Fiction Writing and Other Oddities

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Layers of Character

Characterization and writing style completely obsess me both as a reader and a writer.  Like an English Bulldog with its jaws locked on its master's trouser cuff, I just can't let it go.

Recently, I read a book completely out of my normal reading habits.  There is nothing like reading something you wouldn't ordinarily pick up to make you see things from a different perspective.  On the one hand, this book gave me new insights into techniques for characterization and description that didn't end up in purple prose haze.  On the other hand, it raised that nasty old spectre of inadequacy (mine, not the author's) and envy:  Why can't I write like that?

What was I reading, you ask?  And what insights did I gain (other than utter despair)?

I'll tell you.

"Rumors" by Anna Godbersen.

I normally don't read things that aren't guaranteed to have a complete ending and a happy ending.  I, frankly, just don't like series because I don't like loose ends.  I have enough stress on my day job (as you all know by now having becoming familiar with my updates and fairly continual whining) without reading things that don't end nicely and neatly.  My life isn't neat, and I can't even completely tie up the ends of most projects I'm involved with, so I really don't need that irritant when I read. Which is all, entirely, besides the point.

And while "Rumors" is billed as a book for young adults, I have no clue as to why.  It struck me as literary historical fiction that just happened to have young main characters.  Shrug.  (I'm not here to second-guess the publishing industry's classification system.  That would be good for another blog, though.)

The book is very literary.  In a good way.  The writing is outstanding and smooth--almost exquisite.  And I've rarely seen a writer weave in period details so effortlessly.  You truly fall into that brief, charming era of New York high society in 1899, before the world changed irrevocably with the World Wars.

The way Godbersen can draw pictures without resorting to slushy purple prose is truly amazing. No heaving bosoms, fiery red hair, and flashing emerald eyes in this book.

And what struck me most of all, though, was her characterization.  It exemplified a couple of things I wanted to note.

Let me give you two examples of passages about one of the main characters called Penelope.  In this scene, Penelope is part of a group of wealthy Society folks handing out Christmas turkeys to the poor.

Even through her dogskin gloves and a layer of newspaper wrapping, she could feel the cold squishiness of the bird.  It was heavy and awkward in her hands, and she tried not to show any signs of revulsion as she moved forward with the promised Christmas turkey.

That's one of those little passages that makes you start really considering Penelope.  There were a few others before this where you were starting to wonder about her personality.  Then a few paragraphs later:

...But Penelope thought her hands were superior, and so preferred to change gloves ten or eleven times.  She never wore the same pair twice, though her recently discovered virtue had inspired her to donate them occasionally.

Yeah.  What a peach of a girl.

Nowhere does the author sit down and tell the reader that Penelope is a spoiled-rotten, two-faced, manipulative bee-itch, but a few more paragraphs like the above and you know.  You KNOW--without being told.

And that's the point.  So many writers forget that characters are built from thoughts, feelings, and actions in the story.  Layer upon layer.  There is no instant characterization--it is done by revelation of the layers of action and the characters thoughts/feelings. 

Some writers try to tell us who a character is and what she is like by having another character describe her.  The author is attempting a shortcut, for example when she has the hero say, "She may be a pain in the butt, but she's smart and I trust her judgment."

That statement by the hero does not make the heroine smart, nor will the reader automatically trust the heroine's judgment if the heroine then proceeds to do a lot of dumb stuff (like walking down into the dark cellar where she knows the killer is awaiting her).  We (the readers) will just conclude the hero is at a minimum a bad judge of character and at worst, a complete slack-jawed, drooling idiot.

Characterization is hard work--really, really hard work--even if Godbersen makes it look ridiculously easy.  It is something I struggle with as a writer because my preference is to write a log of dialog--most of it funny/snarky--and just a dash of very abbreviated action and even less description.  But that's no way to create lasting characters.  You've got to have those layers and you've got to use those layers to show, bit by bit, how the character would act in a specific set of circumstances and in a way that only that character would act.  And reveal why they are acting in that fashion and how the character feels about it.

It's very complicated and very hard.

But as a reader, I know I have no patience for books that try to do an end-run around layered characterization.  So it's gotta be important.

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