Confession: I have a bit of the voyeur in me. Not the sort where I’d climb up in a tree to look into a maiden’s window to see her pajamas, but the kind where I like to sit in a public place and observe (snoop on) people going about their peopleness. Endless variations there, and endless speculation from me on those variations.
There’s an adjunct to that, where the goings-on are even more mysterious (and thus the stimulus to know heightened), because they’re less visible: they’re behind closed doors. I’ve just returned from several weeks of house-sitting in San Miguel de Allende, and one of my fascinations, among many others in this vibrant, vivid city, was with the doors. So many of the entryways in San Miguel are beautiful, with rich colors, unusual ornamentations, cascading flowers. Many of the walls of the homes in this hilly city, with its narrow, winding cobblestone streets, are set right up against the street. You can’t see through, can’t peek into what is often a lovely courtyard, unless those doors are open.
Many of the commercial establishments (hotels, restaurants) in the city have their beautiful doors thrown open of course, so that you can indeed see those beautiful courtyards filled with unusual furniture and artworks or happy diners. But having walked up and down through many of the back streets on a daily basis, it was those closed doors that always had me wondering. What charms or perils lay behind?
Doors of Deception
Thoughts of doorways and what’s beyond kept percolating through my time in San Miguel. And because my thoughts often turn in a writerly way, I started to think of how characters and their development in a story are like doorways. (Hey, I’m not the only one that thinks this way. Or if I am, I still have good table manners.)
It can be a useful tactic in a novel to introduce characters who aren’t what they seem. Or who is only partially what he or she seems. Or who is so radically unlike the first descriptions the reader encounters (or how other characters in the book perceive him or her) that the story—and the reader’s emotional ties to it—turn in unforeseen directions.
To make it more concrete (or wooden, which was the case with many of the San Miguel doors), many SM doors are highly ornate, or fussily decorated, or on the verge of ostentatious. Characters in stories might have big shows of wealth or power, but later we see they are insecure, anxious wretches. Their doors have splinters, and big ones. Conversely, a worn, simple door could conceal lavish fittings within (or, to torque the metaphor, conceal a character’s deep soul).
I enjoy when a writer later opens up a door wider on a character, where the wrinkles of personality show in a clearer light, as long as the way the revelations come are organic to the story. Even an event or characteristic that is such a radical bit of information—the protagonist murdered his best friend when he was seven, the protagonist was raised by wolves—can be later absorbed and appreciated by the reader if the doors to that information are positioned properly, and opened in a way that works in the tale.
By the way, once in a while a San Miguel closed door that I’d passed many times would be opened and I’d get to exercise my voyeur’s moment. I was amazed one day to pass by a couple of doors, on the very steep, hilly alleyway in the residential neighborhood where we stayed, and see in one, opening just off the street a tiny shop packed with sundries, top to bottom, with a single, strangled aisle, so dark and filled with overhanging goods I could barely see the counter. Another, just a few doors down, stacked with big plastic bags of what looked like curled ropes of chicharones and others with something that may also have been a pork product. No proprietors in either.
You never know what’s behind a closed door. Until the author invites you fully in.