Friday, September 10, 2021

100 things to do...

Dave Freeman, the man who wrote the book, 100 Things to Do Before You Die, died after completing only around half of the list.  Ironically, he died not while doing one of the many adventurous things he wrote about, but at home, after falling and hitting his head.    

This book, and all the imitations of it, from 500 CDs You Must OwnBefore You Die, (what happens then?) to 1001 Movies to See Before You Die, all assume a long life, as well as plenty of money and spare time. 

For people who don’t regard death as the end of everything, such lists might not be so relevant, but for people who believe this life is all there is, then perhaps these lists gain importance. Regrettably, making collections of escapades or movies or music is never going to be completely satisfying. You’re always going to be worrying about the things that aren’t on the list. And whether, like Freeman, you’ll actually make it to the end of your inventory. 

And it also depends on whether you can afford to contemplate starting any one of these lists in the first place. For most of the world’s population, managing to get to a recent movie is an achievement, hearing good music is a privilege, and travelling to places you want to go (rather than just places you can afford) is a luxury.   

In the movie, The Bucket List, Jack Nicholson challenges Morgan Freeman to live out the dreams he’s written on his bucket list – the list you make before you kick the bucket. But Freeman could never afford to do some of the things he’s listed, and it’s only because Nicholson is a multi-millionaire that they can manage to set off at all.    

There’s some hint in the movie that a certain degree of realism needs to come into achieving things on a bucket list. A certain degree: the two characters have been through cancer treatment but appear to suffer few ill-effects from their scampering around the world. (That is, until both of them die at the end of the movie.) 

But apart from health, there’s the difficulty of up and leaving family, or jobs, or responsibilities. The people who make these lists often seem to have a casual attitude towards the more stable aspects of life 

I think most of us could come up with a list that would be far more satisfying (and far cheaper) than the 100 Things/Die type of list, if we thought about it.     

For example, a list with just one item in it: One God to get to know before you die.  

Or a slightly longer but still manageable list: 3...5...7 family members to make up with before you die.

Or a list that takes a bit of stepping out of the comfort zone: 95 homeless people in my town to help before you die. 

These may not at first seem to be exciting and adventurous.  But I’m sure you’ll get a lot more long-term satisfaction out of achieving them.


Image by aga2rk from Pixabay 

This piece first appeared on the now defunct site, Triond, in 2008

Thursday, September 09, 2021

Describing - or not describing - your characters

Today I came across this piece I'd written back in 2004, and never seem to have done anything more with. If nothing else it's fun to read how different writers describe their characters: 

A character in a recent* Tim La Haye novel is described as ‘a hunk with dark hair.’  This may not be La Haye’s fault, since he regularly uses other writers to fill out the details, but it’s symptomatic of the weak descriptions prevalent in many current popular novels.

Here’s another from a recent thriller: ‘Linda. Soft, beautiful, generous, and solid, his backbone for three and a half decades.’ Solid? 

Many writers tend to avoid describing characters these days, partly a result of fashion, and partly a result of the ‘show, don’t tell’ school of writing, whereby they reveal their characters through dialogue and action. But an author who can give us a succinct description of one of their creations, adds something to the reader’s imagination.

Consider Agatha Christie’s first description of Hercule Poirot: ‘He was hardly more than five feet, four inches, but carried himself with great dignity. His head was exactly the shape of an egg, and he always perched it a little on one side.’

Dorothy Sayers’ detective, Lord Peter Wimsey, fares worse: ‘His long, amiable face looked as if it had generated spontaneously from his top hat, as white maggots breed from Gorgonzola.’ Looking at the various images of Wimsey, from drawings to TV performances, no one seems to have achieved anything like this wonderful description. 

Chesterton manages to describe Father Brown in endless ways, but here are a couple: ‘there shambled into the room a shapeless little figure, which seemed to find its own hat and umbrella as unmanageable as a mass of luggage.’ [He had] a breathless geniality which characterises a corpulent charwoman who has just managed to stuff herself into an omnibus.’

P G Wodehouse not describing a minor character: ‘There is no need to describe Teddy Weeks….a sickeningly handsome young man, possessing precisely the same melting eyes, mobile mouth, and corrugated hair so esteemed by the theatre-going public today.’

One of my favourite character descriptions comes from Middlemarch. George Eliot gives us more than a page on Sir James, so it’s difficult to pull out any particular piece, but here goes: ‘a man’s mind – what there is of it – has always the advantage of being masculine – as the smallest birch tree is of a higher kind than the most soaring palm – and even his ignorance is of a sounder quality.’ Fortunately, Sir James turns out to be worth more than this description of him. 

Likewise, Annie Proulx in The Shipping News builds up a picture of her main character paragraph by ruthless paragraph: ‘A great damp loaf of a body. Head shaped like a crenshaw,** no neck, reddish hair ruched back. Features as bunched as kissed fingertips. Eyes the colour of plastic. The monstrous chin, a freakish shelf jutting from the lower face.’ It’s almost as if she didn’t like him very much.

And finally, Shakespeare on one of his favourite characters, Falstaff: ‘that trunk of humours, that bolting-hutch of beastliness, that swoln parcel of dropsies, that huge bombard of sack, that stuffed cloak bag of guts, that roasted Manningtree ox with the pudding in his belly, that reverend vice, that grey iniquity, that father ruffian, that vanity in years.’

* 'Recent' in 2004, that is. 

** A variety of melon, apparently. 

It's probable this piece was originally intended as a column for the NZ Anglican magazine, Taonga. Those columns were published under the heading of The Juggling Bookie.