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In all of my writing, be it long or short, the character is always front and center of the story. During the last 40 years I have collected 30 of, what I think, the best character novels from the classics down to modern times. I've read and studied each of them 5-7 times. A college professor back in 1978 once told me, if you want to write the great character novel or story, then study the great ones, ancient and modern. And so I have over my lifetime.
The one character novel that has had the greatest impact on my writing has been Against Nature by J.K. Huysmans. It was originally published in 1883 as A Rebours. It is beautifully written and beautifully structured.
In gold and purple prose the book recounts the exotic practices and perverse pleasures of Duc Jean Floressas des Esseintes, an unhealthy hero who resembles several of the more gorgeous dandies of the time, but is essentially Huysmans himself in the thinnest of disguises. Huysmans himself was the quintessential Decadent, tortured by that vague longing for an elusive ideal; torn between desire and satiety, hope and disillusionment; painfully conscious that his pleasures are finite, his needs infinite.
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The following is a summary of an email that I received from the Daily Stoic. I think we can all take lessons from this, whether we be leaders in our community or just individuals who wish to make a difference.
General James Mattis is part of a long line of tradition of Stoic warriors. Just as Frederick the Great carried the Stoics in his saddlebags as he led his troops, or Cato proved his Stoicism by how he led his own troops in Rome's Civil War, Mattis has long been known for taking Marcus Aurelius' Meditations with him on campaign.
"Reading is an honor and a gift," he explains, "from a warrior or a historian who - a decade or a thousand decades ago - set aside time to write." Yet many people spurn this gift and still consider themselves educated. "If you haven't read hundreds of books" Mattis says, "you're functionally illiterate." Channeling Marcus Aurelius, Mattis notes that human beings have been fighting and dying and struggling and doing the same things for eons. To not avail yourself of that knowledge is profoundly arrogant and stupid. To fill up body bags of young soldiers while a commander learns by experience? It's worse than arrogant. It's unethical, even murderous.
The same is true for much less lethal professions. How dare you waste your investor's money by not reading and learning from the mistakes of other entrepreneurs? How dare you so take your marriage or your children for granted that you think you can afford to figure this out by doing the wrong things first? What is the upside of trying to make it in the NFL all on your own, and not looking for shortcuts and lessons from seasoned pros and students of the game who have published books? There is no real job training for an emperor or the advisor to the emperor, but you can imagine both Marcus Aurelius and Seneca read heavily from and about their predecessors. The stakes were to high for them not to.
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When I was in high school and later at college, teachers and professors seemed to always say: "Start with a conflict and then use other elements to build around that." I have since tossed that idea in the garbage heap. It doesn't work for me, so there.
In all of my fiction writing - be it long or short - I first create and develop a character. When I'm done I look for a useful setting and plop my character inside of it. Finally, I come up with conflict(s) that may or may not come from the heart, mind or soul of the character. It works for me! I have always viewed my fiction writing as characterological studies.