Commute wisdom: Brief thoughts on writing “good” characters

While negotiating the snow-mushy streets on the way to work, I found myself ruminating on what it’s like to write “good” characters, especially if one is only a fair-to-middling person oneself, morally.

It’s trendy right now to look at this from the reader’s point of view: to look at an author’s characters and guess at the moral makeup of the person writing them. Who does the story cast as the “best” character? What seems to make them “good” in the story’s viewpoint? Where does the gravity well of the story center itself? Do the morally-ambiguous or “bad” characters have more weight?

It’s worth asking questions like this to critique a story as a story; but I think the insights you can get about the author from them are limited. And who cares, really, unless you’ve got some torches and pitchforks sitting around begging to be used?

It’s an even trickier inquiry from a writer’s point of view. As humans, we generally don’t know what we don’t know. Our sense of ourselves as moral beings is its own benchmark. We recognize what we find morally repellent, but it’s much harder to identify what is morally superior to our point of view.

I got a sense of this once while writing fanwork about another author’s character. Inhabiting that character’s point of view, I was all set to write him as resentful and fretful against his superiors who were showing him compassion…when I realized abruptly that he wouldn’t do any such thing. He wouldn’t feel or act churlish in this situation: that was what I would do.

Getting schooled by a fictional character is an interesting experience.

So when the characters are of your own invention, you have to try to get attuned to the harmonic overtones of your own moral knowledge, to sketch a dim sense of what you don’t already know. In a way, writing characters with a three-dimensional moral identity is as much hedging one’s bets as representing reality. It’s also why it almost never works to just have the story identify a character as “the good guy” whose viewpoint is upheld no matter what they do. A story should have a sense of some containing reality bigger than any one character, even (especially!) if the story operates through an unreliable narrator.

It seems weird to be talking about self-circumspection when we’ve got fascists and reactionaries stomping around using our own good faith against us. But good-faith circumspection is exactly what I recommend, both as writers and as readers. Nobody’s going to do our work for us. And we get to decide if we’re going to level up. But we don’t get to decide if other people will. It’s just as true in insane times as sane ones.

Or so I said to myself, as I was pulling into the office parking lot.

Advent calendar #(16), 17: O Sapientia

Yesterday it snowed more, and I worked from the home office in the wintry hush. Solstice is approaching: and the Great O Antiphons are here.

The last seven days before Christmas Eve are celebrated with these antiphons — refrains preceding the Magnificat at Evensong — that invoke Our Lord with names and honorifics, gathering up the goodness of the world in one sweep before the Nativity. (The antiphons are probably best known as the verses of “O Come, O Come Immanuel”.) They form a sort of crescendo to the celebration of Christmas.

But I have to admit that my favorite one is the first one: O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High, reaching from one end to the other, mightily and sweetly ordering all things: Come and teach us the way of prudence. I love how Wisdom is framed in metaphors of discursive intellect, and yet is not really any such thing. It’s an articulate silence that seems to characterize this force that “mightily and sweetly” orders all things. And many times, when I have encountered a profound moral lesson, I have had to resort to poetry even to make myself capable of remembering what happened. Wisdom is neither immanent nor transcendent; it is intimate with the world and yet never mastered by it.

It’s this antiphon, I think, that inspired me more than esotericism when framing the religious worship in my ‘verse. And it was this name of God that I thought made a fitting refuge for a scarred world sickened by worshiping gods made in their own image. Silence and letting go: this is a worship so dangerous to the ego that every time we brush close, we pretend that we’ve already done it.

So this morning I made another noise generator: one that evokes a meditation hall with a storm pouring rain outside the low lintel. A challenge, to sketch out the noises of quiet prayer! But here’s the result: One Light Burning.

May your day be mightily and sweetly ordered from end to end.

Advent calendar #15: Snow day

A rolling stone may gather no moss, but a walking author does pick up a few snowflakes.

The snow came as promised, and justified our book club’s decision to cancel this evening’s potluck feast. It also put paid to my plans to go to church this morning, but a couple of phone calls confirmed it was no scene I should be driving in, and whoever made it to church would fill in for my duties. So, it’s a snow day.

I went out for a walk, as one does, enjoying the hush — though the bars are still open, with the Chiefs game turned up loud as I passed them. Otherwise it’s quiet. I saw only one person walking their dog, and two kids progressing down the street toward the park with a sled in tow.

If we get enough accumulation, I’ll make some snow ice cream, because Past Me thought ahead and stocked up on Eagle Brand. But for now, I think I’m just going to make some hot chocolate and watch a cozy murder mystery. I leave you with some meditative organ music for your Sunday.

Advent calendar #13, 14: Donne and Art Conservation

Yesterday, all plans I had were completely scuppered within ten minutes of getting up, as what appeared to be ordinary vertigo revealed itself as a full-on norovirus of some kind. I spent the entire day sleeping off nausea and a mild fever. I’m still not 100% today, but I did manage to get out and do things I needed to do. The cat food is not going to buy itself!

December 13th is St. Lucy’s Day, which is still celebrated in Sweden, I believe. It used to be the shortest day of the year — i.e., the solstice — until we changed calendars; now the shortest day of the year falls on St. Thomas’s feast day. Make of that what you will. Before the change, John Donne used the occasion to make a poem of his grief in the darkness, so I include that here.

A Nocturnal Upon St. Lucy’s Day

‘Tis the year’s midnight, and it is the day’s,
Lucy’s, who scarce seven hours herself unmasks;
         The sun is spent, and now his flasks
         Send forth light squibs, no constant rays;
                The world’s whole sap is sunk;
The general balm th’ hydroptic earth hath drunk,
Whither, as to the bed’s feet, life is shrunk,
Dead and interr’d; yet all these seem to laugh,
Compar’d with me, who am their epitaph.

Study me then, you who shall lovers be
At the next world, that is, at the next spring;
         For I am every dead thing,
         In whom Love wrought new alchemy.
                For his art did express
A quintessence even from nothingness,
From dull privations, and lean emptiness;
He ruin’d me, and I am re-begot
Of absence, darkness, death: things which are not.

All others, from all things, draw all that’s good,
Life, soul, form, spirit, whence they being have;
         I, by Love’s limbec, am the grave
         Of all that’s nothing. Oft a flood
                Have we two wept, and so
Drown’d the whole world, us two; oft did we grow
To be two chaoses, when we did show
Care to aught else; and often absences
Withdrew our souls, and made us carcasses.

But I am by her death (which word wrongs her)
Of the first nothing the elixir grown;
         Were I a man, that I were one
         I needs must know; I should prefer,
                If I were any beast,
Some ends, some means; yea plants, yea stones detest,
And love; all, all some properties invest;
If I an ordinary nothing were,
As shadow, a light and body must be here.

But I am none; nor will my sun renew.
You lovers, for whose sake the lesser sun
         At this time to the Goat is run
         To fetch new lust, and give it you,
                Enjoy your summer all;
Since she enjoys her long night’s festival,
Let me prepare towards her, and let me call
This hour her vigil, and her eve, since this
Both the year’s, and the day’s deep midnight is.

For December 14, I give you the sort of calming entertainment that is pleasant to watch while stressed or to doze with while sick: art conservator extraordinaire Julian Baumgartner.

Check out his YT channel for more mesmerizing restoration videos, including ones without the narration in case you’re into ASMR. (Explanations of ASMR always give me a you-had-to-be-there vibe, like I don’t know if the significance of it is something I can really get. Sort of like the Transfiguration, really.)

And that’s…about all I’m up for, today. I’m seriously considering going back to bed.

Advent calendar #12: Saucepan fudge cookies

Good morning!

I’m sure everybody has their own object of nostalgia when it comes to homemade Christmas treats. We used to make a number of holiday-specific treats, but the one I miss the most is the saucepan fudge crackle cookies. So I went looking for a recipe.

1 c. all purpose flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 c. butter
3 (1 oz.) squares unsweetened chocolate
1 c. + 3 tbsp. sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp. vanilla

These cookies are moist on the inside, crisp on the outside.

Mix flour, baking powder and salt. In heavy 3 quart saucepan, stir butter and chocolate over low heat until melted and smooth; cool. Stir in sugar, eggs, and vanilla until well blended. Stir in flour mixture until blended. Cover and chill 1 1/2 to 2 hours until dough is firm enough to shape. Roll in 1 1/2″ balls; roll balls in the 3 tablespoons sugar, coating each one. Place 2″ apart on ungreased cookie sheet. Bake in 300 degree oven for 20 minutes until crackled on top and slightly firm to touch. Remove to a rack to coat.

I edited the nuts out of the recipe I found, because I can’t fathom why you’d go and ruin a perfectly-textured chocolate fudge cookie. That’s just nuts.

One of the versions I found claimed that the recipe was improved by switching to margarine because butter “contaminates” the flavor of the chocolate. I should bloody well hope so! If you really want to update the recipe I suspect coconut oil in some appropriate proportion would suffice. Vegans probably have their go-to egg substitute, though I don’t know what it is.

Anyway, however you go about it, the result should be a cookie that crunches on the outside and is marvelously chewy on the inside, and is amazing with a glass of milk.

Advent calendar #11: Caravaggio

Trundling on toward the longest night: a chill, barren time. For today’s Advent window I give you a piece of art I make sure to greet every time I’m at the Nelson: Caravaggio’s John the Baptist.

Notes on this painting remark on its introspective quality: the Baptist not as prophet but as hermit of the wilderness, cast in a stark dynamic of light and dark, almost strobed; denuded of symbols except for a reed cross. This is not the accessible icon of John as a narrative figure. This is the John who sends people to ask, “Are you the one we’re waiting for, or should we look for another?”

He’s a compelling image for our skeptical age, but I would think he’d be compelling to people of any time who ponder hard questions when the light is scant. “A voice said, ‘Cry out!’ And I said, ‘What shall I cry?'”

This is that moment.

Advent calendar #10: Wassail and Sugar Plums

I was going to be all serious and comment on Thomas Merton’s feast day, but I’m just not in the mood for that, even though I am wearing all black today. No! Instead, it’s time for novelty holiday music!

First up, Mannheim Steamroller. We kids wore out the cassette tape that this track is on, and I’m pleased to find it still entertains. Did you know that Mannheim Steamroller is from Nebraska? I learned that this summer in my online trivia league.

And next, a track that one year at least was a staple of retail stores — the year it got stuck in my head and I went looking for it to cure the earworm. It’s the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, remixed in a yes-it’s-campy-you-wanna-make-something-of-it kind of way. It’s about six replays of this between my house and fencing practice; ask me how I know.

Happy Tuesday!

Advent calendar #9: Denise Levertov

For today’s Advent window, I went seeking for a poem I hadn’t read before.

It’s easy enough to come up with poems that are my favorites — no doubt I’ll post some of them before this is done — but I also want to get outside my regular round. So I went looking for a poet I hadn’t read much of before. Did you know that when you google “women poets,” the results show a large preponderance of poets from the 20th century? I can only suppose that modern poets have better distribution and less of the loss that the older ones did — the oldest poets are known only by fragments, and in our age one has to work a little harder to suppress those pesky female voices.

Here’s a poem new to me, by Denise Levertov.

Making Peace

A voice from the dark called out,
             ‘The poets must give us
imagination of peace, to oust the intense, familiar
imagination of disaster. Peace, not only
the absence of war.’
                                   But peace, like a poem,
is not there ahead of itself,
can’t be imagined before it is made,
can’t be known except
in the words of its making,
grammar of justice,
syntax of mutual aid.
                                       A feeling towards it,
dimly sensing a rhythm, is all we have
until we begin to utter its metaphors,
learning them as we speak.
                                              A line of peace might appear
if we restructured the sentence our lives are making,
revoked its reaffirmation of profit and power,
questioned our needs, allowed
long pauses . . .
                        A cadence of peace might balance its weight
on that different fulcrum; peace, a presence,
an energy field more intense than war,
might pulse then,
stanza by stanza into the world,
each act of living
one of its words, each word
a vibration of light—facets
of the forming crystal.

Advent calendar #8: The Cosmic Mandala

Good morning!

For today’s little Advent window, I bring our world, to hold up in prayers and intentions. The first image is from one of my go-to daily sites, the Astronomy Picture of the Day. For a couple decades now NASA has run this simple little site with amazing photos taken by individuals and by major observatories and gathered into a charmingly lo-tech archive.

But compare the photo of the observable universe to what’s called the Cosmic Mandala, and you’ll find a strange similarity. I’ve included a version by Hildegard of Bingen, composer, scientist, and polymath nun, for reference.

I think it’s kind of amazing what we know without knowing.

Some years ago now, I read a passage from a book of quotations from Evelyn Underhill, talking about the disciples in the boat in the storm. In the midst of her meditation on the presence of Jesus and the obvious dangers of the situation, she said something that took me aback: “The Universe is safe for souls.” Now, I mean, obviously the Universe isn’t safe in the sense that we are hedged and insulated from suffering, or that nothing can go wrong inside our minds and bodies, or that we can’t ever be exposed to that sense of bottomless danger that the wide, impersonal cosmos presents. But, well, exactly like those dangers, we’re here. There’s no revoking the fact that we have been here; there’s no denying the reality of our participation in the foundational goodness that the Universe is. And the more that rabid haters try to deny the human dignity of people they hate, the more obviously desperate they must be.

For the first time ever, I said to myself: “If I really believed that — if I really believed the universe was safe for my soul — what would I do?” It didn’t make an immediate difference, but the thought did introduce a change into the way I thought of myself in the world — and how I acted.

It’s a thing that’s worth remembering this Advent.

Advent calendar #7: La Folia

Ah, good morning. It’s a lovely Saturday and I’m taking my sweet time about getting up and about. For today’s Advent window I bring something that has been the foundation for any number of songs for a couple of centuries now, and I do enjoy it in nearly every form. It’s variously known as “La Folia,” “Folias de Espana,” “The Folly,” and so on.

And there you have it. Happy Saturday!