HIS OPINIONS Johann Wolfgang von Goethe—
“Men show their characters in nothing more clearly than in what they think laughable.”
Rather than writing about how you view your character, write about how your character views his world. Honing in on his opinions is an unobtrusive way to show who he is.
Remember Enzo, the dog who awaits his future as a man in Garth Stein’s The Art of Racing in the Rain? He hates crows.
They are scum, creatures of cluster, they call them a murder when they are in a group. A good word, because when they are together, you want to kill them. I never chase a crow. They hop away, taunting, trying to dupe you into a chase in which you will become injured. Trying to get you stuck somewhere far away, so they can have their way with the garbage. …They sit in the trees and on the electric wires and on the roofs and they watch everything, the sinister little bastards.
Enzo also hates zebras. Here, he has an epiphany, a new opinion in the making.
I looked closer. The top of the pen. A little plastic savannah. The sliding thing? A zebra. When Denny tipped the pen, the zebra slid across the plastic savannah. The zebra is everywhere. I suddenly realized. The zebra. It is not something outside of us. The zebra is something inside of us. Our fears. Our own self-destructive nature. The zebra is the worst part of us when we are face-to-face with our worst times. The demon is us!
Referring to a conversation with Denny, his dog’s best friend, he says—
I loved it when he talked to me like that. Dragging out the drama. Ratcheting up the anticipation. I’ve always found great pleasure in the narrative tease. But then, I’m a dramatist.
We meet Mary Tell of Anne Tyler’s Celestial Navigation as a runaway wife in the process of being deserted by another man. Here’s her opinion regarding affection from the man who would become her husband—
His kisses tasted of tobacco. I had never been kissed before and found it tiring; my neck ached and my mouth felt bruised. Drawing back from me, he would smile with his eyes half-veiled as if he had won some contest. I was the loser, and I didn’t even know I was in a contest.
Miss Vinton, of the same Celestial cast, has a heart for compassion and an astute eye for the ebbs and flows of relationships. Not only does she notice nuances that others don’t pick up on, but she tries to make right what has gone wrong. In light of this persuasion, she holds an unexpected opinion.
If you were to shake me awake in the middle of the night and say, “Quick, without thinking: What is the most important thing in the world?” I would say, “Privacy.” I know that’s not right; you don’t have to tell me. I know that the true answer is probably love, or understanding, or feeling needed—even for me. But I am telling you what comes to mind first, and that’s privacy. Sitting alone in a room reading a book, with no one to interrupt me. That is all I ever consciously wanted out of life.
Here’s one of my all-time favorite characters, definitely one of the most memorable that I’ve come across. The ilver-tongued hobo, born optimist, one-time up-to-his-eyeballs-in-espionage man in Havana for President Macin, who aches for conversation almost as much as he’s in need of a hot bath—with no further ado—Fermin Romero de Torres, the creation of Carlos Ruiz Zafon and scene-stealer of his novel The Shadow of the Wind. Be forewarned, he’s an opinionate little man.
When Daniel, the young protagonist asks Fermin if he likes the cinema—
“Between you and me, this business of the seventh art leaves me cold. As far as I can see, it’s only a way of feeding the mindless and making them even more stupid. Worse than football or bullfights. The cinema began as an invention for entertaining the illiterate masses. Fifty years on, it’s much the same.”
But then Carole Lombard glides onto the silver screen.
“What breasts, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, what breasts!”
After that day Fermín Romero de Torres took to going to the movies every Sunday. My father preferred to stay at home reading, but Fermín would not miss a single double feature. He’d buy a pile of chocolates and sit in row seventeen, where he would devour them while he waited for the appearance of that day’s diva. As far as he was concerned, plot was superfluous, and he didn’t stop talking until some well-endowed lady filled the screen.
Fermín Romero de Torres, who was becoming an adept film scholar, called this genre “the praying mantis paradigm.” According to him, its permutations were nothing but misogynist fantasies for constipated office clerks, for pious women shriveled with boredom who dreamed about turning to a life of vice and unbridled lechery.
Fermin weighs in on miscellaneous topics.
“The only use for military service is that it reveals the number of morons in the population […] And that can be discovered in the first two weeks; there’s no need for two years. Army, Marriage, the Church, and Banking: the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Yes, go on, laugh.”
“That sorry specimen is both pedantic and corrupt. A fascist buttock polisher,” Fermín declared, raising his fist and striking the pose he reserved for his avenging moods. “With the pitiful excuse of his professorship and final exams, he would even have it off with Gertrude Stein, given the chance.”
In a shop window, I saw a Philips poster announcing the arrival of a new messiah, the TV set. Some predicted that this peculiar contraption was going to change our lives forever and turn us all into creatures of the future, like the Americans. Fermín Romero de Torres, always up to date on state-of-art technology, had already prophesied a grimmer outcome.
““Television, my dear Daniel, is the Antichrist, and I can assure you that after only three or four generations, people will no longer even know how to fart on their own and humans will return to living in caves, to medieval savagery, and to the general state of imbecility that slugs overcame back in the Pleistocene era. Our world will not die as a result of the bomb, as the papers say, it will die of laughter, of banality, of making a joke of everything, and a lousy joke at that.”
Regarding his fellow man—
“Like the good ape he is, man is a social animal, characterized by cronyism, nepotism, corruption, and gossip. That’s the intrinsic blueprint for our ‘ethical behavior.’ It’s pure biology.”
“Not evil,” Fermín objected. “Moronic, which isn’t quite the same thing. Evil presupposes a moral decision, intention, and some forethought. A moron or a lout, however, doesn’t stop to think or reason. He acts on instinct, like a stable animal, convinced that he’s doing good, that he’s always right, and sanctimoniously proud to go around fucking up, if you’ll excuse the French, anyone he perceives to be different from himself, be it because of skin color, creed, language, nationality, or, as in the case of Don Federico, his leisure habits. What the world needs is more thoroughly evil people and fewer borderline pigheads.”
“Let me remind you that you are talking to a professional in the craft of seduction, and this business of kissing is for amateurs and little old men in slippers. Real women are won over bit by bit. It’s all a question of psychology, like a goodfaena in the bullring. […] There are yokels out there who think that if they touch a woman’s behind and she doesn’t complain, they’ve hooked her. Amateurs. The female heart is a labyrinth of subtleties, too challenging for the uncouth mind of the male racketeer. If you really want to possess a woman, you must think like her, and the first thing to do is to win over her soul. The rest, that sweet, soft wrapping that steals away your senses and your virtue, is a bonus.”
“Never trust girls who let themselves be touched right away. But even less those who need a priest for approval. Good sirloin steak—if you’ll excuse the comparison—needs to be cooked until it’s medium rare. Of course, if the opportunity arises, don’t be prudish, and go for the kill.”
“With women the best part is the discovery. There’s nothing like the first time, nothing. You don’t know what life is until you undress a woman the first time. A button at a time, like peeling a hot sweet potato on a winter’s night.”
Fermín took advantage of the situation to deliver another of his magisterial lectures on the many mysteries of romance.
“Calm down or you’ll grow a stone in your liver,” Fermín advised me. “This business of courtship is like a tango: absurd and pure embellishment. But you’re the man, and you must take the lead.”
It was all beginning to look pretty grim. “The lead? Me?”
“What do you expect? One has to pay some price for being able to piss standing up.”
We learn a lot about Fermin from his opinions. As outrageous as they are, they represent just one side of the man and only shed a dim light on his story, which is but a fraction of the suspenseful, wonderfully convoluted (atmospheric, political, historical, gothic, romantic… human) plot Zafon weaves in The Shadow of the Wind. While the aging rebel may steal a good many scenes, Daniel’s sidekick doesn’t run away with the novel. Fermin Romero de Torres is a balm heart and humor to is icing on the cake and humor to a gripping tale overbrimming with.
What He Knows
Opinion, as the impetus of unveiling character, is second-cousin to knowledge. In Nicola Barker’s Darkmans, she uses what her protagonist knows to reveal who her protagonist is. She uses many devices, in fact, including her protagonist’s name—Daniel Beede.
But people knew him as Beede and it suited him well because he was small, and hard, and unquestionably venerable.
She also uses contrast, holding Daniel up to his son Kane.
He and Beede were not close. And they were not similar, either. They were different in almost every conceivable way. Beede was lithe, dark, strong-jawed, slate-haired and heavily bespectacled. He seemed like the kind of man who could deal with almost any kind of physical or intellectual challenge—
It’s the radiator. If you want to try and limp back home with it, I’ll need a tub of margarine, a litre of water and a packet of Stimorol; but I won’t make you any promises…
Ned Kelly’s last ever words? Spoken as he stood on the scaffold: ‘Such is life.’ You’re saying you’ve never used a traditional loom before? Well it’s pretty straightforward…
Yes, I do believe the earwig is the only insect which actually suckles its young.
No. Nietzsche didn’t hate humanity. That’s far too simplistic. What Nietzsche actually said was, ‘Man is something which must be overcome.’
Through the trivial details Beede has chosen to accumulate, we see a stark, austere side of his personality. Though Barker doesn’t say it outright, we might assume through Beede’s storehouse of knowledge, that he is of a trivial mindset, perhaps predisposed to judgmental, higher-than-thou opinions. His son, on the other hand—
Kane knew what he liked (knowing what you liked was, he felt, one of the most important characteristics of a modern life well lived). He knew what he wanted and, better yet, what he needed. He was easy as a greased nipple (and pretty much as moral).
In disparate worldviews—one autonomous, one hedonistic—we can infer a world of contrary opinions and an endless source of potential conflict between Barker’s two lead characters.