Saturday, January 7, 2017

When Characters Come to Life

While spending Christmas Eve and Christmas Day at the Abe Martin Lodge in Brown County, I was surprised to learn that the renowned tourist attraction is named for a character of fiction—a cartoon character to be precise. Hoosier artist Kin Hubbard conceived Abe Martin as a backwoods philosopher who commented on the political scene, family life, and a wide range of other topics with more candor than a proper editorial writer could have. You’ll find sketches of Abe and his cohorts all over the inn, as well as the nearby tourist haven of Nashville.
I wonder how many other states have named public works after characters of fiction. Indiana may be unique in that respect. Hubbard drew the character so clearly and expressed his opinions so winsomely that Hoosiers now give old “Abe” as much deference as a real person.
While there, I read the autobiography of Anthony Trollope, a 19th century British satirist who is best known for the Barsetshire Chronicles, a series about the foibles of clergy in an imaginary Anglican parish. Trollope says that the series “failed altogether in the purport for which it was intended” (i.e., to end a system that allowed clerics to use endowments for the poor to feather their own nests). “But it has a merit of its own… The characters of the bishop, of the archdeacon, of the archdeacon’s wife, and especially of the warden, are all well and clearly drawn. I had realized to myself a series of portraits, and had been able so to put them on canvas that my readers should see that which I meant them to see. There is no gift which an author can have more useful to him than this.”
Most of Trollope’s work is now forgotten, but the Barsetshire Chronicles remain in print and became the basis of a “Masterpiece Theater” series by PBS some years ago. These characters still live in the imagination of millions of readers and TV viewers.
How do such characters “come alive”? In these blog posts, we talk a good deal about the techniques for evoking them, but notice Trollope’s comment about how his characters began to take shape: “I had realized to myself a series of portraits,” he says. He visualized each of them as vividly as if he were standing before their portraits, studying every eyelash and wrinkle with appreciation. Only when he saw them in his imagination did he “put them on canvas” so that readers could see them as well.
Do you see your characters that clearly? In Trollope’s opinion, it's the most useful gift an author can have.

Joe Allison has been a member of the Indiana Chapter of American Christian Fiction Writers since 2010. He lives in Anderson, IN. His non-fiction books include Setting Goals That Count and Swords and Whetstones.