Divining The Real Deal From Henry James

Portrait of Henry James, the novelist
Image via Wikipedia

“…the figures in any picture, the agents in any drama, are interesting only in proportion as they feel their respective situations…” – Henry James

Before writing in the morning, sometimes I read a short story for inspiration. Today I chose Henry James’The Real Thing.” I’m rewriting a script today, not a short story, but short stories inspire me no matter what I’m writing. It works for me like divination, as someone who picks passages from the Bible or any inspiring written work, and reads them as if they’re messages from God or the muses.

In “The Real Thing,” an illustrator finds a married couple at his door looking for work as models. They have fallen from a higher class and operate not only as a team to find work, but to hide their state from their friends and even from themselves. We watch them through the eyes of the illustrator. They’re “the real thing” in that they really are the upper class people the illustrator is commissioned to render. Furthermore, “the real thing” refers ironically to the shifting nature of identity when human beings are forced to confront their nature and essence. The married couple cling to their past identity in the new situation. It seems to work, much as any big fish in a small pond. Maintaining their posture, literally and figuratively, gets them work. However, they have no sense they may need to adapt to the actual world they now inhabit, the world of art, in order to thrive or even survive. In this world, an immigrant servant who doesn’t speak the language emerges as the best model. Modeling is artistic in itself and requires an openness and malleability of expression. That talent can arise in anyone, thus dismantling the influence of the class system in the couple’s new world.

In a companion piece, “The Mirror of Consciousness,” included by Gioia & Gwynn in their book, The Art of the Short Story,  James writes about the need to tell the stories through a consciousness that feels what is happening. He says the story is weak if it merely recounts facts and is strong when those facts and events filter through the mind of someone who feels them fully. In “The Real Thing” the illustrator is deeply affected by the actions of the married couple over time. At first it helps his work and later hurts it. Through the lens of the illustrator’s struggles and his own feelings for all his models, I was moved by the plight of the fallen couple, rather than merely irritated by their obstinance and classism.

The takeaway for me today:  my main character serves well as the consciousness through which I show the plight of her struggling friends and neighbors, the web of characters around her. And, I meant to underscore her own troubles by doing this. But since the story is about her, I see that I need to make her more alive, more malleable, more feeling. I need to show her struggle more clearly in the beginning, so the changes near the end have more impact. She must feel the full extent of the situation I’ve put her in, or else my audience won’t. It won’t matter how many rewrites I do if I don’t do that.

How do you get inspiration? Who’s your favorite character in books or on screen?

8 thoughts on “Divining The Real Deal From Henry James

  1. Joshua A. Smith

    If the audience can not identify with or care about or dislike the characters, then there is no entertainment. Like white hats and black hats in the old westerns. You need strongly defined characters to keep your audience.

  2. Cris Wysong

    It’s interesting to me how involved the writing process is, and when it’s done right, it feels most effortless to me. Because I’m an artist and not a writer, I get my inspiration from nature, however Carl Jung is someone I am greatly inspired by.

  3. theresolutionrevolution

    I love how you read something before you write- I’d love to try that. And how reading that increased your awareness about your own main character. Hmmm, favorite characters? Well, I’m re-reading Harry Potter right now and those books are full of great characters. It impresses me how each one, even the “minor” ones, are written so well that you really get a feel for who they are.

    • kellyaatkins

      I love creating minor characters. I think I should try to be as free with the main character as I am with the minor ones. A little lesson I got from reading your comment. Thanks, Kari!

  4. atkinsgilbert

    I agree with James and with you. Kinda kismet, but just last night I was reading about POV, especially third person since that’s what I’m using in the story I’m working on now. What evolved was that my author-narrator voice was inadequate to the task of engaging the reader and I realized the story should be filtered through a character who was orginally secondary. However, he himself is not narrating. My author-narrator voice, instead, is seeing things through what I decided was his emotional filter. I’m hoping it will engender a more complex identification by the reader with the three characters: the man I mentioned, who is the father of my main character’s only, newly deceased son–and that son, himself. If the reader gets to experience the goings-on through that character’s emotional filter, rather than from his actual POV, I hope it will add layers to their primary identification with my main character (Loreen, by the way, the superstar). It makes me, the author, NOT write from my own POV, leaving readers not knowing my point of view. Love your post. Thanks for writing about writing. Nothing better.

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