Friday, June 3, 2011

The Character Who is You

We’ve spent the last few days talking Poirot, and next week I’m gonna talk Jane Marple, but today I wanted to talk about a recurring character in Christie’s work who has been noted to mirror Agatha Christie herself: Ariadne Oliver.

Ariadne Oliver is a sixty-ish woman who writes mystery novels about a foreign detective named Sven Hjerson. My introduction to her was via Cards on the Table, reviewed yesterday, in which she was one of the sleuths. I’d heard that Mrs. Oliver participated in this book, which was the main reason that I picked it up – I wanted to see if she had, indeed, written ‘herself’ into the book.

With any writer who creates a ‘version’ of him/herself there’re two ways it can go: 1. The author will poke fun at herself. 2. The author will create an idealized version of herself. (A tendency I think that is used by younger, more inexperienced writers.)

***Note: Strangely enough, The Autobiographical Novel doesn’t generally have a meta-character problem – since everyone in the book is ‘real’ there’s generally a sense of balance vs. the completely made up novel where Self Becomes Superhero.***

Agatha Christie definitely pokes fun at herself. Ariadne Oliver is the funniest character that I’ve come across in a loooong time. She sticks her nose in where she doesn’t belong. She jumps to conclusions in serious cases, and she writes in a room that can only be described as a Bird Room.

Poking fun at yourself is a delicate proposition. You can’t make yourself look like a bumpkin, but at the same time you can’t look too full of yourself. The best way to do it is wait until you have some kind of public persona – a public caricature, if you want to think about it that way. Christie, for example, was super-well-known before Cards came out. So bringing in all the clichés of a well-known mystery author was easy. They’re probably nosy know-it-alls at parties – and Mrs. Oliver is. They probably want to jump into actual police investigations – and Mrs. Oliver does. They’re eccentric, hence the Bird Room.

And they all do it for money. There’s a great exchange in Cards (sorry I don’t have the book in front of me at the moment, so I'm winging it) where a suspect’s friend visits Mrs. Oliver and gushes about how great it must be to be a writer. To which Mrs. Oliver replies somewhere along the line that the motivation is always greater when the bills arrive – essentially, inspiration goes to those who need money!

This kind of meta-character only works with a careful balance. I think we all remember looking at our friends during the Ocean’s Twelve movie, wondering what on earth Julia Roberts was doing as a character pretending to be Julia Roberts. Awkward.

So, some ideas on putting yourself into the mix:

• Be somewhat popular or people won’t get the jokes.
• Use some cliché to back you up.
• Don’t over-do it a la Ocean’s Twelve. Being the main character has only worked for Jonathan Safran Foer in Everything is Illuminated…and he still took a strange backseat.
• Definitely look carefully to see if it enhances the plotline. Mrs. Oliver is a very active, useful part of the story. She’s a good foil for the other characters, like Poirot. But if the self-reference is in there just to be in there…think twice about it.
• If you haven’t been published yet, hold off on using yourself. I know they say write what you know, but no one else knows you at this point. They haven’t participated in any of your storylines yet. So to put it in at the outset just seems like ego. And no one will like you after that.

Like all things, I think it’s a question of balance. I just happen to think that this balance is a difficult one to strike without some experience. Anyone else have tips/tricks/thoughts?

1 comment:

  1. I love Ariadne Oliver! Especially in Hallowe'en Party. And the way she's constantly complaining about her Finnish detective :-)

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