In yesterday’s post, I brought up the topic of fictional characters who deceive themselves. We all do a little of that, of course, but in some people, it can be taken too far. And that can lead to a great deal of trouble.
But there are also a lot of characters (just as there are a lot of people in real life) who are under no illusions about themselves (or at least, very few). They’re very clear-eyed about their skills, about the way others perceive them, and so on. In a sense, that can be quite liberating, as these characters are very often more comfortable in their own skins than they might be if they weren’t honest with themselves. At the same time, that sort of clear-eyed self-awareness doesn’t always make for an awful lot of optimism. Still, many people feel that it’s better not to lie to oneself.
One of the central figures in Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs, for instance, is famous painter Amyas Crale. Sixteen years before the events in the novel, he was poisoned. At the time, everyone assumed that the killer was his wife, Caroline. She had good motive, too, as he was having an affair. What’s more, the poison used to kill the victim was among her things. Based in part on that evidence, she was convicted, and died in prison a year later. Now, the Crales’ daughter, Carla Lemarchant, is about to get married. Before she does, she wants to clear her mother’s name. So, she hires Hercule Poirot to look into the matter again. Poirot agrees, and interviews the five people who were ‘on the scene’ at the time. Through those interviews, and each witness’ written account, Poirot finds out what happened to Amyas Crale. As the novel goes on, we learn quite a lot about the victim. Among other things, Crale was honest with himself about both his talents and his failings. He was well aware that he couldn’t leave other women alone, that he couldn’t always be trusted, and so on, and made neither false promises nor excuses. In some ways, you could argue that that quality added to his character.
Peter Temple’s Melbourne PI Jack Irish is like that, too. When we first meet him, in Bad Debts, he’s just coming back to life, so to speak, after the murder of his wife, Isabel. Before her death, he was an attorney, and still keeps his license and does occasional legal work. But he’s very clear-eyed about the sort of person he is. He has no great ambition to climb to the top of the legal profession, and no illusions that he would be easily able to do that, anyway. He does PI work, but he doesn’t see himself as ‘the great detective,’ either. He doesn’t lie to himself about his faults and weaknesses. At the same time, he doesn’t wallow in self-pity. He’s straightforward with his clients, and (most of the time) quite honest with himself. It makes his character all the more down-to-earth and realistic.
Alexander McCall Smith’s PI Mma Precious Ramotswe is optimistic, and she’s aware that she’s intelligent. In that sense, she has confidence in her ability to solve the cases that come her way. But that doesn’t mean that she is under any real illusions about herself. For example, she is what’s called ‘traditionally built.’ She doesn’t try to hide her figure, and she doesn’t try to pretend she’s a sylph. In Blue Shoes and Happiness, she does start to go on a diet. But she isn’t a petite person, and all the dieting in the world won’t make her look like a stereotypical fashion model. It’s not long before she’s reminded of this, and returns to her custom of being really honest with herself about who she is and what makes her comfortable. She doesn’t have illusions about her skill as a detective, either. She promises her clients to do her best, and that’s what they get. But she is also aware that she can’t solve everything and find every answer. She tells clients that, too.
In Helen Fizgerald’s The Cry, we are introduced to Alexandra Donohue. She had to start life over again as a single mother after catching her husband, Alistair, with another woman, Joanna Lindsay. Now, she’s moved back to Melbourne from Scotland, and is raising her teenage daughter, Chloe, there. Alexandra has certainly had her problems coping with everything, but she also doesn’t cling to any illusions about Alistair or their life together. Things change dramatically when Alistair and Joanna come to the Melbourne area with their own nine-week-old baby, Noah. One of Alistair’s goals is to get custody of Chloe, and Alexandra has quite a bit of anxiety about that, particularly since she’s honest enough to admit that she wouldn’t qualify as a perfect parent. But when Noah goes missing, Alistair and Joanna are suddenly thrust into every caring parent’s worst nightmare. There’s a massive search, and even Chloe gets involved. Little by little, we find out the truth about what happened to Noah. As the story goes on, Alexandra becomes more and more clear-eyed and honest with herself and others. She even has an enlightening conversation with Joanna, in which we see how she’s developed. It all makes for some interesting layers of character development.
And then there’s Maureen Carter’s Working Girls. In that novel, Birmingham DS Beverly ‘Bev’ Morriss and her team investigate the death of fifteen-year-old Michelle Lucas. When the team members discover that the victim was a commercial sex worker, they start to look among the people she interacted with, including her clients and her pimp, Charlie Hawes. Morriss suspects Hawes had something to do with the murder, even if he wasn’t directly responsible. But she finds it difficult to find anyone who’s willing to talk to her about him. One angle she takes is to talk to the other sex workers in the area. She discovers that most of them are quite realistic about what they do. On the one hand, they have no illusions that it’s a high-status occupation or that they’ll rise to the top of the most elite call girls. But on the other hand, most of them aren’t at all ashamed of what they do. And what’s really interesting is the equally honest perspective they have on their clients, many of whom are highly-placed. In fact, the sex workers likely have a more candid and accurate perspective on the men they meet than those men have on themselves.
Characters who don’t deceive themselves can sometimes seem cynical or pessimistic. But the fact is, many of them are simply realistic about themselves. And they can add real authenticity to a story. Which ones have stayed with you?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Streetlife Serenader.