Tied in with my latest debut novelist Q&A I’ve been considering the character of Iosif in Anthea Nicholson’s The Banner of the Passing Clouds. His internal obstacle to happiness feels so real to him, it has a physical presence and a fear-inspiring name. Iosif is defined by his inner Stalin, compelled to appease him even as he wrestles against him. He cannot find fulfilment while this moustachioed squatter taps on his ribs, churns his bowels and steals his voice.
At one time or another, most of us have felt trapped by things we find
ourselves thinking or doing, caught by our own impulses or foolish choices; ensnared in some unhappiness or fear; imprisoned by our own history. We feel unable to go forward and yet we believe there must be a way. ‘I want to change, but not if it means changing,’.
(Stephen Grosz, The Examined Life, p xi-xii)
The fictional world is replete with endearing yet awkward customers whose very personalities seem to conspire against them. In Alison Moore’s The Lighthouse, Futh cannot understand why his relationships break down, yet he is so passive, he cannot even take care of his basic nutrition. Satish, the main character in Shelley Harris’ Jubilee, is better equipped to meet life’s challenges, yet his unprocessed feelings about an unpleasant incident from his childhood are threatening his equilibrium.
The obstacle may reside within us, but it feels so alien, so inconsistent with what we genuinely want to achieve, we’re driven to disown it. This desire may be so strong that we almost welcome the discovery of an external barrier:
But we can sometimes exploit a disaster to block internal change. …
[W]e can take on a catastrophe to stop ourselves feeling and thinking – and to avoid responsibility for our own intimate acts of destruction. (Stephen Grosz, The Examined Life, p145)
It’s often the case that the internal obstacle reflects the external and vice versa. Asked whether she considered The Banner of the Passing Clouds a psychological, as well as a political, novel Anthea Nicholson told me:
The family and the State become interchangeable in Iosif's world. The wrongs of society are mirrored in the damage of family life … As the Soviet system self-destructed so do the families in my novel become destroyed or scattered.
Meanwhile, what’s your experience of writing characters whose goals are thwarted by some internal characteristic? And have you ever found yourself blaming outside forces for not getting things done when the block is really within you? Do share!