I haven’t done a piece on fiction writing for a while now, and as I’m struggling to get my wheels back on the track, it seems like a propitious moment for a reflection on one of the necessities of effective storytelling.
Readers have frequently complimented me on my efforts at characterization. While I appreciate the praise – who wouldn’t? – I’ve also been bemused by it now and then. I don’t work at characterization. What there is of it, in any of my stories, arose naturally as I wrote those tales.
It’s worth thinking about. When something “comes naturally,” that doesn’t mean that it had no cause; it just means that you need to look deeper. So: What lower-level mental mechanisms are involved in the depiction of believable, attractive characters?
The simplistic answer is that “you have to know them.” It’s close to tautological: how could you write a believable character you don’t know? Also, it demands that we ask what it means to “know” a character. After all, he’s a fictional construct. You can’t just look him up and interview him, could you?
Backstory is a large part of the thing. Every character other than a newborn baby enters a story with a backstory: a history. The author knows that history – he’d bloody well better – and uses it to shape and constrain the character’s decisions and actions. But a backstory is a story in its own right. It can’t be snatched out of the luminiferous ether; it must be composed by the author, just as is the “main” story.
Then there’s John Brunner’s Second Law of Fiction:
Change, in character terms, equates to changes in the character’s motivations and values. So his backstory can’t be inescapably confining; if he is to change, he must “escape” his backstory at least part way. It’s an interesting set of semi-contending, semi-cooperating influences.
The evolution of a Marquee character in the author’s mind is a shadowed process. He starts with a character concept, which projects an image on his mental screen. That initial concept is largely about the character’s primary motivations, which then demand a backstory of a particular kind. He tinkers with the character, adding bits of information around the edges of his backstory and probing with imagined past conflicts and stresses. As the character responds, the author develops a clearer image of him. In the process, which might go through several iterations, the author becomes intimate with the character: able to “write him” without conscious effort.
It’s a love relationship of a kind peculiar to storytelling.
Do all good writers of fiction do it this way? Probably not. But it’s almost always possible to detect whether the author loves his Marquee characters. Such characters’ values and motivations are made exquisitely clear and comprehensible by the character’s words and deeds. The reader is never in any doubt about why the character says or does what he does…and thus the reader is enabled to share the character’s emotional journey.
That sort of pellucid rightness of a character’s actions makes a dramatic contrast with the characters of the “hack” writer. The hack is concerned with output and revenue. He doesn’t tell stories for their emotional effect on the reader. He just wants to get into the reader’s wallet. In consequence, there’s precious little clarity or emotional depth in the hack’s characters.
Effective characterization leads to realistic, convincing dialogue, which reinforces characterization. This too, springs from author-character intimacy. The character, after all, can only speak through the author’s fingers. A writer who loves his character wouldn’t force him to speak in a stilted or unnatural manner…well, unless the guy is a politician, but that’s a subject for a separate screed.
The above thoughts segue directly into one of my fascinations with contemporary fiction: the ubiquity of series characters. A writer in love with a character will be powerfully moved to keep him around. He’ll conceive not of one but of many stories for the guy. The success of a series thus depends upon how attractive the writer can make his character, and for how long he can keep contrive ever new, ever more challenging crises for his character to surmount.
Nothing comes for free, of course. Eventually every character must die. He can die explicitly, “on screen” as it were, or by auctorial abandonment. (Alternately, the writer can die, but that’s a completely separate topic.) Having killed a dozen of my favorite characters, I can tell you that it’s no casual matter. It took me several days to get over the climactic events of The Warm Lands and two weeks to get over the climax of In Vino.
These things are currently on my mind because I’m having great difficulty completing the characterizations my current novel-under-development requires. Why else? But I persevere – my alpha reader would be vexed if I were to “give up in the middle – and sooner or later my Marquee characters will become clear to me. Where will that take them – and me? Stay tuned!
As lagniappe, below is one of my earliest bits of erotica. I sat meditating over its lone character for many hours before the thing was finished. I hope you’ll enjoy it.
She had felt herself to be the center of attention in the store. Other shoppers’ eyes had pressed upon her, analyzing, weighing, passing judgment. As busy as the place had been, it had seemed that all talk ceased as she arrived, and did not resume until she departed. It was hard to believe she had done it.
As she approached her building, she felt again the heightened sense of scrutiny. Passers-by were only pretending not to stare at her; she knew better. Head down, shoulders hunched over her package, she scurried up the building’s front steps and down the hall to her family’s apartment.
Only she was home. Her mother and brother were undoubtedly hard at work. They would not have been surprised to find her at home, but they would have expected her to be at her studies, not whizzing through the house as if she’d committed an act of theft and couldn’t hide the evidence quickly enough.
She locked the apartment door and ran down the hall to her bedroom. As tiny and Spartan as it was, it was all the privacy she had. She felt lucky to have that much; individual privacy was not highly regarded among her people.
She closed and locked her bedroom door and sat at her desk, package still clutched to her chest, and tried to catch her breath. It was unreasonable for her to be in such a state over so small a thing, but she knew what her mother would say if she found out. Yet her mother would not be the worst of it. Her brother, the self-appointed guardian of her virtue, would leap into action at once, raging, accusing, searching for evidence of high crimes and misdemeanors she would never have the courage to consider. Though he was two years her junior, he nevertheless considered himself the paterfamilias, and her under his tutelage. Once he had even struck her. She, to her shame, had done nothing.
Her heart rate slowed, and she forced down the panic that had followed hard upon her act of daring. There were practical problems to be solved, and she would not forget them. But for the moment, it was time to enjoy what her thrifty habits and her episode of abandon had gained her, and to revel in her act of self-assertion.
She pulled the box out of the plastic bag she clutched, set it on the desk, and looked at it awhile. Her timidity surged back. It almost regained control of her. Would she regret her purchase when she opened the box? Would she see the symbols of her fantasy, or an expensive folly that would mock her hopeless attempt to be something she was not?
She lifted the lid, removed the contents and set them delicately on the desk like matching sculptures. Baby dolls, the clerk had called them. The black patent leather gleamed just as seductively as it had in the store’s window. She traced a fingertip up one four-inch heel, down the vamp and around the rounded toe, marveling at the smoothness of the finish.
She was certain her mother had never worn a pair of high heels. Her mother owned two pairs of shoes, both absolutely flat and as utilitarian as a dust pan. Probably no one in her community owned a pair of high heels. Bold as she had been to purchase them, she could not wear them here, or where anyone who knew her or her family could see. But she would wear them.
She pulled off the flat, scuffed shoes that were all she dared to wear in her own neighborhood, and the heavy black ankle socks under them. Her feet were delicate, even pretty. Her toes were well-formed, with undistorted nails. Her ankles were slender. Her insteps were smooth and her arches high. She knew she was pretty, in that special way called petite, and it pleased her that her feet were a match for the rest of her. She hoped that someone else would see her as pretty, some day soon. In her senior year at college, it had yet to happen.
She yanked open the top drawer of her minuscule dresser, groped under the piles of plain cotton underwear and extracted the single pair of pantyhose she had dared to buy. She pulled them on and yanked them up under her long denim skirt, then jammed her new shoes onto her feet and stood, thrilling to the still-exciting sensations and the new tension in her legs.
The only sizable mirror was in her mother’s room. Though she had heard no sound from the front door, she peeked out the door of her bedroom, listening for the presence of others. When she was certain that she was still alone in the apartment, she walked carefully — one does not run in high heels! — to her mother’s bedroom and admired herself in the full-length mirror that hung on the closet door.
They were beautiful. She was beautiful! She would never be tall, but her new shoes raised her nearly to average height. Her posture was affected as she had expected, bosom and rump more prominent, more inviting to the eye. When she pulled up her skirt enough to see, the effect on her legs was sensational; she actually had calves now.
She ran her hands along her contours, from her neck down to her thighs. She had always envied women who had the courage to dress to glorify themselves. Soon she would be one of them. How did they feel? How would she feel, when she had assembled a properly feminine wardrobe and had amassed the boldness to wear it? Excitement built in her again.
One hand pulled her skirt up high, bunching it in her fingers. Her other hand moved to her mound, where a trickle of wetness had begun to leak through her white cotton panties, endangering her precious pantyhose. It seemed unimportant now. Her fingers stroked her mound, sending exquisite spasms through all her muscles. Waves of tension and surrender surged through her. At last she pressed down against her most sensitive spot, middle finger digging in hard. Her head tipped back and a curious low growl escaped her lips, as the spasms changed from small transient currents of pleasure to something infinitely more.
She descended from her climax to find herself still posed before the mirror, face flushed and chest heaving. She let her skirt fall and breathed deeply, trying to regain her composure. Who could know how soon her family might return on any given day? They always closed the restaurant for an hour between the luncheon and dinner periods. But before she left her mother’s bedroom for her own, she could not resist one more appraisal of the image in the mirror.
Everything had to go. She could no longer bear the thought of such frumpishness. She would work even harder, and she would save, and soon she would have clothes suitable to wear with her beautiful new shoes. A silk or satin blouse, cut to accentuate her figure. A skirt that revealed her legs, perhaps in suede or leather. More pairs of pantyhose in several shades. Maybe even some jewelry. If she had to leave the house dressed like a drudge, she would stop at a public ladies’ room to change, and of course to change back again before returning home.
She could not resist putting her fingers to the corners of her eyes and trying once more to pull them into a Caucasian configuration. The epicanthic folds resisted her stubbornly. She squinted a bit and willed the mirror to show her the image of what she wished to be: a confident, indomitable, thoroughly feminine Western woman.
The folds remained, as did the long black hair plaited into a single thick braid, and the golden-brown skin on which all her experiments with cosmetics had looked so wrong. She ceased to tug at her eyes and let her hands fall to her sides.
Some would see it as a great irony. There were limits upon her attempts to remake herself that all the money and privacy in the world could not overcome. They had been imposed not by her actions, but by the actions of others. Even in America, the land of infinite choice, still one could not choose one’s parents.
The ghost of a sound from the hallway outside startled her out of her reverie. She scurried back to her room, there to become again the plain, dutiful young woman she was expected to be, the only kind of girl tolerated in that part of Chinatown.
Copyright © 1996 by Francis W. Porretto. All Rights Reserved Worlwide.