Inspired by Alexandra’s postings on craft, I’ve decided to chime in with a bit of scribbler wonkery of my own.
Rather than address story, however–which Alexandra, to my mind, discusses as insightfully as anyone I’ve read–I’d like to talk about character.
What follows is the introduction to a book I’m writing on the subject, and I’ll follow up in following weeks with portions from successive chapters. (This being a mere introduction, it’s general and thematic, not practical; the wonkery will follow.)
The book began as lectures for an online course I taught through UCLA’s Writers’ Program, one of the best resources for classes geared to both aspiring and working writers I’ve ever been around: http://www2.uclaextension.edu/writers/
I’m very much interested in what the Murderati crowd thinks on this subject, and what insights and suggestions each of you might have.
During a 2010 interview in San Francisco, the British novelist Kate Atkinson confided that her characters—who are some of the most unique and engaging in current literature—appear to her imagination fully formed, like dream figures.
Queried on the subject of teaching characterization—specifically, asked what strategy or technique she might suggest to students for bringing a character so vividly before the mind’s eye—she conceded puzzlement, remarking candidly, “I really can’t imagine what that might be.”
Consider this book a humble attempt to inform her disbelief. A writer of Atkinson’s gifts arguably has no need of what appears within these pages, but there are perfectly competent writers who do, or might benefit from it, and they need malign neither their imaginations nor their talent for that.
Of course, it’s not as though Atkinson is off the mark. What every writer hopes for—one might even say requires—is a full embodiment of his characters within his imagination, as though they possess a life of their own.
I realize this makes writing sound like a quasi-functional neurosis, or at least a kind of controlled hallucination—or professional daydreaming. But writers almost universally admit that when things are going well, it’s because the characters seem to act at will, of their own accord.
And yet fluidity of conceptualization guarantees neither richness nor elegance of portrayal. A great many characters who have leapt fully formed within their creator’s imagination have done so precisely because they were facile, predictable, clichéd. Whatever else can be said of characterization, it is absolutely true that if a portrayal falls flat, it is not the character’s fault.
For all but a lucky few, writing requires more than taking dictation from imaginary beings. One must be ready not just to bear witness but to engage the imagination—to ask penetrating, even embarrassing questions of one’s characters, to mold them, remold them, defy them, even destroy and resurrect them, while still maintaining that curious capability to step back, allow them once again to escape their creator’s grasp—dust themselves off, as it were—and reassert their enigmatic independence.
This dialog between deliberate and spontaneous, intentional and unknowable, conscious and unconscious lies at the heart not just of characterization but of all creativity. It is the pulse, the inhalation and exhalation, of the artistic endeavor.
Even at its most realistic, art remains an approach to the mysterious, and working with the depiction of human life can often seem particularly tricky—like fingering smoke. But at their most unique and unforgettable, characters strangely feel no less real to us than human beings themselves—seemingly infinite in their complexity, fathomless in their depth, tangible and yet ineluctable.
That does not mean, however, that the craft of characterization can’t be analyzed, or is resistant to technique. If that were the case, Atkinson would win the match and this book would be pointless.
And yet I make no claim that what you will read on these pages alone can instill an unerring gift for creating memorable characters. Since their appearance in the mind remains a mysterious business, the craft of rendering characters well is by its nature incomplete. Magic once explained ceases to be magic. But the act of conjuring should not be mistaken for what is conjured.
What can be learned in this book are ways to help you bring forth a concrete, compelling and dynamic image in your mind, and further shape what appears. This is no small accomplishment. Without it, storytelling withers into convention, hackwork, formula—worse, propaganda. The lifeblood of any story resides in characters that are, at one and the same time, vivid, unpredictable, and convincing. And the art of creating, shaping, depicting such characters is an exhilarating, at times maddening business.
But at some point in your life you have felt that curious, ineffable stirring in your imagination—the nameless, shapeless volition that seems to both arise from within and yet come from elsewhere, that manageable madness, that quickening pulse of urgent light we somewhat crudely refer to as the creative impulse. It is why you are reading these words. You may even believe it is why you are alive. You craft stories. Whether characters are demons or angels, apparitions or simply mental stuff, they are your inescapable companions. Hopefully this book will help you engage them with greater confidence and deeper insight.
So, fellow Murderateros–intrigued, confused, inspired, bored? Chime in, pipe up, fire away. Please.
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Jukebox Heroes of the Week: You have not lived until you’ve heard the gypsy wedding band Fanfare Ciocarlia play the James Bond Theme:
Get up and rhumba!!
For more on Fanfare Ciocarlia, go here: http://www.asphalt-tango.de/fanfare/artist.html