On Character Psychology (2)

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1 February 2011

Picking up from my last post… the class discussion on character psychology has me thinking (the students are really so astute, they teach me things): there was some disagreement about how much psychological background – which is to say family/childhood background – the reader needed about an adolescent boy-narrator who is engaged in a sexual relationship with an older male. My feeling was that the story both was and was not calling out for back story; for select details from the past that might give us a better sense of how and why this boy finds himself in this particular relationship, with its particular dimensions and dynamics.   But it was neither a “pedophilia story” nor a “coming-out story”; rather, it was a story, as the writer shared with me later, “about loneliness.”

Some students felt strongly that the relationship was extreme and unusual enough that it needed some “why.”  Others felt that the story honed in so compellingly on the particularity of these two individuals that “how” or “why” needn’t come into it, and too much of that would steer the story into a kind of regressive social criticism.

How interesting…

In the meantime, I am reading Stacey D’Erasmo‘s A Seahorse Year, a story about a modern, unconventional family – a lesbian couple, and a son conceived by one of the women and a gay man whose lover (now deceased) was a close friend of the woman.  Interestingly, D’Erasmo does offer us tidbits of psychology/backstory: both women had philandering fathers, one of whom was physically abusive toward the entire family. We are told that the partner who is having an affair has always felt the need to hide things, to have unseen secrets, which may be related to her father having sold radiology equipment, and the Catholic school nuns telling her that God could see right through her.

A Seahorse Year

But perhaps I am conflating “psychology” with “backstory.”  We are never interested in one-to-one explanations, Freudian maps or predictions.  But I do think that contemporary readers, when giving themselves over to characters, long to understand what makes them tic, one way or another.  Sexuality is often elemental…

(And here we see a divergence from Ms. O’Connor; her characters are physical and sensual, but not particularly sexual.  Their behavior is – from her perspective, I dare say – theologically driven more than psycho-sexually.  In light of this, if you think about it, amazing is the enduring appeal of her work.)

I am now on alert for character psychology in everything I read!

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