Sunday, January 29, 2012

Fiction Writing: Character

The credentials I bring to this subject are one published novel, two novels under contract, and two I am working on.  There are at least ten others in my head.  I also read very widely in different genre, specifically chick lit, some fantasy, literary (men's and women's), detective, "Christian" (not sure about what that is, exactly, but I know it if I see it) and classic (currently reading Little Dorrit by Dickens, what a delight.)  I don't read romance and Western or much scifi.  I also have an M.A. in Writing.

Whenever someone sets out rules about fiction writing, the rules cannot be hard and fast and usually anyone who reads very much can readily and easily point to an example of successful and even well done writing (not always synonymous) that violates the rules.  (did you notice the parallelism in that sentence?  That's for another post.  There was, intentionally, way too much, yet Dr. King does it brilliantly in Letter from a Birmingham Jail.)

Rule 1.  You have to like your characters.  I see the point of this rule, but would rephrase it to "you have to see the humanity in your characters."  Since we don't like all the people we know, why should be like all our characters?  If we liked all our characters, might they not be somewhat like ourselves more than representative of all humanity?  To me, fiction is about human experience, about what it means to be human.  I think what "advice givers" mean by this advice is that your characters should not be all good or all bad; every very bad person has some good, every very good person has some bad.  Our characters should not be paragons of virtue, ideals, without flaws.  The flaws can be big or small.  In my novel, the main character is somewhat headstrong, which is not a bad thing, but she is also somewhat naively self-righteous because of her upbringing, her world view, and her position in life.  She doesn't mean to be, and would be aghast if someone told her she was, but her naive, unintentional self-righteous is what drives the story and makes her think she is doing the right thing and causes her not to listen. It is what causes her downfall.   In another novel, a character can be an adulterer or have committed some terrible act yet be hiding it, be living the consequences of it, or be influenced irrevocably by it.

In reading Little Dorrit, I find that Dickens doesn't necessarily like his characters and really lampoons some of them, but they are real.  Flora is crazily funny, but I have no trouble believing her as written (how she is portrayed in film versions is another story and another art form; it is very important that we make the distinction here between written characterization and dramatic, cinematic characterization, which depends on the actor and director as much as the script.)  And although Dickens finds her annoying, clearly, I think he also feels for her.  So perhaps it is not "liking" we need with our characters; it is empathy.

Rule 2:  Flat versus round characters.  This is the standard differentiation between characters who stay the same, the control group if you will, in the story, and those who change.  The flat characters may be the impetus of the story, as may be the round characters.  The round characters should be written about more, essentially more developed, although just spending more ink on them is not the point.  Too many flat characters crowd the story; too many round characters confuse as well; it is far too difficult to balance out more than a handful of people who change, who drive the story.  This rule is probably the central one to fiction writing that is supposed to be character-driven (see rule 3).

When you introduce a character, the amount of time you spend on the initial description is a clue to the reader how important he/she will be to the action.  If you spend a page or two on a character's appearance or backstory the first time the character is mentioned, the reader will expect to see the character again.  If he/she disappears, there is a problem.  It is, of course, more important to show, rather than tell.  Also, it is better to telegraph information for the reader to figure out what the character is like.  For example, in my novel I introduce an African-American woman on the second page, but I don't say, "Esther is black."  Her husband's name is Maurice (and I don't apologize for using what some would call a stereotypical name; it's not like Chiniqua or something).  She thinks of people in Georgia as crackers, and she has left south Georgia; and when she sees the new inhabitants of the house across the street, she says to herself, "They will be white, of course."  White people do not see other white people as white people.  Esther is very likable but she has opinions, some of which are mine and some of which are not.

Which brings us to the question, can a white person write a black character?  Very carefully.  I've done it several times, and I don't worry about it.  Can a black person write a white character?  Why not?  It's all about how well it's done, how believable, not some unwritten rule.  But I know people who would argue passionately that we cannot cross race or gender in our writing.  I'm in big trouble then, if I can only write stories with all white females.  That would make for some pretty boring fiction.

The best way to describe by the show, don't tell rule is to, well, tell a story.  Give an example we can see and live through.  It's easy to say the character is kind; a scenario of their being kind is much better.

Rule 3:  The distinction between character-driven and plot-driven is not a dichotomy where a piece of fiction is either one or the other.  I see it on a continuum, with a story moving toward one direction or another (and even at different times within the novel); I also see it as a perception of the reader, and that readers can disagree.  I'll use Ron Rash's Serena as an example.  He has very real characters, but he also is playing with the mythic stories of Abraham and Sarah and MacBeth.  At the same time, it's happening in a specific historical period, the opening of the Smoky Mountain National Park.  So some of the plot has to "match up" with the Biblical and Shakespearean story, and some of the plot has to fit in the timeframe of the opening of the Park, and some of the plot is driven believably by the decisions and nature of the characters.  So, where does it lie on the continuum?  I would say it moves back and forth.

There is a prejudice that plot-driven fiction is bad and character-driven fiction is good.  That is far too simplistic.  In my own novel, I created a character and situation and then had to decide how it would end.  To me, the ending is purely logical; I could have ended it another way but 1.  it wouldn't have opened up more possibilities for the story in the future (something I didn't realize at the time) and 2.  it wouldn't have been as dramatic and may have been kind of lame.  What happens?  Despite several persons warning her, the character goes to a pro-life protest and gets trampled in a riot and dies.  She is not a martyr; she is Antigone, dying in a good cause but not for a good cause.  Her husband and children and others are left with the pieces.  I could have had her go to the rally, come home, tell her husband she was sorry and would stop being so involved, and la di da, that's the end.  I really don't know how else I would end it, because I ended it the way I did.  I can understand if people don't like it, if people think it's a downer, but I don't believe it's an unbelievable, out-of-nowhere ending, because of how I set it up.

Which brings me to

Rule 4:  Verisimilitude vs. the world you have created.  In literary and realistic fiction, such as detective, there has to be a correspondence with the real world as we are living in it.  There are certain rules you just can't break.  Characters can't fly.  This is one problem I had with Peace Like a River.  I liked the book, and the prose is beautiful, but the father was some kind of miracle worker who walked on air, which was just plain weird, and the eight-year-old daughter wrote poems about Butch Cassidy that were far beyond her years.  This was played against a prodigal son story.

However, it worked because he had the audacity to make it work!  More to the point, he created a world, which is usually more what scifi and fantasy writers do.  In that case, the characters do not have to always act truly like humans as long as you set up the parameters of how they normally do act.  Even their motivations could be different; as long as you have made that clear.  This is one area where I can see it better than I can describe it.  In the Lord of the Rings, many of the characters don't act like humans (and they aren't human) but they are not incongruous to the world Tolkien constructed.

These four observations are only a way to look at what you have written as you revise.  Each of us has his or her own method; mine is to dump, then sift.  Get all of it out on paper (or screen) and then after time has passed, read it like someone else wrote it.  Sometimes research has to be done beforehand; in my novel under contract, a character lived through the Rwanda genocide, so I read two books and articles about that. I think all fiction needs some level of research, personally, or else a lot of life experience behind it.  Other people write in little bits and pieces, and are constantly self-censoring after a page or two.  I can't work that way, since the characters are fighting to get out of my head once I start giving them a voice. 

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