Thursday, March 12, 2009

Richard Ford on Characters, Novels

At Bookforum, Richard Ford reflects on his Frank Bascombe novels. I particularly like this passage from his essay:

In nearly forty years of writing stories of varying lengths and shapes and, in the process, making up quite a large number of characters, I’ve always tried to abide by E. M. Forster’s famous dictum from Aspects of the Novel that says fictional characters should possess “the incalculability of life.” To me, this means that characters in novels (the ones we read and the ones we write) should be as variegated and vivid of detail and as hard to predict and to make generalizations about as the people we actually meet every day. This incalculability would seem to have the effect of drawing us curiously nearer to characters in order to get a better, more discerning look at them, inasmuch as characters are usually the principal formal features by which fiction gets its many points across. These vivid, surprising details—themselves well rendered in language—will, indeed, be their own source of illuminating pleasure. And the whole complex process will eventuate in our ability to be more interested in the characters, as well as in those real people we meet outside the book’s covers. In my view, this is why almost all novels— even the darkest ones—are fundamentally optimistic in nature: because they confirm that complex human life is a fit subject for our interest; and they presume a future where they’ll be read, their virtues savored, their lessons put into practice.

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