation and dismay. This could well stand as a summary of all mythic characters. Fascinatingly inconclusive, they trick us into remembering them by the absence of their presence."

Creating a mythic character may be quite a challenge.

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