I’ve been continuing to chisel the hard, rewarding work of characterization. It’s fun and indulgent in short stories, but completely intimidating in poems. What unattractive, blinding personal choices resonate in 2,000 words must be compartmentalized like cute Pixar robots in a 250-word poem. I don’t believe that character can be thrown out because you have less verbosity to work with. If a poem follows a daffodil, how is that daffodil going to capture an audience? Remember the girl-lady I crafted from “Three Dinner Parties?” a few posts ago? If not, just understand that she was what Tom Hanks’ character in You’ve Got Mail would say “makes coffee nervous.” Then, a few social events later she is also completely liberated. This is one of those “ah-hah!” moments that finishes birthing a real human being in stanza’s clothing. By the grace of God, He’s helped me tap into a world of stunning and flawed relationships surrounded by pretty words. Poetry has always been about the beauty of the language, the melody, and musicality. What it truly does is create memorable nouns and timeless art. I’d love to see our generation leave a legacy of unkempt, ephemerally attractive masterpieces. This excludes shallow, fight-the-man reactionary poems. I’ve written those, and they smell like a paper mill. Moving on…
What else goes into wonderful characters? Believable motivation, acceptable mistake-making, likability, and a subtle power that reminds us we haven’t seen all of the virtues yet. Homer made Telemachus like his father, rash and righteous. The imprisoned albatross from Charles Baudelaire still has time to escape the trap and stretch his wings. Edna St. Vincent Millay’s creation in “God’s World” is horrible and unbelievable:
O world, I cannot hold thee close enough!
Thy winds, thy wide grey skies!
Thy mists that roll and rise!
Thy woods, this autumn day, that ache and sag
And all but cry with colour! That gaunt crag
To crush! To lift the lean of that black bluff!
World, World, I cannot get thee close enough!
Long have I known a glory in it all,
But never knew I this;
Here such a passion is
As stretcheth me apart. Lord, I do fear
Thou’st made the world too beautiful this year.
My soul is all but out of me, –let fall
No burning leaf; prithee, let no bird call.
Her heart breaks for the loveliness of creation, but it is still awkward and frightening. Can you visit a rocky crag without fear, or at least trepidation? I know many, myself included, that couldn’t.
What I’ve learned about creating good characters stems from reading them. Aside from learning them, the trick is to also practice them. A freelancer in Writer’s Digest suggests coming up with someone the complete opposite of you, and learning what would drive that person to complete an action. Would a seventy-year old Japanese sushi chef feel as inclined to impress colleagues as a twenty-nine year old American teacher? Maybe, but he would also apply his culture’s attitude on networking and his own personal psychology on goals in life. Drafting him would require reading some Japanese history, or better yet, making pen pals with that character in real time.
As paving the way for art usually does, it drums up the call to more fervently love others. Did that person just mind-slap you with a comment? Did your brother encourage a crush to go out with his friend from work? It won’t come up after death, so let it go. What will come after death is rich, authentic, personality-rich poetry. It’s worth swallowing the pride and laziness to chase that.