I went to a nightclub to see a noted drag act. Alexis Michelle was fabulous! She’s a great singer with endearing patter between songs, a wonderful selection of music, an engaging personality, and a head-to-toe, fully realized persona. The difference between the person and the persona is important to performers. With a drag show, it’s a conscious construction with make-up, manicure, eyelashes, wig, gowns and more…
It’s also an agreement between the audience and the performer. Just as a theater audience agrees to occupy the space of the fourth wall, the nightclub audience doesn’t try to look behind the curtain to see the singer without her costume. When the singer is really good—and Alexis Michelle is really good—the real feelings and the sentiment in the songs, carries the show along with the feathers & sequins.
This got me thinking about the personae we call carry within us, and the multiple personae that play hide & seek in fiction. No, I’m not talking about multiple personality disorders (certainly enough of them in mystery fiction & horror). I’m talking about the way real people act in varied situations and how characters in fiction tend to flatten out and become one-note personalities. All too many secondary characters are one-dimensional, but I’m more concerned with protagonists that are summed up in one-liners.
How many times have you read a mystery with a heartbroken, alcoholic, former policeman, paying penance for his past mistakes, while drowning his sorrows? OR The whip-smart, wise-cracking, self-deprecating private eye, too focused to notice that her best friend is her perfect mate? A real person projecting either of those personae would have a few other dimensions. Perhaps there’s a part of him that isn’t sorry for his past or a part that dresses up as a clown for a children’s hospital? Perhaps part of her notices her buddy, but doubts he’d ever be the kind of man she dreams of… In other words, as characters, they might have ideas, dreams, and activities, that aren’t part of that set persona. The super nice person might be rude to wait staff, revealing a hidden well of anger and hatred. The cold person might have a warm & fuzzy streak.
I’m starting to play with this as I prepare for the BIG REWRITE of the oft rewritten novel. The goal is to give the protagonist, her significant other, and the principal players in the story more than their easy descriptions imply. This is going to be tricky, but I think it’s worth exploring.