Thursday, May 5, 2011

On Characterization

People who know me or even just know my writing will cheerfully tell you that an essay under this by-line and entitled “On Characterization” should be about as credible as an essay written by Adolph Hitler and entitled “On Peaceful Coëxistence.”

And they’d be right: In a weak moment I could perhaps make a list of the writerly sub-skills that I am occasionally able to pull off, but crafting richly nuanced and believable characters (along with, apparently, short and to-the-point sentences) would not be on that list under even the most charitably chemical-tainted of circumstances.

No, what I do are fiddly little puzzles that nobody has any reason to care about. I can do a story in which each segment is titled with the name of a different landmark from the city of Chicago, and when I show it to my local writers’ group they say, “This was a clever idea, Dave, I just didn’t find any reason to care about these characters.” I can do a complex little nesting jobby in which the omniscient narrator is revealing key aspects of the plot through a series of Mapquest directions, and when I show it to my local writers’ group they say, “Couldn’t these same things have happened to anybody?” I can do an elaborately outlined travel narrative through Southeast Asia in which the stops along the trip manage to echo the chronology of the region, from French colonization through the Boxing-Day Tsunami, and when I show it to my local writers’ group they say, “Why did you make such a fuss about how they made your eggs? Why didn’t you just order whatever the locals were having?” No matter what I’ve tried, it seems, I always end up with the same feedback. And this, you understand, has been going on for years. Something had to give.

Late last summer I pulled a book from my ancient to-read-someday pile, on the subject of developing believable and interesting characters in one’s writing—an actual how-to book, if you can even imagine such a thing(*). For the rest of that summer I read it cover to cover and took copious notes, eventually collating them into a sort of “flowchart” for ensuring that, whatever my fellow writers said about my first subsequent submission, it wouldn’t be that they didn’t believe the characters. For ten days I lugged around my battered old laptop, assiduously pounding away on that first short story in the life and times of the new-and-improved-character-writer Dave O’Gorman. I printed eight copies, passed them out at workshop with a beaming smile, and, two weeks later, was told by eight people in unison that the only thing that didn’t work about the story was that they couldn’t believe the characters. So, okay: something else had to give, apparently.

I took a semi-enforced hiatus from generating new fiction—concentrating instead on a series of film reviews, political commentaries, and a handful of commissioned assignments including a trio that I haven’t actually finished yet. But as a community college professor with summers off, I knew as last fall turned to winter and winter turned to spring that the business of working all of this out wasn’t going to leave me be indefinitely. We write, as Oscar Wilde put it, because the idea of not writing is even more unbearable. Thus it was that, having turned in my final grades at the end of last week, I sat down before a hundred-day expanse of almost completely unstructured time, and found my thoughts turning once again to the issue of why I was having so much trouble ridding myself of this particular nettlesome priest.

I decided (more or less without conscious premeditation) to journal in complete sentences about the subject, and to keep at it for as long as it took to get me somewhere: at times coaxing out tiny passages geared to specific aspects of the problem; at other times speaking to myself in the second-person, as if describing to some unseen other the proper procedures for faux-painting a kitchen. When I could bring myself to feel some sort of corner being turned, I would try again. There would be another new story at the end of all of this and, if that one didn’t work any better, there’d be another one after that. And then another. None of which was exactly what I’d planned for my summer, but none of which was going to do itself, either. I was at it for seven solid days. This is what I would seem to have learned:

To begin with there is the question of scaling the inquiry at the correct power of magnification. A book about fashioning believable and compelling characters will only prove as useful as the decision-making that led to the choices of those characters in the first place. And here, it would now seem, is where my troubles have consistently begun:

For the most part, my fiction has tended to be far too intimately connected to the incidents and travails of my own life—the old write-what-you-know saw, run amok to an extent that any reader who knows even a little bit about me already is summarily yanked from his suspended disbelief by the droning realization that I’m essentially schilling for myself. And the thing about that is, there’s no point in trying to flesh-out characters who came into their existence through such means. Read and apply the lessons from a book about believable characters with this for your starting-point and, instead of a story about you, what one ends up with is a story about a gilded you, which, depending on the audience and the specific prose, can be even worse.

More generally (and Thornton Wilder notwithstanding), writing with the explicit intention of getting one’s audience to see something in a particular light—even something not you—is inherently a losing proposition: people don’t see anything the way you want them to when they sense you wanting it, for one thing, and for another it’s not a million miles from being the exact opposite of best-practice in fiction writing, a sort of, “figure out what you want to say, and then say it really loud” convention that is doomed to defeat before the character-helping how-to authors of the world can even have a say.

I’ve been told this by others, of course, but the temptation for me has always been to dismiss this type of “workshop critique” on the grounds that workshop isn’t double-blind—and to be fair there is at least a grain of truth in that counter-argument: A story based on the contents of my own closets will be less obviously so when it’s read by someone in Pomona than when it’s being read by someone in my own living room. But that kind of reaction is also importantly dishonest, not least because it sells the reader in Pomona short. Most of us who read even semi-avidly are capable of sussing out the melodramatic over-investment that naturally flows from such questionable intimacy on the part of their author. (“I’ve decided we know each other well enough now that I’m gonna show you my poetry!”) For my part, five of my stories have enjoyed any kind of reception, and four of those are based not even remotely on anything that ever happened to me or informed any of the values and perspectives I carry around in person.

The counterexample is also informative here, though: A meta-narrative in which a cautiously successful writer and young father is trying to wrest from himself a salable piece of fiction, while continually distracted by the emotional needs of his young son, and by his own penchant for fixating on expensive golf clubs. This one hasn’t been published, but it does seem to work in that grand and elusive sense that so much of the rest of my stuff does not; yet it’s also, in a lot of ways, a story about me. I’m not a dad and I don’t play golf, but I do distract myself easily, write with intermittent capacity for self-improvement, and angst a lot about the extent to which my relationship calculus is fraught with divisions-by-zero. So what’s the difference? Why is it that this particular story-about-me seems to work, where so many others seem not to?


Not every reader is also a writer, but nearly all among us distract ourselves too easily, act with intermittent capacity for self-improvement, and angst a lot about the extent to which our relationship calculi are fraught with divisions-by-zero. A story in which the protagonist experiences those same self-doubts will have an immediacy—a currency, in both senses—that a three-hundred page southeast Asian travel narrative in which the author spends seven consecutive breakfast tableaux squawking about the manner in which his eggs were prepared, will not. The characters in a story and the basic motivations that place them in conflict simply must be universal—either in the sense that all of us have felt these same tensions in our own lives or, at the very least, know someone else who has felt them. (If I told you how much time I spend thinking about the immediate cachet of “Master Shake” from Aqua Teen Hunger Force you’d probably stop reading, but the point stands: We may not act or even think like he does, but all of us have known someone who fits the type.)

Having crafted a universal character or two, the job then becomes that of putting them in a universal situation—of crafting a tale that, in its overall premise, will echo that universality. This is of course a lot easier said than done. Indeed it might be the single-sentence reduction of the entire task of fashioning a compelling story. So I suppose it should have surprised me less than it has that so many different voices have said so many different things, about it.


Most of our daily interactions, it seems to me, come down to accurately sizing-up who has the power, who thinks he has the power, and how to thread the inevitable differences between the two without resorting to fisticuffs. If the guy who on at least twelve separate occasions has told the story of an overloaded elevator in Hong Kong, turns to the guy who has expounded perhaps three times on the comparative economics of driving vs. flying, and says, “Dave, you tell that story once a week!” the choices available to our drive-vs-fly protagonist do not actually include defecating in Mr. Hong-Kong Elevator’s tofu triangles, no matter how tempting. Thus do the natural tensions of such a situation form the currency of our investment in what will happen next—they tell the story, in other words. Meaning that the narrative flows from these tensions, and not the other way around.

Broad consensus seems to exist for checking the power box through dialogue. Indeed of all the things that have been said to me (or written where I can find them) about improving one’s writing craft, no one statement has carried more tacit agreement than the principle that dialogue in storytelling must always be about the exchange of power. People do not ask and answer each other directly in good fiction: If Kevin says to Megan, “What time were we expected over there?” Megan can say a lot of things in response (“Aren’t you ever going to throw away that stupid watch?”), but in a good piece of fiction the one thing she will never say is, “Seven-thirty.”

Speaking selfishly, a fringe-benefit of deploying dialogue in this fashion in my own writing is that it would place an implicit governor on the temptation to tell too much of the backstory, since most of the power imbalance between two people is the result of their backstory/-ies in the first place. If I’m getting the power imbalances across to my readers through dialogue, then, I would seem to have left myself far less room for discursive exposition about who these people were before we all walked in on them.

So far so good, but of course a story consisting of dialogue-based power imbalances between universal characters is… well, that’s a soap opera, last time I checked. If the characters themselves and their motivations, their root conflicts, have to be universal, then the issue of how to set them in motion against each other and/or their environments in a compelling way would seem to be about imbuing them with something more interesting.


Genuine character cachet must also flow from uniqueness and paradoxes, the things that make these the people to whom this story could only have happened; they must be interestingly multifaceted. Moreover, those additional facets have to be quintessential to both the character’s identity, and the story, rather than just pasted-on to check this box. A sheriff who keeps accidentally shooting himself might be funny, but he’s still really just a sheriff—unless at the precise moment of dénouement he shoots the steel-toed boot his wife finally insisted he wear, and the bullet ricochets into the skull of the bad guy.

And you know, maybe even then, come to think of it: Paradoxes or quirks or some other form of multidimensionality that is conceived specifically to provide a narrative payoff like this are often successful, but they are successful in a formulaic, college-literary-magazine sort of way. In order for these facets to really pay off, in the sense of making a serious contribution to the form, the reader must be taken to a new level of understanding by them. Universality gets the character’s foot inside the reader’s sympathies, but dimensionality is what makes the character’s plight not just unique but important.

One of my favorite examples of this point-counterpoint approach is that of Lorrie Moore’s maestro short-story, “Real Estate,” in which an empty-nester housewife in a sputtering marriage passively agrees to her husband’s plan to buy and renovate a tumbledown mansion in the middle of a soulless housing development. Doesn’t get a lot more universal than that, surely, but when the house is infested with crows the protagonist takes up recreational pistol-shooting. All this while a young man on the other side of town displaces his rage at his crumbling romance by breaking into peoples’ houses and forcing them to sing songs. When, during his break-in to the fourth or fifth house, he hears a loud crack—as if someone had knocked something heavy from a bookcase—it is only as he senses himself losing his balance and tumbling forward toward the floor that we realize exactly whose house this is, and what has just happened. Fucking brilliant. (The dialogue-as-power-exchange box is checked, too, if you’re keeping score at home: The conversations between the protagonist and her husband are fraught with lines like, “This is the house. I can’t believe you don’t see it.”)

Keeping these paradoxes relevant is about economy, too—indeed more than any other single aspect of fiction is about economy. The oft-overused axiom “show-don’t-tell” finds its purchase in fleshing character dimensionality, since it is the attribute of story construction of which the writer is likely to be the most conscious and most agenda-driven, and thus at greatest risk of resorting to telling. We have to “get” that the characters are multifaceted and interesting, without being told that they are interesting.

In an accident report I’ve been reading, the pilot of a twin-prop flight to the Bahamas finds himself in a life-and-death emergency after one of the engines spins out and disintegrates. The landing officer in Marsh Harbour patches him through to his station director in Fort Lauderdale, who tells him to “apply best-climb power, bank to the good engine, stay calm and fly the airplane.” To which the pilot replies that he “has already done all of those things.” …Is it just me, or can you almost see the out-of-date hairdo, the mirrored sunglasses, the shag mustache? The fumbled, poorly concealed panic? I mean, gosh: all he said was that he’d already done all of those things—why is it so revealing of his character? Because it’s both compact and unexpected: instinctively we were waiting for him to say something more akin to, “Okay, is there anything else you can tell me,” not bleep-you-very-much.

Indeed if it can be accomplished, the best way to map these three aspects of character—the universality, the power imbalances, and the paradoxes—would seem to be to figure out the paradoxes even before the power issues, and let the power issues take care of themselves organically as a direct result. I am at this very moment mired in an unpleasant conflict with someone whose own eclectic backstory contributes every bit as much to his decision metric as mine does to mine, and—here’s the thing—it is precisely because of our quirky backstories that the two of us find ourselves in such protracted conflict. I never had a problem with the guy until I had a reason to know anything about how different his past experiences are from mine.


To this point it wouldn’t seem that all this thinking about characters has contributed much of anything new, but it is this question of sequence where it would seem that things started to get real for me in my thinking about all of this. Having built a recipe that starts with presentation of a universal character in a universal situation, layers-on paradoxes, and proceeds to dialogue that is all about power, the table would now seem to have more-or-less set itself for something big to be placed directly on it, and for peoples’ unique differences to signal the reader that not everyone will be leaving with all of his chips. The differential transformability of the key players—the acute issue that will form the pivot of the entire story—is something that would under this rubric happen not because I had set myself to writing that story, but because, at the end of the day, that’s the only thing that could happen between to these people.

This, in hindsight, is how my much-complimented story about the homeless guy came into existence inside my head. First I knew I had a main character who, despite appearances to the contrary, has a lot of universality (go for it, or keep things comfy?); then I knew what made him interesting (he can paint, he’s tender during and after the act of love, he’s improbably attached to a stray cat); then I knew with whom he’d have a set of differences (the gallery director and the girlfriend, both of whom push him in ways that accentuate his own inner uncertainty); and then, only after having understood each of those things, did I know on what basis the story would turn. I didn’t start the story out with that set of intentions, but that’s the order in which they unfolded, and that’s the order that led to the one story of mine that people like.

To instead start a story as I often have, with the narrative pivot figured out before the people to whom it will happen, and to then try to make those people interesting and believable, would seem to be to set one’s self up for failure—at least if my experience is anything to go by. My travel narrative didn’t work because the root conflict borne at the character’s heart wasn’t universal; my story about the woman who dreams of her husband abandoning her didn’t work because the power imbalances weren’t clear. My novel about the town of bad-behaving Rotarians didn’t work because the big gotcha at the end didn’t utilize sufficiently unique character traits. My story about the guy who shoots himself on the other guy’s lawn didn’t work because the characters were shoe-horned into the pivot instead of the other way around.


The worst thing about all of this is the amount of time that would seem to have been wasted on the way. All those tedious, pretentious little puzzles I’ve been fashioning with so little success owe their existence to what seems now to have been a fundamental misapprehension about what it was that I’d been trying to emulate. Seeing how cleverly this can all work—seeing the young home-invader shot in the empty-nester’s bedroom, and knowing all at once that her pistol-shooting hobby was both immediately relevant to my interest in her, and the thing that set us inexorably on this path—I’ve been instead fumbling around with devices that appear cosmetically to be just as clever, but without actually serving any constructive purpose to the craft. Meanwhile the cleverness I’ve been admiring in my favorite stories has fit the model described here, in every case: A character with a universal concern, made economically unique through short bursts of multidimensionality, resulting in power imbalances with other multidimensional characters, leading directly to the only pivot-point the whole thing could have been leading to that whole time.

…Now all I need is a deck of cards, huh.

Dave O’Gorman
(“The Key Grip”)
Gainesville, Florida

(*) Seger, Linda, Creating Unforgettable Characters: A Practical Guide to Character Development in films, TV series, advertisements, novels and short stories. Henry Holt (1990), New York.
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