We’ve talked about enchanted doorways that take us into fictional realms of wonder. But the simple truth is, the single most powerful thing that pulls us into a story is the characters. Right? If we meet on page one a character we identify with — someone who feels what we’ve felt, someone who may seem “just like us” on some level — that’s a character we want to go along with.
For the term “doorway characters,” I give full credit to our friend Marquee Movies [not his real name] — you know, the guy who feels a responsibility to always leave Bilbo in a relatively safe place? He came up with this excellent term during an impassioned discussion we were having about Buffy the Vampire Slayer. He was talking about how Willow and Xander were such doorway characters, providing a perfect portal through which we tumble headlong into the story.
At the last Blooming Grove Writers’ Conference, fiction workshop leader and author Jim Bennett said, “Character is always the most important thing, because there are only a few plots, but characters are infinite.” It’s true. Can we not name quite a few stories that are often anthologized for college students to focus upon, stories hailed as treasures of our culture, in which very little happens? But their characters are fascinating people, people we feel right along with.
All in all, for me as a writer, characters are my Achilles heel. I’ve never paid enough attention to people, just as Saruman never paid enough attention to animals. I think it partly comes from being an only child. “Others? Who needs others?! Oh, you mean the audience?” So this posting is 1.) fraudulent, since I’m no one to be talking about characters, and 2.) sneaky, because I’m hoping to learn something from you all that will help me write better.
I don’t know if I’ve ever created a “doorway character” with any main character of a story or book, but I would like to introduce you to one minor character that I’m particularly proud of. She’s from the Agondria story “Seawall,” and she’s a lemnach, not a human.
The lemnachs are little women — about half human height — with blue skin and wings like a bat. They are uncivilized, monstrous, and serve a sorcerous old king named Agetychus. (It’s unclear whether he created them or bound an existing race to his service somehow.)
This particular lemnach is named Gehennabel the Reliable. She’s fierce and steady and eats all manner of disgusting things, and the king knows he can depend on her to get the job done. She has a catastrophe of wiry black hair. Her name comes from “Gehenna,” another name for 1.) Hell, or, according to Webster’s, 2.) “a place or state of misery” — and “-bel,” a feminine sort of ending. Here’s an excerpt:
The lemnach had flown farther than ever she’d flown before in her relatively short, toil-laden life. Following the woman-tiger, she’d gone all the way to where the world ended in a Wall across the sea. Somehow she’d avoided all those flying arrows in the humans’ battle, many of which had been aimed at the lemnach, for both armies knew she was no friend of theirs. Gehennabel had watched from the shadows all that had taken place, and then she’d made the long return journey alone.
She’d learned many things in her travels: that hot sand burned the feet; that too much sun burned the skin, even if one’s skin were dark and blue; that most melons in Shandria were sour; that there was very little to eat on Alcyaea, except the gull-droppings which were savory if a bit salty; that the birds of Vorcyra had interesting tales to tell once they got to know you; that the Sunken Land could be dangerous at night; and that lemnachs were entirely unwelcome in Cheleboth. After all, home was best. But one wouldn’t know if one hadn’t gone.
Now her long mission was accomplished. Well, almost accomplished — there remained only to deliver her report. She had good news and bad news, bad news and good. Fluttering in through the window, she hopped and stumbled, borne by her momentum, and rolled heels-over-head along the stone floor. Ah, home! Gehennabel kissed the dank stone and patted it with her palms.
Which news to tell first, the good or the bad? The bad or the good? Which? She clasped her hands and considered deeply as she hurried along. Other lemnachs saw her and raced off in a flurry of wings to tell the king she’d returned. A few paused to scoop up rocks and hurl them at her to show they’d missed her; Hebbenebah the Still Worse swooped onto her back and gave her shoulder an affectionate bite.
She’d tell the bad news first and get it out of the way. Yes, that was how big, wingless people preferred to do things. Fluffing up the fright of her hair, the lemnach composed her wings and peeked around the doorframe into the thronehall.
King Agetychus hunched on his throne, dwarfed by the seat’s high back. The six lemnachs who had arrived first crowded around him, three on the throne’s arms, two on the back, one between the king’s black boots on the floor, rubbing her face against his knees. All the six looked enviously at Gehennabel. The king stretched out a pale hand and anxiously waggled his claws to beckon her forward. “Come, come!” His voice was a hoarse whisper. As the lemnach slinked into the firelit hall, Agetychus coughed violently into a bunched cloth.
He looked bad, even for a Chalybe; his health had clearly gotten much worse while Gehennabel was away. Even before she’d left, he’d taken to sitting here, usually alone, with only the fire for light; he could no longer abide the activity and noise of his grand upper thronehall, the place of many forges. Sad, for the ringing of hammers had once been the sweetest music to his ears.
“Well?” said the king, leaning forward, his dark-rimmed, reddish eyes wide and staring. He reminded the lemnach of a spider she’d eaten not long ago, an old spider shriveled at the edge of her tattered web, her legs curled up upon themselves and no longer able to move. By eating her, Gehennabel had done her a mercy.
“Dear King,” said the lemnach with heartfelt compassion, “I would eat you if I could.”
How’s that? Do you get a feel for lemnachs? I think it would be fun to write a book from the point of view of a lemnach. Gehennabel needs her own book: Confessions of a Lemnach . . . or something.
Anyway, I can think of no better example of doorway characters than those we see in the movie Jaws. Remember that phenomenon that swept our culture back in 1975, the “Summer of the Shark”? I would argue that Jaws is an extremely rare case in which the movie is better than the book that preceded it (the only other example I can think of offhand is Field of Dreams) — and I’d contend that the difference mostly has to do with the characters — well, that, and the focus of the writing. Peter Benchley has said he wrote the book based on the premise, “What if there were a killer shark that wouldn’t go away? What if it staked out a territory right off the coast of one town and just stayed there?” The movie has that premise, too, but into the mix it adds the screenplay, the directing, the incomparable musical score, the heroic efforts of hundreds of people trapped on Martha’s Vineyard for much longer than they wanted to be or were budgeted for — and of course the immortal, inimitable performances of Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, and Robert Shaw.
Doorway characters: Scheider as Brody is Everyman. He’s us. Two examples, from very early in the film. He’s just woken up, he’s getting ready for a routine day of work, and the phone rings. The Brody household has two phones on the wall, presumably because he’s the chief of police: one phone is the family’s phone, and one is a “police hotline” (that’s what I’m guessing — I don’t know). He picks up the phone that he thinks is ringing (they’re installed one right above the other); he hears only a dial tone, and he pulls the receiver away from his ear and gives it a “What the heck?” look before hanging it up and picking up the other phone, which is the one that’s ringing. Right there, I think, “I know this guy.” I’ve experienced morning chaos, too.
Later, when Brody realizes there’s been a shark attack and he’s doing his job by closing the beaches immediately, he goes into a store to buy paints, brushes, and signboards to make “Beach Closed” signs. He grabs at a brush or two in a canful of brushes on the shelf, and the can topples over, clattering and spilling brushes. Brody winces and tries to catch it. Again, I know him. He’s me. I’ve been there.
Then Dreyfuss as Hooper: who can forget the scene in which he comes uninvited to the Brody household the evening that Brody is depressed because he knows Alex Kintner is dead because Brody gave in to political pressure and didn’t close the beaches? Hooper comes into the kitchen, sits down at the table facing Brody, who hasn’t touched his supper, and Hooper asks, “How was your day?” (He was there earlier when Brody was slapped in the face by Mrs. Kintner, Alex’s mother.) Both men laugh at the irony of the question, and Brody says, “Swell.” Hooper, a scientist who’s come to town alone because of the shark problem and is staying at the hotel, sees the plate of uneaten food and asks, “Is anyone eating this?” Without really waiting for an answer, he pulls it toward himself and begins devouring it as Mrs. Brody dazedly answers, “No.” Awkwardness, comradery, and a stomach that clamors regardless of the crisis at hand — doorway character. That’s a real person, just like us.
And then Quint, the shark fisherman (Robert Shaw): though we glimpse him earlier, his first close-up entrance in the film is during a town council meeting, when the crowded room is in pandemonium, people all talking and arguing at once. To command attention, Quint slowly, agonizingly rakes his fingernails down a chalkboard, on which he’s drawn a shark eating a human victim. It’s a sound that universally sets human nerves on edge. When he has the full attention of everyone in the room, Quint casually eats something (a cracker? — celery? — the debates have been many and furious) as he delivers his offer of his services to catch and kill the shark. This is a character we simply can’t get enough of.
I don’t know of any other film that brings three such different and equally balanced, developed, delightful characters together and then isolates them in an environment (alone together on a boat with only the open ocean and the shark) in which they can interact. They have become archetypes of the “monster panic” genre: the Knowledge Guy (Hooper), the Experience Guy (Quint), and the vulnerable Everyman (Brody), who kills the monster against all odds and lives to tell the tale.
So we come to the question: Who are the greatest doorway characters you’ve met, in film or in written fiction? Who are they, and what did they do that made you tumble through them, deep into the world of the story? (“What did they do?” is the more important part of the question!)
[News: It’s been a fantastic writing week, by God’s grace — great progress on the new book: 2,300 words Thursday, 2,684 Friday, 1,612 today! Oh, and one more thing, in case anyone missed it: it’s worth going back for a look at the comments on the previous post — I responded to them just before writing this, and I had a pretty good story to tell in response to Chris’s!]