Inconsistent Character Construction
The Necessity of Inconsistent Character Construction in Fun Home
By Michelle Shim
In the art of storytelling, readers expect a certain level of consistency in the characters introduced to them, at times to the point where it interferes with their literary pleasure. Mieke Bal pinpoints this issue in Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative, criticizing how “readers tend to attach so much importance to coherence” that their expectations and desires to recognize and understand the character overrule “the interchange between story and fabula” (Bal 114). Resistance in the form of inconsistent, even contradictory character construction can destabilize readers, toppling attempts to grasp characters on their own terms. However, Alison Bechdel in her graphic memoir Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic crafts her entire work upon an incessantly wandering, wavering, posthumous reconstruction of her father. In an attempt to resuscitate him, she ingeniously weaves together a remarkably complex blend of real and imagined memories, hypothetical musings, intertextual references, redrawn maps, sketched photographs, and excerpts of diary entries into seemingly tidy panels. Such an ambitious quest is inevitably chaotic; Bechdel shuffles through almost two decades’ worth of data concerning someone who is by nature “an alchemist of appearance, a savant of surface…[a] skillful artificer” (Bechdel 6-7). Her construction of her father is particularly inconsistent in terms of shifting perceptions of reality and fiction, constant speculation about his interior, and nonlinear temporality. However, this inconsistency is not only deliberate, but also necessary; through Fun Home, Bechdel presents an alternative approach to character construction from Bal and other theorists such as Tzvetan Todorov and Walter Benjamin, one that allows her the freedom of movement for an unrestrained lateral exploration of her father.
Before investigating the intricacies of character construction, it is first necessary to establish what character construction exactly entails and how it is often conducted. Bal primarily focuses on the concept of ‘character-effect,’ defined by the compounding of fabricated creatures, or paper people “made up from fantasy, imitation, memory…without flesh and blood” (Bal 113) with real human beings in the mind of the reader. With successful character-effect, the reader forgets the essential difference between the two and begins to identify with the fictional character as a fellow sentient, human entity; paper becomes flesh, the ink blood. Bechdel, too, partakes in this character-effect, but turns it on its head by employing its inverse; she maps her formerly living, breathing father onto the pages of her memoir, thereby translating him into a character. The blurring of her father into a character offers an opportunity for her to “play with [her] paper people” (115) rather than to reduce him to strictly realist norms, an important opportunity especially considering how his ‘real’ narrative has already come to a definitive end.
By fluidly navigating her father between the boundaries of fabrication and reality, Bechdel grants herself the creative license in rendering an investigative construction of him that is truthful to her, but not necessarily logical, factual, reliable, or even coherent. In playing with the paper version of her father, she deftly fuses recollection and imagination, at times to the point where considerable, active effort is required of the reader to distinguish the seams between the two realms. For instance, Bechdel furtively edits the details of her grandmother’s story about her father when he was trapped in the mud; she sheepishly admits, “(I know Mort was a mailman, but I always pictured him as a milkman, all in white — a reverse grim reaper)” (41). This confession drives a scene-to-scene transition from her grandmother’s storytelling to a portrayal of Mort the “Milkman” that the reader now realizes is untrue, a realization only possible because Bechdel explicitly confesses her embellishment of reality. Even her attempts to assuage the reader into accepting a certain portrayal of her father and his narrative hint at her rejection of the concrete, factual truth, such as when she reassures the reader that “(Yes, it really was a sunbeam bread truck)” (59) that killed her father. The remark propels yet another scene-to-scene transition from her on the phone with her mother revealing her father’s homosexuality to the semi-truck harmlessly passing by her father four months later. The quips and parenthetical asides that constantly accompany her memoir almost become a third narrative voice in addition to the retrospective Bechdel and the several younger versions of Alison within the panels, propelling her memoir forward.
In addition to blurring the boundaries between what is real and what is imagined, Bechdel also shifts the very baseline of reality itself in her memoir. Mediums are never expressed in their raw form, always filtered through her own perspective before being made accessible to the reader. Maps are constantly redrawn and embellished (30-31, 126-127, 146-147), letters and diary entries are rewritten (62-63, 141-143, 148), photographs are sketched in varying artistic styles (48, 71, 100-101, 120, 164), and pages from dictionaries and books are also recreated (47-48, 57, 106, 125, 171, 197, 205, 228). In presenting primary sources through her own eyes and hands, Bechdel posits that there is always the possibility of alteration, of deviation from the journalistic truth. As a result, she grants herself a margin of error in this memoir that allows her exploration of her father to be genuine and profound, but not necessarily factually accurate. By handling her father as a potentially fictional character in a partly fictional world, she allows herself to toe the line of reality, and this creative, almost playful experimentation offers her the momentum to explore a figure who is nothing if not resistant to understanding. While Bal states that “Characters give most literary pleasure when they are allowed to resist their readers” (Bal 114), Bechdel goes even one step further in that she, along with her readers, also resists her father in turn. She resists the infuriating resistance of his interiority by providing a type of construction that demands flexibility with regards to accuracy, which is only possible because of her translation of her father into a character, a paper person of her own creation.
Yet her father’s ‘character’ at the center of her work is simultaneously a real person, albeit dead. This fact then also allows Bechdel to freely conduct the psychological criticism and causal analysis that Bal believes is not only futile but also fundamentally flawed, since characters, unlike people, have “no psychological depth of [their] own” (114) and “no real psyche, personality, ideology, or competence to act” (113); they only possess characteristics that fool the reader into assuming they do through effective character-effect. While Bal diagnoses such analysis as “a major ideological pitfall” (114) considering her theory that characters are merely the effect of a successful façade and do not exist in any real sense (113), Tzvetan Todorov in “Reading as Construction” argues that only with psychological determinism does “the fictional character become endowed with character” (Todorov 77). Todorov asserts that round, dimensional characters wholly depend on such determinism; every action must be linked to a motivation, each cause to an effect. Seemingly adhering to Todorov’s belief of the importance of the psychological establishment and comprehension of a character, Bechdel conducts thorough psychological analysis on her father throughout the course of the memoir. However, Bechdel still diverges from Todorov in that she constructs her father through an exact failure to pinpoint even the cause of his death, one of the fundamental assumptions of the memoir. Rather than constructing him through psychological determinism, Bechdel summons an infinite array of potential narrative directions for her father, the nebulous nature of which does not at all hamper her construction of an incredibly round, complex character.
Bechdel reconciles these two theories with the endless speculation underlying her entire memoir, conducting unbounded psychological analysis upon every moment of her father, real or imagined. She attempts to fill in the gaps her father has left behind to form a more coherent narrative with constant hypotheticals of “maybe,” “perhaps,” or “what if” (47, 44, 105, 108, 175, 196, 230-231) almost reminiscent of the “curvy circumflex” (142) she had formerly used in her diary entries to replace “I think.” Rather than a vertical burrowing down into the core of her father’s identity, there seems to be a lateral exploration, a branching out of infinite possibilities, explanations, and justifications for her father’s past actions or inactions. He is mapped onto an increasingly expansive space, perhaps even contributing to a potential disintegration, as opposed to a construction, of him as a real person. Bechdel thereby destabilizes this conventional perception of construction, instead introducing her own brand of character construction. In Chapter 2 specifically, Bechdel looks back on the one rare instance her father called her back to the embalming room, exposing his daughter with no warning not only to the genitals of a naked corpse, but also to a chest split open to his dark red central cavity. A spiraling series of retroactive speculation concerning his motives follows the recollection: “Maybe this was the same offhanded way his own notoriously cold father had shown him his first cadaver. Or maybe he felt he’d become too inured to death, and was hoping to elicit from me an expression of the natural horror he was no longer capable of. Or maybe he just needed the scissors” (44-45). The repetition of “maybe” lulls readers into believing they are advancing towards a deeper understanding of her father. However, the final, mundane question following ruminations of potential childhood trauma and emotional numbing, resists the perception of this downward tunneling. Bechdel explores the infinite potential causes underlying her father’s life and death through a ‘spilling’ and ‘spreading’ trajectory of character construction, never fooling herself or her readers into the belief that she holds concrete answers to any of the questions that she poses.
Although inconsistent in terms of both reality as well as speculation, Fun Home also perfectly encapsulates nonlinear narration; the work champions inconsistency in the temporal rhythm that binds these snapshots of her father, whether they be real or imagined, concrete history or elusive hypothesizing. This temporal inconsistency imbues her father’s fate with a sense of plasticity, especially with regards to the finality of his death. Bechdel navigates her youth, teenage, and college years with purposeful abandon, crisscrossing back and forth between different time periods. Consequently, the reader experiences her father from disparate times, angles, and attitudes, and this complex chronology maps an equally complex portrayal of her father. The chronological setup of Fun Home is purposefully nonlinear, offering a tangled narrative of an already convoluted father-daughter relationship. The first chapter, “Old Father, Old Artificer,” spans through much of Bechdel’s childhood as well as her high school memories of her father, skipping back and forth from incident to incident, almost as if Bechdel is drawing the panels as her memories surface sporadically. In the second chapter, “A Happy Death,” this unreliable sense of chronology continues, depicting scenes from his funeral when Alison is a college student to portraying her growing up in a gothic revival house, helping with the family business of managing a funeral home, mostly with scene-to-scene transitions that require the reader to bridge the gaps through a considerable level of closure. The chapter even shows a panel before Bechdel herself was born when her parents were still living in Europe, her mother pregnant with her (32). The coalescing of seemingly random revelations at haphazard moments in time contribute to the formation of a spotty, uneven perception of her father; every realization revealed through this strategically shaky process of unfolding seems tenuous, about to be upstaged at any given moment. At certain points in the memoir, Bechdel’s portrayal of her father is so dynamic, so alive, that his death, despite being revealed in the very first chapter, seems somehow unlikely or even impossible.
Such inconsistency fomented through a blurring of character and person conducted through nonlinear narration allows Bechdel to create space for endless possibilities, resisting the finality of fate. The role of fate in Fun Home is therefore particularly intriguing, especially in the context of Walter Benjamin’s “Fate and Character.” Benjamin discusses the connection between fate and character, a relationship which he believes is not only problematic, but false (305); the two spheres are inseparable, the inner sphere of character interpenetrating that of the outer sphere of fate. He asserts that “character and fate, far from being theoretically distinct, coincide” (306). However, the inconsistent character construction in Fun Home allows Bechdel to separate her father from his fate, creating flexibility and space for transformation and discovery within a narrative that has already come to its end. Fate becomes a counter-intuitive or even paradoxical force in the memoir, mapping all that Bechdel’s father was and could have been.
The flow of the memoir at large could perhaps be described as circular, especially in Bechdel’s return to the beginning at the end of her work through the story of Icarus and Daedalus (3) with the question, “What if Icarus hadn’t hurtled into the sea?” (231). However, Fun Home denies even such a semblance of regularity and rhythm. This false sense of circularity offers readers an oversimplified narrative that barely scratches the surface of Bechdel’s complex development of her father. Her construction of him is much better described through a different, unmentioned side to Bechdel’s mythical allusion to Daedalus: his labyrinth. The reader, alongside Bechdel herself, stumbles through countless twists and turns, mirroring the kaleidoscope-like nature of the human mind and memory. Bechdel releases the idea of consistency and causality being key factors in character construction, instead writing a book about the failure of approaching increasingly deeper, truer revelations about a character. Through this release, she instead accepts a lateral form of character construction that spills rather than burrows, letting her paper people breathe their own fates into instability.
Bal, Mieke. Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative. University of Toronto Press, 2017.
Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. Turtleback Books, 2007.
“Fate and Character.” Reflections Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings, by Walter Benjamin and Peter Demetz, Schocken, 1989.
Suleiman, Susan R, and Inge Crosman, editors. “Reading as Construction.” Reader in the Text: Essays on Audience and Interpretation, by Tzvetan Todorov, Princeton University Press, 2014.