Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Character density in fiction

In 1988 one of my teachers at Clarion was Samuel R Delany. One of the things he taught that week was the three kinds of actions performed by fictional characters: purposeful, habitual, and gratuitous. He explained which was which, but, frankly, I forget and I didn't keep notes. (I was too busy falling in love, surviving 105-degree heat and Midwestern humidity without air-conditioning, and starving half to death—you try being a vegetarian who is allergic to cheese on an 80s campus in Middle America). 

However, with the hindsight and experience (and food, and air conditioning) of twenty-six years, I would guess (operative word: guess) that what he meant was, respectively, actions that are plot-oriented (doing something that moves the story along: the bad guy kidnaps the hero’s husband), characteristic (the hero has this habit of complaining just before she digs deep and does what must be done), and generic (endless scenes with characters pushing cups of coffee one way or another, nodding, tapping their fingers).

Let me repeat: I’m guessing what Delany means by this. My interpretation could be quite wrong. My apologies to Chip.

Clichéd fiction (often some variety of genre churned out too fast to meet terrible deadlines) traffics in clichéd characters; it leans heavily on a person's quirky characteristics or habits (they stutter, blink before they stab an innocent, or talk to their pampered cat in a girlish voice) and generic behaviours (they pout, or slam the door, or smirk—or grimace, or any of another twenty annoying and over-used to the point of meaninglessness verbs). So-called no-nonsense fiction, such as action-heavy thrillers, rely largely on purposeful actions: the hero kills the bad guys; the detective puts together the clues; the traveller survives the storm at sea. No time or motion is 'wasted'. Fiction that is stereotyped in some other way—treats a particular class of person as less than a whole human being—tends to use only one or two of the three behavioural modes. It dates fast. When the culture moves on, Gone With the Wind, or the Gor books are left behind; unless they become teaching tools, the same will be true of coming out stories and other We're Just Like You! fiction.

But a great story or novel—oh, a great story is dense. The characters' actions are plot-driving and characteristic and specific. These people are fully human, the kind of people we would recognise this year, last century, tomorrow. In this fiction, the writer is almost profligate in her generosity: we know a lot about the protagonist just by the way he flips his hair, just by the speed with which they blinks before they kill someone. No one in the book or story--protagonist, antagonist, or secondary character--flips or blinks the same way; you could never swap one character for another. (Even comic characters should be distinguished one from the other.) In a perfect world you wouldn’t need dialogue tags: the vocabulary would be so characteristic of whoever was speaking the reader would never get confused.

The protagonist's relationships with others are unique. And if the protagonist is unique, so is her story. (This is always true. Even if you agree with one of the many arguments about the number of basic plots,* story and plot are different beasties.)

Great fiction doesn't traffic in stereotype of any kind. In great fiction there are no generic queer people or women or people of colour or cripples; even the secondary characters and the antagonists are three-dimensional. And there are no cliched phrases, because in great fiction even the prose is alive. The people, their prose, place, and story are fresh and familiar, unexpected and inevitable—because everything that happens is set up early; the more subtly the better. Because great fiction is subtle, too.

In the end, though, what carries a novel is it's cast. It doesn't matter how beautiful your prose is, if you can't bring your reader inside the people, you have failed. Make your characters alive, supple to the needs of their own situation rather than the exigencies of your plot, and make them dense.

* There are as many opinions about this as there are writers. We could argue for years over whether, according Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, there are seven—and that the world revolves around Man; or we follow Joseph Campbell's assertion that there's only one, the Monomyth; or, more recently, agree with Christopher Booker, who also thinks there are seven, though they're different.
Quiller-Couch's are:
  • Man vs. Man
  • Man vs. Nature
  • Man vs. Himself
  • Man vs. God
  • Man vs. Society
  • Man caught in the Middle
  • Man & Woman
Campbell's monomyth is:
  • The Hero's Journey
and Booker prefers:
  • Overcoming the Monster
  • Rags to Riches
  • The Quest
  • Voyage and Return
  • Comedy
  • Tragedy
  • Rebirth 
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