Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Toward an Enlightened Aesthetic 4: Fictional Characters

Today I read an article about writing by novelist Dan Barden.  He says we novelists need to create characters in conflict because it is only through struggle that characters grow.  And I'm wondering, from the standpoint of Eastern spirituality, what is growth?

One approach is to show a character's growth as linear: a character responds to an unpleasant situation, and as a result of having to learn how to deal with this type of situation, the character learns something important -- about himself or maybe about other people -- that makes him a better person.

And I think most readers would say that a character "grows" when he or she becomes a better person.  That's not too bad a definition.  But what if the ultimate goal is not just becoming a better person in relative terms but realizing one's true nature as consciousness, as that which doesn't move but within which all movement happens?  Maybe a character who realizes this is not even the same "character" as before she realized it. A character, after all, is by definition limited by certain qualities he does or doesn't possess.  And so, if the character's consciousness is completely transformed, is it still the same character?

I would classify a novel that demonstrates what I am trying to describe here as "Enlightenment Fiction":  A character is in a difficult situation and can't find an exit, and perhaps after many efforts, is finally graced with the ability to see everything from the standpoint of the whole, from the standpoint that is in fact no standpoint.  Compassion would arise, then, not simply because the character has learned to emphasize but because she no longer sees her own story as the central one.  And if she no longer sees herself in those terms, isn't it also necessary that the reader's view shift as well? 

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