When building a character, mess defines the polar edges of the character. Mess is the result of all the unfinished, all the partial efforts, partial thoughts, unexecuted dreams, abbreviated wishes. These untidy loose ends create mess.
In a good life, mess would only be around the edges — those things just out of reach that you haven’t gotten to yet. Mess as a character trait, is a part of the recipe of a literary character. It has to be delicately treated. It ranges from Pigpen to James Bond. With all due respect to Peanuts, let’s look into James Bond.
“Cocksure.” It’s just a lovely term that epitomizes the early James Bond characterized in the movies, mostly exemplified by Sean Connery, and to my mind, carried through by Pierce Brosnan. Not a lot of mess there, except for a scar across his back — but that had a story. One didn’t get the sense that James’ socks were on the floor next to the un-made, rumpled bed while he was battling GoldFinger. One never worried if there was a stack of bills back on his kitchen table, next to an unfinished cup of coffee, now moldy, while he was off in Jamaica chasing Dr. No.
Yet, you can totally believe that Daniel Craig, as the new interpretation of Bond, has a few overdue library books. Same character. DIfferent level of mess. By the way, Ian Fleming’s Bond was not a neat, tight, orderly being, either.
The question to a writer is, is the mess that defines a character (which I believe must be a part of a character) a plot element? Is it background, or character defining? If you’re reading this right now, look at your desk. Or your bedroom. Or your kitchen table. Or, God forbid, the bathroom that you’re sitting in right now, reading this blog. What can I tell about your character from the mess around you?
It’s a fun part of character development, and I believe, a universal quality. Mess.
So, mom…I most emphatically will not clean up the mess in my room, it builds character! You want me to be a good writer, dontcha?
Editor’s Note: In the Eighth Day, Chapter Ten, it starts with the quote…
“YOU MAKE YOUR BED and you sleep in it, but you
don’t always make your bed during the week, unless
you are expecting company or your mother to drop by.
Therefore, it was only sensible for Hiccock to have his
usual once-a-week dinner with his ex-wife, Janice, at
his home on Wednesdays, which just so happened to
be the same day Mrs. Phelps, his combination cleaning
woman, plant waterer, and surrogate mom, worked a
full day sprucing up the Hiccock residence.”