Character Reinsby Debra Vanasse on 07/11/12
Recently I re-read Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, one of the finest American books of the past few decades. Some will disagree heartily; in fact, such was the prevailing attitude when Robinson completed the manuscript. In an interview published in The Paris Review, Robinson says that though her friend’s agent offered to represent Housekeeping, she warned it might be difficult to place. Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux picked it up, but the editor warned it might not get reviewed.
Why the muted prospects? For one, the book lacks some of the basics fiction gurus preach, especially when it comes to character. The narrator, who goes unnamed for some time, speaks in first person but with omniscience, especially in the beginning. She exhibits none of the spunk or pluck that we’re told readers crave, unless you count her sheer survival in the face of circumstance. Quirky, yes, we’ll give her that, but not in a way that most of us would care to emulate. She and her sister are passive characters. What do they want? We’re not sure, not at first anyhow. Their motivation? Nothing conventional.
Hurray for Anatole Broyard, who did review the book, wanting to make sure it got noticed. It went on to win the Pen/Hemingway Award. If it had been up to me, it would have won the Pulitzer, too, but as often happens, that was awarded Robinson for the her next book, which is good but not nearly as finely wrought as Housekeeping.
How does Robinson, in defiance of conventional wisdom, grace us with a story of three utterly unforgettable women, plus a handful of intriguing “ghosts” whose influence lingers?
As it turns out, passive characters aren’t the kiss of death, necessarily. Using as an example “A Cautionary Tale” by Deborah Eisenberg, Robin Romm points out that some of the best fiction features passive protagonists, defined by Romm as full characters who aren’t in charge of the action of the story as opposed to characters that aren’t fully developed. Passive characters, she says, benefit from latent desires that they haven’t acted on yet. Fierce protagonists, on the other hand, can alarm or exhaust the reader, and they may not be capable of the same revelations as the more reticent protagonist. In fact, it’s the pressure to act that brings interest to the acting. The trick, Romm says, is that even a passive character will have an intriguing way of judging the world, and of course the passive character doesn’t stay passive: a moment of complicated crisis makes us rethink them.
These principles are applied to full effect in Housekeeping. Ruthie and Lucille aren’t in charge, and neither are they fully developed. Their latent desire – the attention of their last relative, Sylvie – emerges well into the story. Through the retrospective, semi-omniscient first person narrative, Ruthie offers revelation after revelation from her intriguing perspective. We feel with her the growing pressure to act, building to a moment of complicated crisis that makes us rethink not only the characters but also what we consider as “normal.”
Though traditional heroes may be easier to work with, I’m drawn to the passive protagonist, which means I have to maintain a certain vigilance regarding latent desires, revelations, the pressure to act, complications. I also pay a good deal of attention to what I call character “reins,” my acronym for the ways even the most passive characters can grow into themselves, by way of their regrets; their expectations; their insights, intentions, and instabilities; their needs; and their speculation.