A self-invented definition for ‘character’ I always liked is ‘a personality, an expressive potential’ that can be harnessed through prose. A character’s effectiveness in narrative is defined by their expression of inner dimension. The layering of character would thus draw one’s attention to how a personality is molded through prose.
The inner life of a character.
And it is precisely this potential of personified liveliness that helps the story develop alongside the organic expansion of the character’s crafted persona. There is after all, a very favourable difference between an authentic character and a vehicle of plot that has lines of dialogue and scripts of action already predetermined within a story, at least according to Noah Lukeman when he wrote about characterisation. Lukeman stressed that the internal sense of self an author crafts for a character should act as the catalyst for the story. Their instinctual, compulsions and internal thought processes are just some ingredients that guides a character’s distinct liveliness.
“Authentic characters will have such a rich life of their own that you’ll often find them thwarting your plans: once they are real, living people: whimsical and unpredictable…If you keep an open mind and stay true to them, they will take over, scene after scene, and tell you how the action should be executed. This might mean throwing out much of your original plotting; it will certainly mean your dropping your writer’s ego; and none of it will be remotely possible unless you know, incontrovertibly, every aspect of your character’s inner life.” (Lukeman, 2003, p30)
Therefore, it is imperative to understand how such dimension can be introduced for a character in fiction to not read so scripted, even when they ARE all products of an author’s writing.
What Families are For
In Helen Garner’s short fiction ‘Postcards from Surfers’, we are introduced to a family, and a woman who narrates for us snippets of her life, subsequently weaving an ultimately directionless narrative that embodies a life of reluctant contentment that is just as directionless but everflowing.
The relationship between the father and daughter is introduced by Garner as an early observation point that provides readers access into the family dynamic, while also acting as ambient characterisation for the father. There is an internal consistency in the narrator’s repeated noting of her father as a habitually abrasive and vocal observer, which reveals a weathered middle-aged man who has grown cynical, and copes with it through a sense of humour dabbled with that same cynicism. The direct “Look at these idiots” from the father, contrasted with “They must be freezing” from the mother as they drove past surfers battling waves on an evidently grim day, immediately hones us into both the father’s character, while the mother’s more empathetic observation does the same for her. Later into the story, the father recalls himself messing with real estate agents under the pretence of wanting to see “how low they’ll go [with the price]”, seemingly bemused by what he perceives as desperation. As for the daughter? It would be fitting to argue that she reciprocates her father’s humour. The narration repeatedly noted her laughing with her father, whenever he makes a snarky comment. However, it is here that the main character’s exposed psyche reveals a much more complicated woman with a past, while also placing her interaction and relationship with her family into suspect.
In a postcard addressed to Phillip, curiously a character that has turned up in many of Garner’s stories (which I will be getting into later), the main character obsessively poured out details of her most intimate moments shared with her father, including their most impacting fights. The narrator’s detailing that she at first laughed “in shock” when she was slapped by her father for backtalking heavily implied that this was a first incident, with a lasting impact on their relationship, as highlighted by the aftermath:
‘After the washing up I was sent for, he was sitting in an armchair, looking down. “The reason why we don’t get on any more,” he said, “is because we are so much alike.” This idea filled me with such revulsion that I turned my swollen face away. It was swollen from crying, not from the blows, whose force had been more symbolic than physical.’
The last sentence is particularly revealing: the scars not shown externally were certainly felt internally; an invisible rift between the daughter and parent.
The narrator revealed that she had returned from Paris years ago and had since been in close contact with her family. Again, ambient detailing from her letters to Phillip implied that her ventures were…less than successful. And as for the rift between her and the father? It is also implied that this rift extends to the entire family. However, this detail is provided to the audience in a roundabout way, through how the main character approaches and interprets her relations with the family nowadays.
“If I speak they pretend to listen, just as I feign attention to their endless looping discourses: these are our courtesies: this is love. Everything is spoken, nothing is said.”
There is a very poetic flavour of naked honesty in this segment. Not only does this reflect what I believe to be common experiences shared by many individuals living with families, it completely reframes all the interactions we’ve witnessed between the daughter and her family: was her friendly and casual laughter as her mother told her a revoltingly amusing story about tampons genuine? How much genuine emotional attachment IS there between this family?
In the end, I’ve come away with the conclusion that this is an instance of resigned contentment and acceptance. The main character has surrendered to the flaws of her family and is willing to put up with them. This is after all what family do for each other in her eyes: they tolerate each other, despite everything. Of course, Garner illustrates this with a nonchalant account as mundane as the sleeping arrangements:
“All night I sleep safely in my bed. The waves roar and hiss, and slam like doors. Auntie Lorna snores, but when I tug at the corner of her blanket she sighs and turns over and breathes more quietly.”
There is No U-Turn on the Highway called ‘Life’
Phillip and the postcards now remains the last pieces of detailing that I would like to explore. Melissa Fagan has observed the repeated featuring of Phillip and the postcards in Garner’s collection of short fiction ‘Postcards from Surfers’, from which this short we are discussing got its name from. Phillip is not just a repeated name, but an archetype, ‘very talented, charming, usually a musician or an artistic figure of some kind, who is morally completely slippery.’ (Fagan, 2015) Considering the long-winded postcards that she writes and addressed to this Phillip, of whom she admits might not even live at the same address anymore, has a strong implication of a failed romance with a man of charming but questionable character. Not only does this elegantly calls back to the other instance of the father’s flashback conflict with the narrator, regarding his accusations of her “letting men using [her] body”, the fact that she has continued writing to him despite losing all contact illustrates a reluctance to move on.
As for this instrument of correspondence, the postcard: it is a very straightforward symbol of the main character’s inner conflict with the desire of new experiences, and nostalgic yearning for the old. Postcards function as windows to slices of new and unfounded adventure, but the main character only buys cards with photos that are reminders of home: “a picture of downtown Rio, in black-and-white…and Geelong, the town where I was born.” Which brings the ending anticlimax into question. Why did the narrator end up throwing away all the postcards full of writings to Phillip, after she hesitated to drop them into the letterbox? The character never tells us, but perhaps once again, ambient detail may hide the answer in plain sight. A passing man’s innocent remark “Too late to change it now” as he observed the narrator hesitating at the letterbox is an acute mirroring of her current stagnancy: being unable to move on from Phillip. The past cannot be changed. Regretting said past would mean making no progress whatsoever. Throwing away the postcards is then symbolic of the main character finally letting go of this long dead past.
‘Postcards from Surfers’ approaches the inner life of its character very much through the ambience of their physical manifestation of internal personalities. The organic actions of the main character are contextualised with her own observations and narration of her inner thoughts, which assists in crafting her as a character, a personality with expressive potential.
Fagan, M. (2015). Postcards from Surfers: 30 years on. Meanjin Quarterly. https://meanjin.com.au/blog/postcards-from-surfers-30-years-on/
Garner, H. (1986). ‘Postcards from Surfers’ from Postcards from Surfers. Penguin Books Australia.
Lukeman, N. (2003). The Plot Thickens: 8 Ways to Bring Fiction to Life. St. Martin’s Griffin. Reprint.