I’m reading Anaïs Nin this month, having started with Henry and June, her unexpurgated diary (review here), and now have read through more than half of the earlier (heavily edited) Diaries, Vol 1. One might wonder why a Sci Fi writer is diving back into the classics. It is to beef up my ability to deliver good characters, the lifeblood of any story, even of tech-driven genre fiction.
I’m finding in Nin a very complex character, and she fascinates with statements like this: “I may be basically good, human, loving, but I am also more than that, imaginatively dual, complex, an illusionist.”
I love this line because it so clearly states the duality faced by all of us, between the inner being and the outer persona. In the complexity of human emotion, we find not only duality but even dichotomy, and that fascinates me as a writer. I want to be able to reflect that in my characters. Basically ‘good’ characters will be driven to do dastardly things at times, or they will react badly until they discover the good in themselves. To me, that’s what character development is all about, and what should fascinate (and raise tension for) the reader. An early beta reader never liked my MC as I took too far my depictions of his prejudices (which were wiped out by the end of the book). In the present form, I’m careful to make him sympathetic, while still flawed — and growing throughout the book. Nin says of herself: “I have done the vilest things, foulest things, but I have done them superbly.” If one can capture that elan, one can deliver to the reader the essence of a gripping character.
The clear lens into the chaos of the mind Nin gives the reader serves also to illustrate how exceptional people think. And don’t we authors want to portray exceptional people? Making heroes accessible, to me, is a high art, and Nin provides great direction. She freely admits to a nature that partakes of life like a butterfly, or maybe a bee is more appropriate. Her flowers are the people in her life, primarily men of literature who were working in and around Paris at that time. The salons through which she passed held so many luminaries. How many of us would be so blasé about sitting in with known literary greats that we’d pass up visiting someone like D. H. Lawrence, who admittedly was living ‘close by,’ and yet never visited by Nin? Yet she absorbs her broad exposure with aplomb. Nothing astonishes her, since she herself is so astonishing. Do you ever wonder how famous people feel when they get up? When they’re hungry, grouchy? Nin gives her reader a vision of how exceptional people interact with the mundane, while maintaining a state higher, more intense than us ordinary folks. Here is another great line from the Diaries:
“I too am interested in evil, and I want my Dionysian life, drunkenness and passion and chaos; and yet here I am, sitting at a kitchen table and working with Henry on the portrait of June, while Fred is making a stew.”
There you go. The divine and the absurd coincide neatly together. Sometimes the divine is held in abeyance, but it is straining at the leash, always. That balance, if depicted in fiction, would be as effective as it is in this woman’s journals.