Mark Terry

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Characterization, Part 4

February 19, 2009
The other day, Million Monkeys had a post about backstory. A couple of us got into a discussion/digression about how much of what you know about your character ends up on the page.

The conclusion: a lot less than you know.

The example Jon provides is our favorite aged wizard, Albus Dumbledore, who JK Rowling outed a year or so ago in an interview. God only knows what the question was, but she commented that she'd always thought of Dumbledore as being gay. The media, which apparently had nothing better to do, went a little nuts over this.

I rolled my eyes, wondering why she'd said it. Was she being honest or did she think a statement like that would create a little more furor over the books, which were already plenty popular.

I also thought, "Well, she would know, wouldn't she?"

Now, just last week I finished re-reading "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince." Starting last summer I've been re-reading all the HP books in order and, as you can see, I've got one more to go

Nowhere in these books is Dumbledore's sexuality in question, hetero, homo or any other variety. Partly this is due to the fact that, for the most part, the HP novels are told from the point of view of Harry Potter. In the first book Harry's 11 and by the end he's what, 17? 

When I bother to muse over this question at all, I would note that except for the students in the later books, the faculty of Hogwarts seems made up of nursing home fodder. The only bit of romance suggested among faculty is between Hagrid and Madame Maxime. (And has anyone bothered to even remotely think about the sexual logistics of Hagrid's parents, a giantess and a muggle father? Okay, don't go there). In Half-Blood Prince, Harry and Hermione do briefly speculate whether the school's librarian had a thing going with the school's caretaker, Mr. Filch. But aside from that, there's no mention of Dumbledore's love life, previous relationships, current relationships or sexual proclivities. Neither is there similar mention of such things with McGonaggal, Flitwick, Sinistra, Sprout, Slughorn, Mad-Eye Moody, Umbrage (although she's clearly got an infatuation with Fudge) or the divination professor whose name momentarily eludes me. (Ah, Trelawney!)

That's not unexpected, actually. Students don't necessarily register teachers that way. They're inclined to think of them as not having lives outside the classroom, especially when they're younger.

And yet, I can attest that schools can be a hotbed of, well, leave it at hotbed. In fact, one of my son's teachers a year or so ago left her husband because she'd had an affair with the principal of the school. School never seemed so interesting when I was a student!

But it does bring us back to a couple more Hogwarts adult characters. First, Remus Lupin, who seems to have no sex life at all either until he apparently falls in love with Tonks, marries, and then the two of them are killed at the Battle of Hogwarts. Yikes!

And then there is Severus Snape. Ah yes. His underlying loyalty to Dumbledore and in a very odd way, to Harry Potter, was because he was in love with Harry's mother, Lily Potter. And he felt Voldemort betrayed him when he responded to Snape's revelations about the overheard prophecy by killing Lily and James. (Apparently Snape was okay with Voldemort attempting to kill Harry, who was a year old at the time).

So clearly JK Rowling spent some time thinking about some of the underlying relationships and romantic inclinations of her characters.

Yet, for the most part, they didn't end up on the page. (And weren't there enough pages anyway?)

I think it's a good idea to know a lot more about your characters, especially your main characters, than what ends up on the page. You should know if their parents are alive or dead, if they get along with them, if they have siblings, what everybody does for a living. You should know their sexual preferences and quirks, their favorite foods, their dreams and aspirations, fears...

Because it informs their decisions and actions. It helps take a 2-dimensional cutout and turn him or her into a three-dimensional human being. It can, with a carefully chosen passing comment or observation, give your characters more depth.

Does anyone really need to know that my character Derek Stillwater's parents were missionary doctors and very conservative from a religious point of view? Not necessarily, although I address this issue in the fourth book. Is it important for the reader to know that he had a brother, David, who is a physician for Doctors Without Borders? No, although I do mention it, because I don't want Derek to seem as if he's living in a vacuum. Do they need to know his parents now live in assisted living in Florida and his father has Alzheimer's? 

There are a lot of other facts and things I know about his character. And plenty I don't know that if I have an opportunity to write more books featuring him will be revealed to me. But I do think it's important to know more about your characters than the readers do.

One of the key questions I ALWAYS ask myself about my main characters is: if they weren't doing what they're currently doing, what would they be doing? What's my character's dream job?

How about you?

Mark Terry


Blogger spyscribbler said...

I feel, as a teacher, a pressure to be unsexual, although at the Borders I go to, there is a high school teacher who just oozes sexuality. She often has teens "helping" her, and the boys all have a crush on her. This sort of fascinates me.

An odd world.

From my perspective, the sharing of Albus Dumbledore's sexuality was a little ridiculous, whether he's gay or having an affair with what's-her-name. (The teacher who turns into a cat.)

7:49 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

I think there's some pressure for teachers to be un-sexual (asexual?) as well although I remember an extremely sexy math teacher in high school quite well. She was rather into clingy tops and short skirts. (She was a godawful math teacher, but she looked great).

And yes, I found the Dumbledore sexuality to be rather silly. Even with all the "snogging" going on with the students in books 5 and 6, JK Rowling's got a pretty PG world, which seems appropriate for the readership, by and large.

7:53 AM  
Blogger LurkerMonkey said...

I'm going to put in a word for Dumbledore's "outing" here ...

I don't know why she chose to reveal it in the way she did, if she was aware of the furor it would cause or not, and at first, I thought it was ridiculous, too. If it wasn't on the page, it's not important.

But, you know, upon re-reading the books, I'm really glad I know this tidbit now, and I feel like it informs the whole story. In a way, I feel much closer to Albus Dumbledore, as if I understand much better what's going on behind his twinkling blue eyes. And it certainly helps explain why Dumbledore was slow to kill his teenage paramour, despite all the misery that delay would cause later.

So over time, I've grown to support her decision to reveal Dumbledore's backstory. Personally, as an author, I would have been sorely tempted to include some kind of clue in the book itself. I wonder if she considered it ...

8:39 AM  
Blogger Erica Orloff said...

I'm with Lurker. There was such an uproar from a ridiculous morality issue (I cannot STAND the idea of anyone having an issue with gays) . . . but then there was this separate "other" issue of why did she reveal it, and as a writer why did she make this decision or that decision, why mention it if not on the page and so on. And I guess I sort of felt that . . . like Tolkien, she built an WORLD that became real to an entire generation and if she has stuff in her head and in her heart that led her to write with some nuance here and there . . . and it was part of how she wrote it, it's her business/right to think it, speak it, whatever. I find the whole "controversy" of it amusing, in a sense.

8:47 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Jon & Erica,
Okay, although from the story POV his sexuality is probably irrelevant (although not necessarily when you consider the importance of the duel in the 7th book), ultimately I suspect it was just something she had thought of. After all, she'd lived with these characters more than 10 years, probably closer to 12 and she herself undoubtedly asked herself why Hogwarts was filled with so many old single people. It's the sort of thing that I as a writer might say, "Hmmm, I just filled the school with a bunch of people with no apparent lives, should I change that? Does it affect the story? How should I handle this? Well, DOES Dumbledore have a girlfriend on the side? What about McGonnegal, she's the type who may have an old Mister working somewhere that she seems al the time, apparating back to the homestead to share a spot of tea."

I can also see myself as a writer having decided, yes, Dumbledore is gay, McGonnegal is a widow, Sprout things men are pointless and Sirius Black goes to prostitutes and internet porn as needed, but really, none of that needs to go in the books.

10:12 AM  
Blogger B. Nagel said...

From what I understand (And my wife and her sisters are rapid Harry Potter fans), the entire thing came up because the director of the Halfblood Prince wanted to include a extra-textual scene that implied a romantic relationship b/t Dumbledore and McGonnagal(sp?). For the integrity of her character, she told the director no, the rumor leaked and Rowling confirmed.
And while I have no issue with Dumbledore as homosexual, I always read the parts about Grindelwald as a "guy-crush," like Turk-J.D. on scrubs, or House-Wilson on House.

10:26 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Yeah, I read it like that as well. I can't speak for all guys, certainly, but I had close friendships with other boys that might be defined as a "guy crush" I suppose, at least by people outside the relationship. The assumption, apparently, that if you're close friends and don't spend your time watching sports and drinking beer there must be something sexual about the relationship.

I don't have a problem with Dumbledore being gay and I certainly see no signs of it in the books, but JK Rowling thought he was for whatever reasons.

10:58 AM  
Anonymous Chris Cook said...

Leading the discussion back to characterization (although I'm enjoying the speculation about the Harry Potter books), I think when writing a series, it's critical to know a lot of details about the character. Otherwise, it could lead to character reconciliation problems from one book to the next.

As for my character's dream job, she's finally in it, after seven years of dumping fourteen jobs after a few months here and there. She really didn't know what she wanted to do with her life until she fell into private investigation. She's only afraid she won't be successful at this career, either.

12:57 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

I bet if instead of "Characterization, part 4" in today's title I had put, "Dumbledor Gay Discussion Group" my hit counter would have gone crazy. Hmmm....

Right up there with Lyndsay Lohan's Nipples.

Ya gotta love the internet.

1:14 PM  
Blogger LurkerMonkey said...

Just one quick thing, I don't think the Grindelwald part was a simple "guy crush." I think the whole point of Dumbledore was that he was in love in Grindelwald as a teenager, and therefore was blind to the faults in Grindelwald that ultimately gave rebirth to the Dark Arts. I think it's more than just a thing she decided later, or to explain why Dumbledore was single. I think it's the central feature of his whole character and explains most of his actions. This is why I was happy to know it ...

1:29 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Wow, Jon, there's a master's thesis there! (Or some really tacky slash-fic. :)

1:56 PM  
Blogger LurkerMonkey said...

And it goes one step deeper! Ultimately, these are books about the redemptive power of love ... Even Snape is redeemed in his act of love for the girl he could never have--he saved her son. Dumbledore ends up paying a terrible price for his blind, arrogant, youthful love, but he too is redeemed through his relationship to Harry.

It's really all about Harry. He is true to his friends and family from the very beginning and even offers Voldemort compassion at the end. He typifies the kind of selfless, brave, nonjudgmental, and loyal love that Rowling was writing about.

This is theme at its very best ...

2:07 PM  
Blogger spyscribbler said...

Wow, Jon! It's on my list to go back and re-read the series from the beginning, and now I'm really looking forward to it!

10:34 PM  
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