By way of backing into this, it must first be confessed that August was one of those months that I was heel-kickin’ glad to see dwindle in the rear-view mirror.
Choice highlights: Food poisoning that wrung my innards of every last drop of black and yellow bile, plus a few other colors I hope to never see again. The back half of an ongoing domestic Internet outage, hair-pulling tech calls to and from India included. A long bumpy spell in the New Novel that felt rougher than a ride across cobblestones the size of prize pumpkins.
More, but you get the general flavor. August was thirty-one miles of baaaad road.
Yet throughout it all, this little, should-be-inconsequential burr lodged under the saddle and just. Kept. Chafing.
It was our own Janet Berliner’s disclosure, in the comments section of someone’s essay a couple months back, of author Michael Crichton’s opinion of characterization: that it’s an unnecessary indulgence on the part of the writer, overrated, and generally boring. (I am honor-bound to point out that Janet stresses these are her words, summarizing a lengthy discussion with Crichton, and not a direct quote.)
Snide reactions welled up in me like bubbles of swamp gas. Almost immediately: that Crichton’s scorn for characterization sounded like a man’s dismissal of something he knows he can’t do very well.
On further reflection, with armchair psychology degree clutched tight: Recalling that Crichton was once a physician, I wondered if he was the type who found it easier to relate to charts of data rather than the human patients they represented … and if so, if this carried over to his seeming refusal to relate to characters as multidimensional beings, and if his only real interest was the malady under cautionary study.
And finally: that, while I haven’t read all of Crichton’s books, those I have read have struck me as making more memorable movies than novels, because the films have the advantage of actors filling out the flatness of the books’ characters.
I don’t know why I let minutiae like this become such an irritant. Who am I to bitch, anyway? Crichton is clearly a brilliant fellow, he writes the novels he wants to, and they sell by the truckload. We should all be so hobbled.
Still, when a grain of sand lodges so firmly in my oyster brain, there’s value in trying to fathom why it’s such an irritant. It’s the surest way to come out with a pearl.
In any genuinely effective — and affecting — work of fiction, a great act of subterfuge takes place before the reader’s eyes. It’s something that operates apart from any calculated misdirections of plotting. Rather, it’s that all the characters are there for one purpose or another, even engineered for some job the writer intends for them to do … they just don’t come off that way.
If characters have no functional role to play, they don’t belong in the first place, and a sharp editor will target them for makeover or assassination. But a good writer knows how to take these system requirements and disguise them. Knows how to make each character as natural a part of the landscape as the trees outside your window. How to shine light on them from different directions, at different times, so they reveal new shapes, new shadows, new details.
It’s more than just putting characters through their ordained paces, winding them up and sending them clanking off to do their duty. It means taking the time to render them as beings that come alive, until the page is no longer home to an obvious fabrication, but a portal into another reality.
And, as a reader, I believe.
I believe in the reality of the story because I believe in the reality of the characters.
The entire illusion depends on this.
When a writer fails to call down the lightning and bring his creations to life, it’s like watching slot cars zipping around an electric track. It may be diverting, but their course is still predetermined. There’s no chance of deviation. I’m too aware of their transparent artifice, can feel the writer’s thumb on the throttle.
And when the writer hasn’t made me look past the fact that, behind it all, he’s just playing with paper dolls, I feel cheated, rooked out of the potential payoff of human strife and interaction.
Oh, the novel may still tug me through to the end. I can still enjoy the experience. After finishing the book I might even say I liked it.
But if the characters aren’t alive enough to make me care, so that the book engages the head without engaging the heart, then it’s ignoring half the faculties of the person reading it.
There is one thing a book like that can never be:
I will never, can never, love that book. I’ll never think to read it again. It will never surface in my mind when someone asks me to list some favorites, or simply what books have gotten to me lately.
Because I’m just not into unrequited passion. If it doesn’t come through that the writer thought enough of his characters to exhale into them the breath of life, then he’s condemned it to soon diminish into the gray, faceless fog of everyday, along with the people I passed on the street last month.
Think, as a reader, of your pantheon of most beloved books. If you’re a writer, think of those works of yours that readers have told you they love, and why.
How many of them earned that designation by premise alone? By the events, rather than those to whom they happened?
Few to none is my guess.
Which is all well and good in theory. But how does a writer get there in practice?
Ask ten different writers and you might get twenty different answers, but to me, characters feel most alive when the writer is aware that every stinking one of us is a bundle of raging contradictions and conflicting impulses. It’s more than the shopworn tip of showing a little bad in the good guy and a little good in the bad guy … although that’s part of it. Divorced of duality, it extends to potentially everything, any and all facets of a person’s existence that aren’t necessarily inherently good or bad, but that simply are.
For starters, just look at a few of your own:
That person you love, and all the reasons you shouldn’t. Those mutually incompatible goals of family and career. The rationalizations you make for doing things you tell your kids not to do. That petty spite you keep giving into, even though you know the consequences. Your need for security versus your need for … something else.
You have dozens of them. Maybe hundreds. You know the drill, because you live it every day.
So give me characters who feel capable of slipping their leash.
Give me characters who are as fragmented yet integrated as a Picasso cubist portrait.
Give me characters who have real conversations instead of functioning as walking textbooks.
Give me characters who exude a sense of living a life beyond the page, before the beginning and after the end.
Give me that moment when a character does something I never saw coming, even though it makes perfect sense.
Above all, remember this:
“Imagination could never invent as many and varied contradictions as nature has put into each person’s heart.” — François de La Rochefoucauld
…and then give me work that knows it.
It may be an indulgence, but I guarantee you I won’t be bored.