Counterpoint and Iago

I want to mention two ideas about creative writing from two essays. Both can influence characters and their relationships.

 

The first is “Counterpointed Characterization” an essay by Charles Baxter in his book Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction. Baxter writes

With counterpointed characterization, certain kinds of people are pushed together, people who bring out a crucial response to each other. A latent energy rises to the surface, the desire or secret previously forced down into psychic obscurity.

Baxter downplays conflict and contests in these encounters, focusing instead on what they can reveal to readers about each character. The characters contrast sharply with each other and that leads to revelation.

 

He describes this revelation musically:

I keep thinking of music: character as melody and countermelody, the melody of the voices on the lawn, the sound of the frantic trumpet tangled around the slow and placid violins in Charles Ives’s The Unanswered Question.

Some of his examples include Maggie, Dee and the narrating mother in Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use,” Ruth, Lucille and Sylvie from Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, A Streetcar Named Desire, King Lear, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” and especially Gabriel, Gretta, and Michael Furey in James Joyce’s “The Dead.” So, what can you show about characters through other contrasting or counterpointing characters and their interactions? How can you use contrasting characters to create scenes that engage readers, whatever else the scene might do?

 

The second idea comes from Susan Neville’s “Where’s Iago?” in Bringing the Devil to His Knees: The Craft of Fiction and the Writing Life. She describes Iago in several different ways; first, as “the character that bounces all the other characters around,” then “as a certain type of character-not a villain necessarily but a catalyst . . . and as evil in the way it’s usually understood, as part of the very structure of the world.” She continues

My first thought is to think of Iago as a catalyst character. Iago slithers through the Garden of Eden because without him it’s a dull, stagnant story; nothing would ever change. Human history in time begins with Iago. . . . the function of evil, in the best of conditions, is tension and imbalance, the eventual creation, through suffering and misfortune, of wisdom. Suffering, misfortune, and, I should add, honesty . . .

She also talks about Iago as a tool for writers, “as much a victim, often, of his own evil as anyone,” as a force or event in a story, as “not conscious of his role,” even as a milieu. So, how useful might an Iago be in what you’re working on? Can you identify an Iago specifically? What can you say about it and how will you use it?

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