Pondering: Warmth

Reading an interview with Ian McEwan in the NYT (the “By the Book” column for 6 Dec), I paused over the phrase “warm intelligence” (in regard to Shakespeare). Warm. I’m in the warmth seeking stage of revising this manuscript. A few of the historical figures hadn’t quite become living and breathing characters, so I’m searching for ways to bring them to body temperature, suffuse them with warmth.

The OED’s second definition of warmth is: The natural heat of a living body; vital heat.

I began by inviting the still slightly wooden characters to tea and asking questions such as: When you are frightened, what comforts you? Who is most able to comfort you? Is there anyone you can’t forgive? What do you feel you understand about the world, and how did you learn this, what experience drove this home for you? What part of your shadow side do you most fear revealing? Lots of squirming going on.

I’ve enjoyed this so much that I continued with the characters who already felt warm to me, and lo and behold they surprised me. Two characters traded roles in their significance to my heroine, Joan of Kent: her mother, Countess Margaret, has become far more sympathetic and understanding than she’d been in earlier drafts, and her aunt Blanche, Lady Wake, is still, for the most part, outwardly supportive but is in fact secretly conspiring against Joan. Understanding these two has helped me make better sense of Joan’s choices, which are the heart of this story. Margaret and Blanche are now warmer, more complex characters than they were in the earlier drafts, and they engage me far more than they did, but equally wonderful is how their shifts resolved some trouble spots in the story.

Warmth. I wonder about villains–do they need warmth as well? It seems obvious to me that they do, yet I can think of a few villains in my crime novels who didn’t have this warmth–Paul Scorby in The Lady Chapel immediately jumps to mind, wife abuser, sadist, murderer. Would the book have been different had I sought his warmth? Probably. Would I have liked it as much as I do? I don’t know. And what about exceedingly minor characters? My editor suggests that warmth, fully fleshed minor characters confuse the reader–the reader takes it as a sign that she should remember this person, he or she will be important, and is frustrated when that character doesn’t surface again. Still arguing that one in my head.

Back to Ian McEwan, although I can’t be entirely certain what he meant by Shakespeare’s “warm intelligence,” I suspect he meant not warm in the sense of comforting or compassionate, but in the sense of vital, alive. As his characters are. What I love most about the Canadian series Slings & Arrows is Geoffrey’s insight into Shakespeare’s characters and how he communicates their warmth to the actors. Result–brilliant performances.

Warmth. Worth a passing thought.

2 Comments on “Pondering: Warmth

  1. I am thrilled there is a new book coming. I have loved everything you wrote (even spent a day looking for locations related Owen and Lucy when I traveled to York 6 years ago). I appreciate fully human characters, especially villains. I think your idea of having these characters over for tea is terrific! Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us!


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