More thoughts about character

In my last post I had to get my snark on about character as an ideological flashpoint. But there’s a lot more to say about character as a key to good writing, and how one actually goes about forming a fictional character.

Now, I’ve read my share of writing advice, books and articles either by writers I admire or by writers I know little about. Following Lois Bujold on Goodreads recently led me to a blog post by Patricia Wrede, which keyed into something that I’ve long thought about writing character — and that is that character, like any other element of writing, is a gestalt function.

I think writers are too often tempted to talk about characters as if they have the same kind of agency functionally as they do in the plot — or at least as if they should. But I think they’re two different things. In the plot, yes, we want our characters to do things and not always have things being done to them; we want our characters to want things rather than take on the coloring of the situation around them all the time.

But functionally speaking, characters are affected by what surrounds them and who they interact with. As a color changes its perceived hue when framed by red and when framed by blue, any character’s personality is deeply affected by who they’re surrounded with. That’s the way it should be: after all, it’s how we are in real life. It’s one reason I’ve always been frustrated with personality tests. I could test myself out as an INFP, but throw me in a room with a bunch of other INFPs and ask us to choose a place to go out to dinner — and I’ll probably be one of the first people to go OH MY GOD JUST MAKE A DECISION. I tortured myself with the Enneagram one afternoon: “I’m not purely any of these types, and if I were, I wouldn’t interact with such-and-such type like that.”

As Wrede says, we want to discern the pattern, get it settled, and move on, whether testing for personality types or inventing fictional characters. But it’s never that simple and there is no order of operations for putting together a piece of fiction. Most of my stories start with a kernel of a scene, an incomplete interaction between two characters. Developing it involves asking myself questions: how do I justify this situation? Whose presence offstage is exerting influence on it? Who is that person and what would the situation be like if they were actually present? And as I ask more of these questions and begin to answer them, the kernel situation begins to change in its turn. I realize that no amount of world-manipulation will justify this or that aspect; or I decide that what I want out of the scene has mutated; or, inevitably, the character I invented for the purposes of the situation is not going to cooperate with my plans for them.

That’s always a gratifying moment. When a character begins to resist what I want to do to them and starts taking their cue from the situation I’ve developed them in, that’s when I know that I haven’t just constructed a lifeless figure. O mortal, prophesy to the breath. And then the breath prophesies back.

All the same, technical decisions do need to be made. A character of any significance in a story needs to have a trajectory of some kind. The situation isn’t staying the same; they shouldn’t either. After all, they’re going to be part of any reason the situation changes. A character is strong and unassailable: what kind of thing would make them not so? A character is inclined to hide: what would it take to force them out of avoidance mode? A character is a caretaker personality: what about this situation would complicate and mature their sense of compassion? Say all three of these characters are in the situation together: how would the situation change depending on which of them moves first? Do I like that, or would I like it better if another character is the one to move first?

I was talking with Erica about an edit she wanted to make to her current manuscript, and we noted that depending on where the new event falls in the existing series of events, it’s going to change certain scenes where particular characters interact; it would make those scenes about something else. Could be interesting, she remarked; but do I want to sacrifice the positive things in the scenes as they exist for that? For the time that these changes are contemplated, the story is a Schrodinger’s box, with all possible scenarios coexisting until the decision collapses them. Rather apropos for a time-travel story, but it works for other things too.

For me, that’s what it means to say that character is plot. In the gestalt that is a developing story, characters push and are pushed, they pull and are pulled. The “realer” they are, the more agile they will be in the situation, the more tensile. It’s not just that a character needs to act: it’s that they need to embody a justifiable response to the situation in which they find themselves. That’s an embodiment that transcends type, as we transcend the findings of a personality test.

From there, when it gets to the point of putting words on a page, it becomes a series of decisions about how to introduce, describe, and employ the perspective of the characters I’ve developed. Would this scene say the right thing about a character if it is written from their perspective, or should I use a different POV character to show what they’re doing/feeling? Do I want to play this trope to the hilt or push back on it? How much of the character’s inner thoughts should imbue the narrative of this scene?

And then there are the foundational scenes, scenes whose dialogue I’ve worked out almost from the beginning; when it comes time to actually write them down, it’s a perilous and exhilarating moment. Does it feel as right as it did in my head? We shall see.

And then there’s the fun of talking about one’s characters with beta readers. Post-structuralists be damned, it’s fun to discuss our characters as if they were real people. I’ll jump on any excuse. And I suppose that’s what I felt the need to add to my snarky blog of the other day. Characters, almost more than any other element of the art, make writing fun. And the more mimetic power you have and use, the funner it is.

And that, as Edith Ann says, is the truth.

And it helped, too

So yesterday was the kind of day where, although things didn’t exactly go badly, there was just a general atmosphere of stress, exacerbated by all the little things crowding the margins of my mind that I haven’t gotten done. I have taxes to do, and a sermon to write, and certain work deadlines have been glaring at me from beneath their heaps in Outlook for weeks.

(Speaking of exacerbate, a friend of mine has a running joke where when someone uses a 25-cent word, she says, “And [simpler word], too.” Once in our hearing, V remarked that something-or-other would exacerbate a certain situation, and C said: “It might even make it worse.”)

So at close of business yesterday evening, I shut down the lid of my laptop. “Fuck it,” I said, “I’m going to Bo Lings.” I put on my hat, grabbed my file of “Household Lights,” and went.

Bo Lings is one half of my mental spa ritual. The other half is Barnes & Noble. The order in which I visit them depends on how hungry I am, and whether I plan to purchase reading material to go with my dumplings and egg drop soup. In this case, preliminary editing was the order of the day, so after dinner I walked the two blocks to B&N and mouched about, browsing.

To my delight, I found that B&N had stocked Erin Bow’s new book. Which is, deplorably, not always the case at my local B&N.

Lo these many years ago, I was a failed beta reader for one of Erin’s early projects. Can we talk briefly about beta reading failure? Writers (at least all the writers I know including myself) continually trawl the mental rolodex of their friends for possible readers for their manuscripts: people with certain areas of expertise, or with discriminating taste, or with an editor’s eye for detail, or all of the above. But sometimes it happens that someone agrees to read a manuscript and then…just doesn’t. Or just can’t. And then there’s a shame spiral and they can’t even look at the file, and turn aside from the topic as soon as may be and may take to avoiding the writer on the street.

I’ve been on both ends of such a weltering disaster, and producing Ryswyck has taught me a lot about this aspect of project management. Well, actually, one of my betas taught me a lot about it: she suggested I give a timeline along with available dates for discussion so that she would be able to work it concretely into her schedule. “Ooh, concept,” said ADHD me. By providing a proposed deadline and other parameters, I as the writer can practice expectations management, and the beta reader can find it easier to cancel if necessary without having to say I don’t want to read your book ever ever ever.

Anyway, Erin has obviously found better betas, because she has now produced a string of brilliant books. I read through Chapter Six last night, and look forward to getting back to it. (You know, somewhere among all the abovementioned work.) Some writers worthy of the Evil Author badge are ingenious at making you cry by the end of the book, but Erin is special: she made me shed tears AT THE BEGINNING WTF.

Talk about a mental spa service upgrade. Couldn’t have found a better way to ameliorate my anxiety.