Character in Fiction
In his book – How Fiction Works – James Wood opens an essay on Character with the salvo: ‘There is nothing harder than the creation of a fictional character.’ Well so much for critics stating the obvious. To be fair, the essay is really a collection of notes or musings on what character in fiction might mean. It also seems to me that there is nothing easier than thinking of a fictional character – we encounter them every day that we step outside into the world. On the walk to the bus stop, on the tube, in the supermarket – the people around us present us with a whole array of characters. From the pimply white teenager on the bus who fidgets intensely while he listens to raging loud hip hop, to the woman crossing the road with the toy dogs in the shopping trolley, to the woman with the fake bling and the superfly hairstyle on the tube. We make people up all the time from the way they present themselves to us in the world. This is also a useful strategy to employ when we might want to avoid bumping into the drunks outside 24Hr Tesco or if you’re a woman in the city, you soon develop a highly tuned capacity for spotting potential danger lurking on the walk home – you learn pretty quickly to get good at interpreting body language. For reading the character of the situation.
The same kind of encounter happens on the page in the interaction between the reader and the character. When they encounter descriptions of character the reader begins the same process of ‘reading’ that we are engaged with in everyday life. Good writing does not tell us what to think about character - it offers the character up to be read through their behaviour. (Showing not telling). A good fictional character very quickly becomes recognisable to the reader through the clues that the author gives us to their psychology, but mainly through what they do – the way that they act.
It is this impulse to action that makes people real, so it is in fiction. If it’s taking twenty pages to get your character out of a room then there is likely something awry with the characterisation. We interpret characters through their actions – through the way in which they act in the narrative – what we interpret as ‘truth’ about a character is the way in which they behave. Their responses to the situation of the story seem to us to be life-like as we might imagine that kind of person might behave in that given situation. Take for example the responses of Stevens, the Butler in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day. His personal reticence and deference to duty means that he is not only blindly, masochistically loyal to his Nazi sympathising master, but in doing so he gives up on his one chance of personal happiness with Miss Kenton. His actions, or perhaps in this case failure to act, are his tragedy. The novel’s effect is cumulative, we are not told what to think about Stevens, rather we are shown through his behaviour and self-justifications what effect this kind of repression has had on the actions of his life.
A novel offers to the writer the opportunity for in depth character study. For an investigation into the motivation behind action. All of my favourite novels do this – Coetzee’s Disgrace; Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal; Per Petterson’s In The Wake; Alice Munro’s short stories. If a character does not act – they do not really live on the page. Also think about how descriptions of how a character acts (telling) are very different from seeing them in action (showing) – bringing the storytelling into scenes gives the narrative life and lift. If thinking is being, then the novelists job is to live in the verbs that make up human behaviour. This results, always, in characters that lift off the page.