On Character

A "Notorious RBG" exhibit is currently being held in ...
The Notorious RBG

I’ve been thinking about characters and characterization, about the way a writer can build and populate their work with ink and paper people. About the tricks we use to make those people real for our readers.

The foibles that need to be imbedded in them, the lexicons we design for them, the archetypes we use and abuse. The gritty cop, the plucky protagonist, the idealist, the best friend, the bitch.

We’ve all seen these characters in books and film.

I’ve written versions of all of them, several appear in the novel I just published. I’d like to say that those characters were written faultlessly; that they feel real rather than like facsimiles, but the truth is I’m not sure.

I haven’t re-read my own novel in over a year, and its been almost five years since the first draft of that story came out of my keyboard.

I’ve hundreds of pages and hundreds of thousands of words worth of practice crafting story and character since The Adventures of Dogg Girl and Sidekick.

Were I to write it today, how different would my characters be? What nuance would be used to draw their actions, reactions, conversations and confrontations? How would that nuance change the story, the arcs that I’ve set them on that (hopefully) continue past the final page of the book.

What prospective futures do they look to?

I’ve been thinking about this, about the building of fictional characters, as my country moves through the early stages of vetting our next Supreme Court Justice.

I’ve been thinking about this and considering the characterization of the legendary woman whose vacancy my Congress is currently attempting to fill.

I have never lived in a world without Justice Ruth Bader-Ginsberg fighting for my rights.

The Notorious RBG was nominated to the Supreme Court less than a week after I was born in the summer of 1993, she was confirmed less than two months later with near unanimous approval.

 Scholar, activist, professor, lawyer, wife & mother, tireless fighter for the underdog, whoever the underdog was, icon and subject of multiple documentaries, an excellent biopic, and delightfully portrayed by Kate McKinnon on SNL…

If RBG had never existed, or I never heard her name, and wrote a character with all these characteristics, so universally beloved and multifaceted, an editor would tell me with red ink that it was too much.

That I need to simplify my characterization. Round her rough edges, make her a little softer and smoother.

That Justice Ginsberg was unrealistic.

And she was, wasn’t she?

One of a handful of female law students in her class, she completed both her own course work while simultaneously attending her husband’s classes and taking lecture notes for him as he battled testicular cancer in a time when the recovery rate was miniscule.

She co-founded the Women’s Rights Project within the ACLU pursued legal equality for women by choosing cases that took on targeted discrimination in American law, dismantling legal barriers by pieces rather than sweeping changes.

She became a member of the US Court of Appeals for DC under Carter, a position she held for over a decade. A position she relinquished only to join the Supreme Court.

Only the second woman to sit of the Supreme Court, and one of only four women to sit on the Court in its 230-year history.

She was unrealistic.

She was born into a world that didn’t suit her, so she changed it.

She made it better.

As a novelist, I approve of her character arc. I like the way we can look back on her life today and see steady, fierce progress, even knowing that at the time it likely did not feel that way to the woman living it.

Maybe someday I’ll be able to write characters as compelling as her.

I’m still trying to figure out how to live in a world where an iron wall of a woman isn’t sitting on the highest court of my country actively defending my rights.

I’m still trying to figure out how to write my characters into real people.

They’re both going to be long processes.

Nevertheless, we persist.

Chase thunder lovelies,

JdB

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