Samuel Johnson, the famous dictionary writer and great essayist of the 18th century, taught me something about character last month.
He was such a character himself, constantly examining his own and other people’s fallibilities, self-deceptions and rationalizations. He spent his entire life learning to repent of his sins, compensate for his failures and organize his chaotic thoughts. No one, including himself, could imagine this ugly almost blind child who could hardly control his emotion as a success in any profession. Indeed he was never given credit publicly in his youth or manhood for his actual accomplishments. He wrote political speeches, articles in newspapers, poems—whatever would allow him to eat. He was the perfect candidate to be persuaded to solve his problems with violence like a present-day young man who feels alienated from society.
Despite his physical and emotional disabilities, he debated incessantly with himself and his intellectual and artistic acquaintances, a veritable “ratpack” of the times in London, about the challenges of life. Johnson reached many a conclusion that he happily talked himself out of by changing sides in an argument for the fun of it. Thinking deeply about the complexities of attitudes, varying solutions to problems and evaluation of actions delighted him and eventually changed him.
As he matured, and the work on his dictionary became known, he finally began to earn respect from the English-speaking world, and the many moral discussions he ignited for his generation became appreciated. He conquered his ancient envy of other people’s accomplishments, concluding that his worst sin was his pride in his abilities. What an admirable man he was, to be able to change. Impeccable honesty and self-examination drove him to re-arrange his thoughts and reactions to circumstances. David Brooks said in his recent book (2015), The Road to Character that Johnson wrote himself to virtue.
So what has this taught me about writing? Our heroes, our heroines and our villains all have weaknesses, flaws that they must conquer, or at least realize, in order to change. In romances this means change that ensures an HEA ending.
Samuel Johnson wrote many an essay, and had many a conversation about particular sins such as envy, greed, sloth, dishonesty, betrayal, fear, cowardice, guilt, shame, idleness, vanity, lust, gluttony, depression, masochism, sadism—and the list goes on. In one essay Johnson said, “To strive with difficulties, and so to conquer them, is the highest human felicity. The next is to strive and deserve to conquer, but he who has passed without contest, and who can boast neither success nor merit can survey himself only as a useless filler of existence.”
Wow. My, my. Neither should we ourselves, NOR OUR FICTIONAL CHARACTERS, be useless fillers of existence.
Johnson served his readers and himself. He said, “It is always the writer’s duty to make the world better.” As David Brooks explains it, Johnson thought that literature gives new experiences to the reader. Literature can instruct through pleasure. A deficiency in a character becomes an incentive to perfect a skill. The hero becomes stronger at his weakest point. It is not that virtue conquers vice, but that virtue learns to live with vice in this complicated world.
Therefore, we as novelists choose the foibles of our characters, and make them change through the events in the story, in order to make them better and to possibly make the world better by changing our readers. The stronger we make the emotions and the arguments involved the greater effect on our readers. A good strategy is to make the weaknesses of the hero different from those of the heroine so that the two can come to understand and help each other. Villains are more villainous according to how they fight change. This is our duty as writers, to avoid creating boring “useless fillers of existence.”
Another interesting coda I will add to our duty as writers: As you choose a fictional character’s virtues and weaknesses, you are revealing your own weaknesses. As your character learns, perhaps your own self-examination will begin.
I wish you luck, and the pleasure of righteousness.
** Submitted by SSRA Member, Carol J. Megge , December 19, 2015
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