Sunday, March 31, 2013

think with the story

Holden in NY
The title is a spin on some advice that Ezra Pound was reported to have given poets: think with the poem.  It can also serve as contrarian advice to fiction writers, who have been taught they must be completely aware of every facet of their characters' likes, dislikes, past life, foibles, strengths, and, above all, what it is they want in the story, their desire, and the obstacles to achieving that desire, before the pen is ever set to paper (or fingers to keyboard).

Many of us can remember well-meaning creative writing teachers who advocated sitting down with a few pages of prepared questions (or an entire notebook) to familiarize ourselves with earlier life experiences and a physiological genome of our fictional character, complete with her Briggs-Meyers psychological profile, and enough physical appearance detail that could suffice for a modeling agency photo-op spec sheet.

David Jauss, writing in the AWP magazine, The Writer's Chronicle, Mar/Apr 2013, in "Homo Sapiens vs. Homo Fictus," gives some formidable arguments against such all-encompassing prep work, preferring something for character definition more along the lines of Ezra: think with the story.  "If compiling a list of traits and attributes isn't the way to create a character, what is?" posits Jauss.  "A more effective way, I'd argue, is to let the imagination supply the details as the needs of the story arise--and during the actual composition of the story, not in advance."

Jauss suggests that developing reams of preconceived data about our character may put us at risk of wanting to use a lot of it and "in danger of proving that Voltaire was right when he said, The secret of being a bore is to tell everything."  The point being, a writer can deaden his character by weighting him down with too much revelation and detail.  Jauss uses Salinger's character, Holden Caulfield, to illustrate the point: "he consists of a handful of physical details, a couple of days of conversations and interactions with fewer than a dozen characters, and snippets of memories of three or four past events (principally, the death of his brother, Allie)."  

Jauss says Salinger gave only seven descriptive details about Holden, and all served to reveal the essence of his character.  Here are the details (Jauss's page citations for Catcher in the Rye have been omitted):

1.  he has a deep voice
2.  he's unusually tall for a 16-year-old.
3.  he's had "millions of gray hairs" on one side of his head since he was a kid
4.  he wears a crew cut even though it's out of date and girls encourage him to grow his hair longer
5.  he wears a red hunting hat backwards
6.  he has a sore on the inside of his lip
7.  he's unable to make a fist with his right hand because he broke it while knocking out all the windows in his family's garage after his brother died
It's amazing to see such a brief list when so many readers are usually able to conjure up fairly vivid memories of this irascible character.  Even after, or despite, Holden's promise that he wasn't going to give us all that David Copperfield kind of crap about himself.

The other point we started out to discuss for our fiction characters was the need for determining what it is they want in the story, e.g.  their motivation, or their desire, and the obstacles to achieving that desire. Such strictures have usually been the principal focus, often the only focus, for creative writing workshops and critiques.  They might be called the Hammurabi Code for writers, after the famous 1750 B.C.E., Middle-Eastern legal code:

If a builder build a house for some one, and does not construct it properly, and the house which he build fall in and kill its owner, then that builder shall be put to death.

Substitute author for builder, story for house, and publisher for owner, and you get an idea of the moral charge some teachers would impose on a writer for settling on a character's want, or desire, before beginning their story.

Jauss says "The desire-based theory of character implies characters actually do know what they desire, that their motivation is clear, and that each effect has a definable, understandable cause.  Interestingly, the most intriguing characters in literature don't know why they do what they do, and neither do we."  He goes on to discuss with us that most famous of indecisive characters in literature, Hamlet.  "I suspect that even those who claim we need to know our characters' motives inside and out find Hamlet a more compelling and believable character precisely because they don't understand his motivation."  

Jauss cites other authors on contemporary fiction about characters who lack a clearly defined desire to motivate their behavior, who want something he or she can't define, and includes some of my favorite short story writers, Alice Munro, Flannery O'Connor, and Raymond Carver.  He also pays homage to the mastery of Chekov, whose stories frequently comment on the inscrutability of human motivation.

It's like a breath of fresh air to hear from successful authors who can so knowledgeably cite the latitudes of creative writing actually open to a writer.

Creative Commons License
Fiction Writer's Blog by Gaelwriter is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.