Character, Race and Writing the Real

"Sing, O Goddess" were the first words of the first epic poem I'd ever read. I'd started out slow and young, beginning with a gateway picture book of Norse myths in first grade and thumbing through my mother's red bound book of Edith Hamilton's "Mythology" in the second, reading ancient myths while running my finger over the golden Pegasus embossed on its cover. I scoured the shelves after that, uncovering stories of Vishnu and Siddhartha, picking up my Grandmother's copy of the Book of Mormon that she'd bought in Salt Lake City (being a good Lutheran woman of the prairie, she tried to offer me a copy of the Christian bible in its place. I told her that I'd already read it). No creation myth was too obscure, no story dissecting the roots of good and evil too violent or profound. It wasn't like I was an addict by the age of nine. I could quit any time I wanted. That's what I told myself.

Then, I discovered the Illiad.

I'd already read the story of the Illiad in multiple forms, both in picture books and in narrative texts. But this was different. This was a translation of the original. I remember opening the book up, and looking at its first page, and not being able to tear my eyes away from those first three words: "Sing, O Goddess." I'd read that all of these epic stories had started as stories, as recitations of events, real and imagined, that existed before the tellers and before the hearers, passed down from generation to generation like the inherited birthrights of cultural DNA. There was no formatting involved. There were no outlines, or page counts. There was the meter, tapped out in the mind of the teller and measured by the ears of the listeners, and there were the words that naturally fit into it.

The Illiad is a war story, and its characters - including its immortals - are deep and real, with understandable emotions that lead them to understandable actions. It is the essence of these understandable characters that creates the war. There is no quick-paced cinematic opening. We do not see a grand chase scene leading to a "but is it all real" moment of protagonist self-doubt. We begin with "the ruinous wrath of Achilles, Son of Peleus," and a quarrel. We do not start at the beginning of the war, but about ten years into the siege of Troy, a city with impenetrable walls. In other words, we begin with a stalemate.

A story evolving from a stalemate cannot rely on gimmicks. It can't get from stalemate to action without fully developed characters to move it there. The Illiad is full of righteous indignation, vengeance, lust, pride, sacrifice (metaphorical and real), kidnappings, deception and death. There are descriptions of brilliant military tactics and the morally compromised men who commit them. There are women who are treated as pawns, whose beauty and status are traded between the warring camps like so many poker chips. Even the gods take sides, and when they do it resembles more of a heavily armed family fight than anything out of the popular comic books that draw on these archetypes for their superhero inspiration.

In fact, if you want to see an example of how to completely misinterpret the Illiad or any of the ancient myths, pick up any number of comic books or graphic novels that show scantily clad goddesses, ab-ilicious gods and more thunderbolts than your careful eye can count. They do to poems like the Illiad what minstrel shows did to "Uncle Tom's Cabin." They drain the story of all nuance and real human emotion, leaving empty costumed shells strolling around forced plot points, concluding with the goodies won, the baddies will come back to fight another day, and your pre-teen male adolescent fantasies have been fulfilled. I'd like to say that there's nothing wrong with that, but that wouldn't be accurate. There is something very, seriously wrong with that. It turns real people into contrived stereotypes.

In order to try to contain the obvious sexism and racism that this comic book-ization of storytelling engenders, the creators of same attempt to layer race, gender and sexual orientation over their characters like another layer of costuming. The question of a character's gender or race or sexual orientation becomes important not because of the reality of who the character is, but because of aesthetics. If the character is not straight, white and male, race, gender and sexual orientation then become the entirety of the character because of the superficiality of this type of story telling. It is this superficiality that leads to horrible mistakes - the use of "the magic Negro," the insistence that every female must inviolate and strong - and these mistakes affect how we view each other as human beings. Our ancestors, at least in their religious story telling, knew better.

All good story telling is based around character, and all good characters are honest. They are funny and flawed and full of hubris. They are vulnerable and scared and violent. They have many moments of doubt and, sometimes, a few moments of heroism. But above all, they are rich, and full, and just like the people standing in line at the grocery store or walking down the street.

Good characters have histories, including their experiences of their own race, gender and sexual orientation. These histories determine their actions. These actions shape the story. Character is eternal and eternally understandable, and it makes a story, even one thousands of years old involving apples and gods and hollow wooden horses, survive.