FROM THE FORGE
Gary Guinn, Ph.D. is retired from teaching writing and literature at John Brown University. His novel, A Late Flooding Thaw, was published by Moon Lake Publishing in 2005. His poetry and fiction have appeared in a variety of magazines, including The Midwest Poetry Review, Carve, in which his story was a finalist for the Raymond Carver Prize, The Bryant Literary Review, The Rockford Review, Elder Mountain: a Journal of Ozark Studies and The Arkansas Literary Review. His stories have also appeared in the anthologies Yonder Mountain, from the University of Arkansas Press, and Puzzles of Faith and Patterns of Doubt, from Editions Bibliotekos. He lives in Siloam Springs, Arkansas, with his wife, Mary Ann, and his lab mix, Seamus, and his Corgi mix, Peanut.
CREATING COMPLEX CHARACTERS – Part IV
If you read much about how to create good characters in fiction, you will certainly come across Aristotle’s Poetics. In this work, Aristotle created the first real piece of Western Literary Criticism, defining the major genres and literary techniques of his time (4th century B.C.E.), using key literary works of the period for examples.
Today I’m going to borrow from Michael Tierno’s treatment of characters in his book Aristotle’s Poetics for Screenwriters. I’ll begin with a rather lengthy quote from Tierno’s book. He begins with Aristotle’s four basic elements of any good character:
“First, make them good enough that we can root for them. Second, make them ‘appropriate,’ meaning give them characteristics that make sense for the type of person they are. Third, make them human — give them flaws or quirks that make us believe that they exist. Finally, whatever characteristics you do give them, make sure you keep them there throughout the length of the screenplay.” Aristotle adds that if they are inconsistent, make them consistently inconsistent.
Tierno goes on to say:
“Additionally, he [Aristotle] gives us five principles of life that we can use to create character in our stories:
- Nutritive Life
- Desiring Life
- Sensitive Life
- Capacity for Rational Thought
“[which] can be used to create convincing three-dimensional characters.”
Some of these principles are more obvious than others. By Nutritive Life, Aristotle simply means your character’s eating habits. We’ve all heard the saying “We are what we eat.” Tierno recommends that screenwriters ask themselves questions such as, “How do they eat, what do they eat? Do they think about food a lot? What do your characters’ refrigerators look like?”
For Aristotle, Desiring Life simply means what your character wants that drives his/her actions. As I have emphasized other places in From the Forge, and Tierno asserts here, “At the heart of all action is the desire of the hero.”
The Sensitive Life, Aristotle’s third principle, is a bit misleading to modern ears. Aristotle simply means here the life of the senses. Presenting the fictional world through the five senses of the character makes both the fictional world and the character more real. Show, don’t tell?
Aristotle’s fourth principle, Locomotion, is self-explanatory. The character’s movements must be presented clearly and accurately. I’ve already emphasized in this series of posts that actions are an important way to develop characters. Another common saying, “We are what we do.”
Capacity for Rational Thought is Aristotle’s final principle. Again, in an earlier post I discussed the use of a character’s thoughts in creating complex characters, and for Aristotle the capacity to think rationally was the greatest of human characteristics.
In closing, I’d like to reiterate a point I made in my most recent post, that the creation of complex characters can be well served by thinking about how these principles, or techniques, might conflict with one another—for example desire in conflict with action, or rational thought in conflict with the senses.
CREATING COMPLEX CHARACTERS – Part III
Because human beings are inherently complex, characterization in fiction is itself a complex process. Appearance and action, the two methods of characterization we looked at in my last column, reveal character, but they may also be used to hide or disguise some elements of character. A character’s actions may even be used to mislead the reader temporarily.
This complexity of characterization is heightened when a writer turns to speech and thought as methods. Janet Burroway, in Writing Fiction, says that “speech represents an effort . . . to externalize the internal and to manifest not merely taste of preference but also deliberated thought.” Put simply, Burroway is saying that we attempt to say what we mean, what we think. But therein, of course, lies the problem. As Hamlet says, “Words, words, words.” We have all experienced the struggle of putting our thoughts and feelings clearly into words, while avoiding misunderstanding. But that very difficulty can create great opportunity for the writer.
What is more human than hiding our true feelings and either saying nothing or saying what we do not really mean? What is more human than misunderstanding our own intentions, or more human than hurting another person with words that were innocently spoken?
The writer can use these struggles, manipulating the conflict between methods of characterization—for example, between what is thought and what is said, or between what is thought and what is done—to great effect.
When Ernest Hemingway, in his short story “Hills Like White Elephants,” has the man say to the woman, for the fourth time, “I don’t want you to do anything that you don’t want to do,” the reader knows, has in fact known for some time, that the man does want her to do something she doesn’t want to do, which is have an abortion. His selfish nature is revealed by the conflict between what he says and everything he does.
Creating Complex Characters – Part II
There are two general methods of characterization—Indirect and Direct.
The Indirect method consists of the author telling the reader the character’s background, feelings, values, and so forth. This is that bugaboo all writers are warned away from—“telling” instead of “showing,” the author interpreting the character for the reader. Over-using the indirect method of characterization will result in the First Deadly Sin of writing, monotonous prose. There are, however, times when the Indirect method is useful. With it, the writer can move freely in time and space and can communicate a lot of information quickly.
Just remember, because it is telling and not showing, a little goes a long way. Readers want to be pulled into the scene, to experience the story with the character.
So most of a writer’s work in characterization occurs through the Direct method. There are four generally recognized ways to characterize directly—appearance, action, speech, and thought.
Janet Burroway, in Writing Fiction, says that “appearance is especially important because our eyes are our most highly developed means of perception” and that “it is appearance that prompts our first reaction to people.” The accumulation of concrete particulars in a person’s appearance—not just hair color, but hair style—not only gives the reader something to “see,” but also reveals something about the character. It may be unkind to judge a person by his/her appearance, but the fact is appearance says something about who we are.
BUT a story is not just what characters look like. It is, more importantly, what characters do. Action is what drives a story. Action causes and reveals conflict, which is the heart of any story. Action causes and reveals change, which is essential to character development. What characters do reveals who they are more powerfully than any other descriptor. Characters make decisions and re-act to forces acting on them. And their reactions become the catalysts for further actions in the story.
And remember, even when a character does nothing in response to a stimulus, the lack of action is itself a response that reveals something about who the person is. Burroway says, “In fiction as in life, restraint, the decision to do nothing, is fraught with potential tension.”
In the next From the Forge column, we’ll look at the remaining Direct methods of characterization—speech and thought.
Creating Complex Characters
Janet Burroway, in Writing Fiction: a Guide to Narrative Craft, says that “your fiction can be only as successful as the characters who move it and move within it . . . . we must find them interesting, we must find them believable, and we must care about what happens to them.” Over the next few weeks, we will examine character development in fiction from several different angles. This week we’ll start with the need to create complex, believable characters.
A complex character exhibits conflict and contradiction. Burroway says, “Conflict is at the core of character, as it is of plot.” A complex character’s conflict will be not only with the world or with other characters. A complex character is in conflict with herself. This is where contradiction comes in. Each of us at times exhibits a particular characteristic, and at other times exhibit its polar opposite. As Burroway puts it, “All of us are gentle, violent; logical, schmaltzy; tough, squeamish; lusty, prudish; sloppy, meticulous; energetic, apathetic; manic, depressive.”
One of the most common recommendations given to writers about creating well-developed characters is to build a character bio sheet, listing physical, emotional, intellectual characteristics, preferences, dislikes, habits, and so forth. The idea is to build up a reserve of details from which you can draw as you write the character into the narrative. Such a list helps you understand your character’s motivation and gives you the concrete particulars that help you dramatize a scene.
I would suggest that any character bio sheet should include a consideration of contradictory tendencies the character might exhibit. You might choose three contradictory tendencies and make lists of specific ways in which these contradictions are exhibited. For example, if we take Burroway’s first example from above—gentle, violent—it might look like this:
Let’s say our character, Larry, is a fifty-year-old man, balding, thin, brown eyes, with calloused workman’s hands. I’ll keep the lists short because of space.
Gentle Larry Violent Larry
Combs granddaughter’s hair Pounds fist on vending machines
Cuddles with the cat Kicks the cat
Holds wife’s hand before sleep Aggressive toward co-workers
Works in flowerbed Yells at other drivers
You may never actually use all of the specific examples in your lists, but the contradictions they represent should become intrinsic to the character, making her more complex and interesting.
Joyce Carol Oates on Writing
For most of my professional career, it seems as though Joyce Carol Oates published a new novel every year, in addition to short stories and all manner of non-fiction pieces. So when one recent list of writing advice from well-known writers included three suggestions from Oates, I was intrigued.
Her first suggestion was this: “The first sentence can be written only after the last sentence has been written.” I have mentored people who were working on longer manuscripts—novel or memoir—and who reached a point at which they struggled to find their way. My advice was usually to write a draft of the final chapter, as they saw it at that point, and then to come back to where they felt lost. In a way, it’s almost too obvious. We can’t know how to get there if we don’t know where we’re going.
Oates’ second suggestion was to keep in mind Oscar Wilde: “A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal.” This is funny and may seem a bit absurd on the face of it, but I think Oates is trying to say that both fiction and memoir are story, and story is a crafted thing from which the writer must step back and observe with a critical eye. If you become too self-absorbed, it is easy to lose the necessary sense of story as art, as a made thing. Even in memoir, your life must be a story that is crafted to accomplish your objective.
The final piece of advice Oates gave was, “Don’t try to anticipate an ideal reader — or any reader. He/she might exist — but is reading someone else.” Okay, this is the witty, ironic side of Joyce Carol Oates. I doubt that she really believes this one herself. But it might serve as a reminder that, even though we need to know our audience, we need even more to know ourselves and our characters because those are the sources of our story.
Texture in Fiction
The Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English defines texture in works of art as “the way the different parts of a piece of writing, music, art, etc. are combined in order to produce a final effect.”
This final effect is the art of fiction. The elements of a story play upon each other, or against each other, to create a desired emotional and intellectual response. To create the art in storytelling. The challenge faced by the writer is to find the perfect combination of measured ingredients to produce the desired effect, the texture of the story.
Gloria Kempton, in her book Dialogue, describes the process of weaving dialogue, action, and narrative in fiction. Dialogue, she says, “brings a story and the characters to life . . . , action creates the movement, and narrative gives the story its depth and substance. . . . Stories need all three.”
Dialogue and action are straightforward elements of fiction. Dialogue is what the characters say; action is what the characters do. But narrative, as Kempton uses it, covers a lot of territory. Narrative may be setting, description, characters’ thoughts, characters’ feelings, narrator’s observations—in other words, everything that surrounds dialogue and action. Along with dialogue and action, the elements of narrative combine “to produce a final effect.”
One of the most immediate and obvious effects created by these ingredients in a story is Pacing—the speed at which the reader moves through the story. Dialogue tends to speed a story up. Action can speed the story up or slow it down, depending on the type of action. But the various elements of narrative, as we are using that term here, almost always slow the story down. The degree to which you insert description, setting, characters’ thoughts or feelings, narrative interpretation/observation, into the dialogue and action controls the pace of the story.
In other words, Pace, the speed the reader moves through the story, is controlled by weaving dialogue, action, and narrative to develop a particular texture. Try reading one of your stories and marking each of these threads. Then ask yourself what the texture of the story is, and whether that is the texture you want your story to have.
Show, Don’t Tell
If you’ve been a creative writer for very long, you have heard this directive repeatedly—Show, Don’t Tell. But what exactly does it mean? What does show mean? What does tell mean?
Here’s a simple definition for each: to show means to present fictional material through immediate sense perceptions, to offer character experience. To tell means to present fictional material through the narrator’s analysis, to offer abstract ideas.
Janet Burroway, in Writing Fiction, says, “Fiction must contain ideas, which give significance to characters and events. . . . But the ideas must be experienced through or with the characters; they must be felt or the fiction will fail . . .”
Maybe the directive should be “Show ideas, don’t Tell them.” The reader should be able to understand the story’s ideas through the characters’ actions and experience. If the narrator has to spell out the meaning for the reader, then the writer has not done a good enough job of telling the story.
Burroway offers several techniques for showing, not telling. The most important of these is the use of Significant Detail. “Specific, definite, concrete, particular details—these are the life of fiction,” she says. She is referring to details that appeal to the senses—things seen, heard, smelled, tasted, or touched. But a writer must do more than simply offer sense details. The details “must be details ‘that matter.’” This idea of careful selection of details that “implicitly suggest meaning and value” is central to Burroway’s argument.
Here’s a simple example. Your character has lost her job and is feeling very low. Your narrator can simply say, “She was depressed.” You would be telling the reader by using an abstract expression. Simple and direct, perhaps, but also boring. On the other hand, your narrator can have the character open her second bottle of wine, spill some on her blouse, and begin to cry. The room may be drab and dark, the sky dull and cloudy. A bird singing outside the window may make the character angry. All of these details are experiences that reproduce the emotional impact of depression for the reader.
You are showing, not telling.
Dialogue as Action
The Irish novelist Elizabeth Bowen said, “Dialogue is what characters do to each other.”
By that definition, dialogue is action. And if dialogue is action, then the same constraints that apply to writing an action scene apply to writing a dialogue scene. I have written columns on “Writing Strong Scenes” and “Conflict.” Writing strong scenes depends on conflict, and conflict always depends on motivation. Motivation is desire. So when writing an action scene, or when writing dialogue, you should ask yourself the following questions:
What is keeping each character from getting what she/he wants?
What’s holding the characters together, or keeping them apart?
Where are they? (Where your characters are is sometimes as important as what they are doing. Setting should reinforce, or clash with, a character’s desire.)
Start by looking for tension in the dialogue. Your everyday, real-life conversations, may exhibit little or no tension. But everyday, real-life conversations are real sleepers in a story. Conflict is at the heart of every interesting piece of fictional dialogue. The tension may be simmering below the surface in one exchange, then erupt in another. But it should be there.Tom Chiarella, in his book Writing Dialogue, from Story Press, says, “If you are trying to write convincing, compelling stories, the relationship between the characters ought to be your primary concern.” In other words, you must know your characters’ desires, fears, pet peeves, private obsessions, revulsions, dreams, loves, even how they like their eggs cooked. Then your dialogue will grow out of who your characters are. The particulars of a dialogue—things like pace, tone, diction, syntax—come from the individual voice of each character. The specific techniques you use— interruption, echoing, silences, reversals—must reinforce that voice.
Writing Strong Scenes: Pulse
In my last column I listed the four basic elements of a scene, from Sandra Scofield’s The Scene Book: 1) Event and Emotion, 2) Function, 3) Structure, and 4) Pulse. I considered pulse to be the most difficult of the four elements to define. Let’s take a closer look at pulse.
Scofield says, “The pulse of a scene carries action and emotion in a stream of character need.” I would reword that to say simply that the pulse of a scene springs from the character’s yearning. What does your character want? Desire drives action. So the key to understanding and using pulse effectively is a clear understanding of what your character yearns for in that scene. The character’s yearning in a particular scene is, of course, derived from his or her larger yearning in the story as a whole.
Here’s an example. In your story, a young girl yearns to escape from the small town life that she feels is suffocating her. That yearning—escape—drives the story from beginning to end. In the story, you write a scene in which the girl’s mother confronts her over her refusal to marry Sam, a local boy who will inherit his father’s plumbing business. Your point of view character, the young girl, feels the trap being sprung that will doom her to a life in the small town. The action of the scene will derive from the girl’s immediate desire to escape the trap of marriage to Sam, which is a subset of her larger yearning to escape the small town itself.
Understanding your character’s need, and the conflicting need of her mother, allows you to shape the scene, giving it a beginning, a rising intensity, and a resolution that contributes to the arc of the story as a whole.
Writing Strong Scenes
In The Scene Book: a Primer for the Fiction Writer, Sandra Scofield says, “Scene is ACTION . . . Scenes are those passages in narrative when we slow down and focus on an event in the story so that we are ‘in the moment’ with characters in action.”
According to Scofield, a scene has four basic elements:
- Event and emotion: In a scene, something is happening in real time. The reader is pulled into that real time, moment by moment, and is able to feel what the character(s) feels. There is action that results in a reaction, by both character and reader.
- Function: A scene appears in a story where it does for a reason. The writer should be able to articulate that reason. Does it develop a particular line of plot? Does it develop a character? Does it prepare the reader for something that comes later? Why is the scene there? If it doesn’t have a clear function, maybe you don’t need it or can summarize it.
- Structure: A scene has a beginning, middle, and end. In a short scene, the structure may not be as apparent as in a longer scene. But every scene will begin at a particular moment in time. Something will happen in that moment. And there will be a result or reaction. A very simple example: a character gets on a bus and finds a seat; the man and woman sitting behind her argue vehemently; the woman slaps the man; the character gets off the bus smiling. Beginning, middle, end.
- Pulse: A scene has an energy, drawn from the story as a whole, that connects with the reader and makes the scene memorable. Pulse is the most difficult to define of the four elements of a scene. I might call it a little emotional charge that any good scene carries and that the reader feels when she reads the scene.
Scenes are the high octane fuel that runs the engine of the story. Sometimes the engine idles, sometimes it roars. Without scenes, it doesn’t run at all.
Elmore Leonard Says
Lists of Rules for Writing seem to be about as common as chiggers in Arkansas these days. When I came across a collection of writing rules offered by some of the best-known writers of our time, I was immediately attracted to Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing. Leonard’s rules were introduced by a quote from the writer Martin Amis: Bellow and I agreed, Amis said, that for an absolutely reliable and unstinting infusion of narrative pleasure in a prose miraculously purged of all false qualities, there was no one quite like Elmore Leonard.
You might not like Leonard’s hard-boiled fiction, but it’s hard to argue with the assertion that he is a stylistic purist.
My two favorites of Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing followed by my responses:
Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
This one is pure gold. Said and only said. I guess you might need an occasional yelled or whispered to cover the extremes. Some people insist on using the verb asked when attributing a question, but the verb asked seems redundant to me. The spoken passage ends with a question mark, doesn’t it? All the other verbs of attribution people try to conjure up (jabbered, moaned, squawked, squealed, huffed, etc.) make the character seem like an animal in a zoo. What they attempt to communicate should be communicated by effective narrative context. They tend to appear most commonly in poorly written genre fiction. Well-written genre fiction avoids them in the same way literary fiction does.
help any writer develop what Martin Amis calls a
prose miraculously purged of all false qualities.
Dialogue: Part II
Last time in From the Forge, we introduced four techniques to improve dialogue: interruption, silence, repetition, and reversal.
Notice how these techniques are used in this dialogue from Ernest Hemingway’s famous short story Hills Like White Elephants. There are only two characters in the story, and the whole story is dialogue—an argument, the topic of which is never stated directly. The two characters are sitting at an isolated train station, drinking, waiting for the train.
“I don’t want you to do anything that you don’t want to do—“
“Nor that isn’t good for me,” she said. “I know. Could we have another beer?”
“All right. But you’ve got to realize—“
“I realize,” the girl said. “Can’t we maybe stop talking?”
They sat down at the table and the girl looked across at the hills on the dry side of the valley and the man looked at her and at the table.
“You’ve got to realize,” he said, “that I don’t want you to do it if you don’t want to. I’m perfectly willing to go through with it if it means anything to you.”
“Doesn’t it mean anything you? We could get along.”
“Of course it does. But I don’t want anybody but you. I don’t want any one else. And I know it’s perfectly simple.”
“Yes, you know its perfectly simple.”
“It’s all right for you to say that, but I do know it.”
“Would you do something for me now?”
“I’d do anything for you.”
“Would you please please please please please please please stop talking?”
It doesn’t take long for Interruption to show up, twice in the first four lines. Silence appears not when a character doesn’t answer, but when the girl asks the man to stop talking, and they do. Repetition occurs when the man says, “I know it’s perfectly simple,” and the girl replies, “Yes, you know it’s perfectly simple.” And finally, there is a big reversal of expectation in the final two lines.
Interruption, Silence, Repetition, Reversal
Dialogue: Part I
The problem that most of us have when we write dialogue is that we put too much on the page. We are driven by the need to be sure the reader “gets it.” That need leads the writer to fill in all the gaps. But what we are doing, in fact, is propping up dialogue that, if done well, doesn’t need the props. In writing dialogue, it is often true that “less is more.”
This post and the next one will look at ways to strengthen dialogue in fiction. In the second chapter of Writing Dialogue, from Story Press, Tom Chiarella says, “Good dialogue rises out of the way a writer makes use of individual techniques, such as interruption, silences, echoing, reversals, shifts in tone and pace, idiom, and detail.”
We have all read good dialogue that uses these techniques, but may not have stopped to think about how they work. Let’s look at the first four of the techniques mentioned by Chiarella, which are fairly easy to demonstrate. Each of the following is a two-line dialogue between two characters:
“Look, you may not like it but—“
“No, I don’t like it at all.”
“Just tell me what the problem is.”
She looked away and said nothing.Echoing
“Stop, or I’ll punch your face.”
“Punch my face? And then what?”
It might be when a conversation suddenly goes sour or
goes in an unexpected direction or when one of the
speakers drops a little bomb on the other:
“Boy, tonight was the best, huh? Candlelight. Just like old times.”
Her eyes filled with tears. “Johnny, I’m leaving you.”
NEXT TIME, I’ll use one of the best-known dialogues in all of short fiction, by Ernest Hemingway, to show how a master uses these four techniques.
Autobiographical Material in Fiction
This morning I was reading Betsy Lerner’s book The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers, and in chapter three, “The Wicked Child,” she says, “You must give yourself permission to tell. Most important, give up the vain hope that people will like your work. People like vanilla ice cream. Hope that they love your work or hate it.”Lerner is telling us that the writing should touch a nerve.
Here Lerner is talking about the problem writers have using biographical material in their fiction, the fear of offending their mom or granddad or Aunt Myrtle. It’s a valid concern. People are sometimes offended by what is written. Lerner comes down on the side of telling. She says, “In order to tell the truth (and I don’t mean what happened in ‘real life’ in any conventional sense, but the emotional truth), to raise what is only hinted at, the writer [has] to risk his place at the table, which is often too threatening.”
In writing fiction, the writer is not as much concerned with what actually happened with members of the family as she is with the story she is telling. As Lerner says, “Everything you put on the page is a deliberate manipulation of what happened” in order to serve the purposes of the story. It is a fiction, after all. But most writers know that autobiographical material cannot always be concealed. If she bothers to read the book, Aunt Myrtle will recognize herself. In fact, people who never entered the writer’s mind will may see themselves too. If the writer’s fear of offending a friend or relative is greater than her devotion to writing a great story, then she may have to find another story.
Memoir is, of course, another problem altogether. Maybe we can look at that problem at a later time.
The iconic writer of spy thrillers John le Carre once said, “’The cat sat on the mat’ . . . . is not the beginning of a story, but ‘The cat sat on the dog’s mat’ is.” Why so? Because a story is not made up simply of action (The cat sat on the mat) but of action that springs from, or leads to, conflict (The cat sat on the dog’s mat).In her fine book on craft, titled Writing Fiction: a Guide to Narrative Craft, Janet Burroway says “Conflict is the first encountered and the fundamental element of fiction, fundamental because in literature only trouble is interesting.” Consider this. Gossip may be a sin, but if so, it is one of the most widely appealing and practiced sins. Why? Because human beings want to hear stories, especially stories about trouble.
Charles Baxter, in Burning Down the House, offers this observation: “Say what you will about it, Hell is story-friendly. If you want a compelling story, put your protagonist among the damned. . . . Paradise is not a story. It’s about what happens when the stories are over.” Not all stories end in Paradise, of course. Many great stories leave the protagonist in Hell, or at least in Purgatory.
Baxter’s Hell is simply human conflict, and his damnedsimply humans in conflict. Conflict stems from thwarted desire, heartbreaking obstacles, love, joy, betrayal, sex, laughter. A character yearns and struggles to fulfill her yearnings. And in the end, she overcomes, or is overcome.