Sunday

Robert Stone's Characters: Leitmotif in Dog Soldiers

Near the beginning of Dog Soldiers, one of the protagonists remembers an experience he had on the front in Viet Nam:
One bright afternoon, near a place called Krek, Converse had watched with astonishment as the world of things transformed itself into a single overwhelming act of murder.  In a manner of speaking, he had discovered himself.  Himself was a soft shell-less quivering thing encased in a hundred and sixty pounds of pink sweating meat.  It was real enough.  It tried to burrow into the earth.  It wept.
Converse suffers from an uncomfortable sense of removal from himself, along with a general metaphysical angst.  He is addicted to fear, because it’s the only thing that allows him to be sure he’s really alive:
It was the medium through which he perceived his own soul, the formula through which he could confirm his own existence.
Converse’s addiction to fear is therefore a crucial character trait in terms of Stone’s plot, because emanating from it is the principal dramatic need and the decision that locks in the inciting action: Converse agrees to move the heroin because it is dangerous enough to provide a constant reason to be afraid. 

Fear continues to be a dominant trait of Converse’s character throughout the book. Sometimes we see it in dialog:
“John,” Charmian said, “you’re the world’s most frightened man.  I don’t know how you live with yourself.”
But more often we see it in actions and observations, usually originating from Converse himself:
Converse’s face was as wet as if he’d been immersed. The drink was making him sweat.

Converse had never been to Ngoc Linh Province; he knew very few people who had. He had flown over it, and from the air it looked thoroughly frightening, a deep-green maze of iron-spine mountains. The clouds were full of rocks.
And sometimes originating from other characters:
Hicks brushed aside the blue haze of his cigar and felt suddenly that he was trying to dispel more than cigar smoke. Converse’s fear was almost palpable.  Hicks was impressed.
In the above quotation it is interesting to note that Converse’s fear has actually taken on a physical quality. It hangs in the air as a haze, much like cigar smoke. 

Also interesting is the last line: “Hicks was impressed.”  The scene is our first introduction to Hicks, a second protagonist who, like Converse, possesses a dominant character trait.  For Hicks it’s not fear but the opposite, a pronounced ability to remain calm—or even amused— in the face of turmoil and danger. 

We learn this about Hicks:
At the same time that Hicks had come to know Converse, he had encountered Japan, and Japan—as he perceived it—had been immensely important to him.  He had brought a Japanese woman home with him, and he had come, during his years as a professional marine, to think of himself as a kind of samurai . . . Even dealing, he endeavored to maintain a spiritual life.
The theme of Hicks as an imperturbable warrior fortified by mystical Eastern spirituality reappears, like Converse’s fear, frequently throughout the novel.  And, like Converse’s fear, it is kept alive not primarily with dialog but with the lines between the dialog, the “business” of the characters’ actions and internal observations.  Consider the following examples:
Hicks paused before ringing the bell; there was some disturbance of women inside. A lady was shouting in Spanish and a second in English. The Spanish-speaking lady was more audible.
“Puta!” she shouted. “Puta! Puta!” And they heard a door slam inside. Hicks sounded the musical bells.
He rubbed his cheek where Eddie’s first blow had fallen. The sound of it rang in his soul like a mantra.
It hurt him very much to stand up. He closed his eyes to the moonlight and began to erect a blue triangle against the base of his skull. The background was deep black and there was some effort involved in delineating the borders of blue. At the heart of the triangle, he introduced a bright red circle and within the circle he concentrated his pain.
Like Converse’s overriding fear, the stoicism flowing from Hicks’ Eastern discipline is periodically reintroduced, with varying degrees of subtlety, like a musical leitmotif. 

The leitmotif method is used with other characters as well. With Marge, for example, it is children and babies that keep popping up to remind her through the thick fog of her addiction that she has abandoned her own child for the escapism of heroin. (“A baby began to cry.  Marge turned quickly toward the sound.”) 

As far as I can tell, Stone’s character leitmotifs center on a single driving emotion or predilection: Converse needs fear to feel real. Hicks is a bold and stoic drug-dealing samurai. Marge is an addict tormented by guilt about abandoning her baby. 

The characters are made complex by back story, flashbacks, anecdotes, actions, and dialog, but the information is organized into a coherent pattern part by the continually reemerging character-based leitmotifs, keeping the reader reminded of the dominant or salient aspect of the character.

As a craft technique, the character leitmotif is a useful tool, particularly in longer works.  In the face of building complexity, having a single overriding characteristic that keeps coming back in a multivariate forms helps keep the story and the characters that people it organized in the reader’s mind.   Moreover, used with subtlety, character leitmotifs can add to the overall musicality of a novel. They can serve as a kind of rhythmic marker, a familiar melody that allows the reader’s mind a chance to rest and gives him confidence in the work’s underlying unity.