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DAVID CORBETT | The Elusive Stuff of Character

March 18, 2010

DAVID CORBETTDO THEY KNOW I'M RUNNINGDespite having written four novels and numerous stories, and teaching fiction at UCLA Extension, Book Passage and elsewhere, the whole notion of what makes a character compelling, or how to construct such a character, continues to feel like mercury in my palm.

Just when that inscrutable line is crossed, between a fully realized character and one not so fully realized, remains as enigmatic to me now as ever–perhaps more so.

Recently, I told a writer friend that I’ve come to use music more and more in my characterizations, sometimes thinking of characters as chords, or melodies, or allowing the timbre of a particular instrument to inspire an insight into their inner life.

If a chord inspires a character, it can be quite simple, a dyad or triad: straightforward, clear, with a distinct tonal character: A vigorous, optimistic soul for example (G major), or a fragile worrier (C sharp minor). Or the chord and character can assume more complexity as I probe quirks, secrets, miseries, joys, regrets, contradictions. The result here is more complicated, tonal clusters of stacked thirds, jarring minor seconds, sprawling ninths and elevenths, diminished sixths, augmented fourths. These too have a distinct tonal sense but it’s not easily discernible at first; the notes clash and resonate against each other, creating jarring or limpid harmonics.

In my most recent novel, Do They Know I’m Running?, I used a piano piece by Faure, a ballade I always associated with my father, to conjure for me the gentle inner life of an otherwise rustic Salvadoran truck driver, Tío Faustino. And the sly, sensitive protagonist, a budding guitar phenom named Roque, needed a blistering Santana solo to create a sense of the fire and hunger within him, of which even he is unaware as the story begins. His aunt, Tía Lucha, is a reedy woman who, not surprisingly, made me think of a clarinet, an instrument which, even at its most playful, retains a certain wistful tone of lamentation. And Godo, the marine who returns from Iraq both psychologically and physically damaged, found partial inspiration in the jarring, grinding, mocking intro to Control Machete’s Sí Señor.

This sense of an ensemble of sounds and tonalities helped me immeasurably as I put these characters in crisis: Just as Godo returns from Iraq in pieces, the family is hit with a second sforzando in the arrest and deportation of the family breadwinner, Tío Faustino. Because music exists in time, I was capable of allowing the original sense of these characters to change and morph as the action developed without altering their essential nature, in the same way a chord progression or a melody will unveil itself as a song unfolds.

But I’m a musical bird, and such formulations suit me. I can imagine someone else using colors or animals or trees or tarot symbols in much the same way. The trick is to conjure an image that stirs to life, and the willingness not to define it, explain it, figure it out, but to let it assume shape and form and sense on its own. There’s no small bit of magic involved, like a melody that rises up in the mind seemingly from nowhere–or, again, like mercury, quivering at my touch: shimmering, slippery, but substantial all the same.

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