By raising various expectations in the reader’s mind, a writer can create an atmosphere of suspense – the desire to turn the page and find out what happens next. How much will the story follow the reader’s expectations, how much will it confound them? In this way, suspense is central to why some writing is interesting, and some is not.
It might be a matter of writing within particular genres, and satisfying or diverging from the reader’s expectations in varying degrees. Or it might simply be a matter of ‘pitch’. That is, where the pitch of your writing is created by the extent and nature of the tension between your ideas and characters.
E.M. Forster, in Aspects of the Novel (1979), describes this tension, as created in Arabian Nights, where Scheherazade avoids death by leaving off her story-telling each sunrise at exactly the right moment of tantalising suspense: ‘We are all Scheherazade’s husband, in that we want to know what happens next.’
Suspense, therefore, is not a characteristic of fiction restricted to the murder-mystery or crime thriller genres: it is the desired aspect of all fiction – the quality that inspires a reader to read on.
Raymond Carver takes this point a little further:
I like it when there is some feeling of threat or sense of menace in short stories. I think a little menace is fine to have in a story. For one thing, it’s good for the circulation. There has to be tension, a sense that something is imminent, that certain things are in relentless motion, or else, most often. There simply won’t be a story.
Do you wish to write in a particular genre? Write down your thoughts in a journal. If not, what aspects of genre fiction do you consider relevant or useful to the kind of fiction you do wish to write? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
Remember: even if ‘your’ kind of writing doesn’t fit into any particular genre, there is always plenty to be learned from fiction that does fall into genres
A genre is a particular type or category of fiction. It can apply to both the long and short form (novel and short story/novella, respectively). It’s impossible to give an exhaustive list, but it includes:
Note how readily these genres might overlap. They are not mutually exclusive. Most pieces of fiction contain glancing aspects of many different genres. Genres also overlap, and within any one genre there are often a number of sub-genres. For example, ‘crime’ is a genre, ‘East End gangster crime’ is a sub-genre; ‘romantic fiction’ is a genre, ‘historical romance’ is a sub-genre.
The uses of genre
There are two central uses of genre for any writer:
You might wish to write within a particular genre; in which case, your question is – what are the defining characteristics, and possible ‘rules’ of that genre? Here, ‘reading as a writer’ is clearly important. The best way to see how to do this is to see how others have done it. Read and familiarise yourself with the specific ‘tricks of the trade’ to achieve that genre’s particular effect.
You might not wish to write within a specific genre. In this case, it’s useful to know about genre for a number of reasons. First, to avoid unwittingly writing in such a way that you will be categorised within a particular genre. Second, you might wish to ‘borrow’ characteristics from any number of genres. An example of this is Peter Høeg’s Miss Smilia’s Feeling for Snow, where elements if romance, thriller, crime and historical drama all feature in a bestselling literary novel.
What can genres do for you?
Think of it like this: each genre novel suggests certain characteristics, qualities and plot patterns that are particular to that genre. When you read a murder-mystery, you expect there at least to be a murder, or some kind of love interest in a romance. The reader has certain expectations. To fulfil them – the murder-mystery opening with a dead body; the romance delivering the passions of a hero and heroine – means that readers recognise the familiar elements and progressions of the story, their expectations are confirmed, and in the end they feel a satisfaction in proportion to the extent to which the writing has either gratified or disappointed their expectations.
The writer enters into a ‘contract’ with the reader, which says that the writer won’t mislead the reader unnecessarily, and that ultimately, the writer won’t betray the reader by breaking out of the boundaries of the genre that the fiction has encouraged the reader to expect.
Does this make for a good piece of fiction? That depends.
For example, the story’s progression might be too predictable. There might be an excess of ‘expectation, satisfied’, where the most obvious culprit committed the murder, just as you had known from the start. Or there were no tantalising ‘red herrings’ to lead you off the scent, no intriguing ‘twists’ in the plot to make the final outcome seem surprising, even though you had been encouraged to anticipate it.
Alternatively, the fiction might not be ‘predictable enough’: a great romance that fizzles out midway through the story, with the writer never again referring to that romance’s existence – this, after having raised the reader’s expectations about its importance within the piece of writing.
These are the pitfalls of not following the genre’s ‘rules’. They can also be turned to your advantage.
By diverging from your reader’s expectations – perhaps by employing aspects of different genres – they can feel surprised, intrigued and excited, rather than feeling let down.
Read the extract below about setting for special effects.
‘Setting for special effects’ by Josip Novakovich
Many stories spring out of strong settings, but even those that don’t use setting. In movies, music and landscape shots often appear as a backdrop for the action, especially to augment suspense, romance, and sometimes simply to dazzle you. The quality of photography – the selection of details, the angles if light and shadow – engage you most. In writing, we can achieve similar effects with words describing landscapes and cityscapes. So consider the following auxiliary uses of setting.
Setting as quality of vision
In a dialogue scene, delicate imagery and metaphors may seem unnatural to your reader, so break away from the drama occasionally to give bits of the stage – the clanking of spoons on china. Here’s your chance to show your skill and speed, to build your reader’s confidence in your narrative vision. If your words render a setting keenly, the reader might be inclined to accept the psychological insights implied in the action and dialogue. With sharply observed bits of the world, you convince. A touch of extraordinary landscaping here and there may be enough to draw us into the story and to keep us in it.
In The Easter Parade Richard Yates grabs our attention in a printing room scene by engaging our perception:
Workmen hurried everywhere, all wearing crisp little squared-off hats made of intricately folded newspaper.
“Why do they wear those paper hats, Daddy?” Emily asked.
“Well, they’d probably tell you it’s to keep the ink out of their hair, but I think they just wear ’em to look jaunty.”
“What does jaunty mean?”
Shortly after the dialogue, Yates gives us this description:
They watched the curved, freshly cast metal page plates slide in on conveyor rollers to be clamped into place on the cylinders; then after a ringing of bells they watched the presses roll. The steel floor shuddered under their feet, which tickled, and the noise was so overwhelming that they couldn’t talk: they could only look at each other and smile, and Emily covered her ears with her hands. White streaks of newsprint ran in every direction through the machines, and finished newspapers came riding out in neat, overlapped abundance.
There’s a lot of dialogue before and after this moment; the narrative pause effectively grounds the scene. Yates makes us feel that we are there in the pressroom, with the ringing bells, shuddering floor, tickling feet. Although the novel is not about the newspaper business, but about two girls growing up unhappily, this scene establishes a strong backdrop. The daughters are impressed by their father, and they are ready to believe anything he tells them. Reading scenes like this, I believe, too, for I am there, I see. I see the father’s work place. If I didn’t his working for a newspaper would not mean much.
Here’s an example of the quality of vision in Michael Ondaatje’s novel, The English Patient. In the scene, a Bedouin healer treats a wounded man:
He crouched by the burning man. He made a skin cup with the soles of his feet and leaned back to pluck, without even looking, certain bottles. With the uncorking of each tiny bottle the perfumes fell out. There was an odour of the sea. The smell of rust. Indigo. Ink. River-mud arrow-wood formaldehyde paraffin ether. The tide of airs chaotic. There were screams of camels in the distance as they picked up the scents. He began to rub green-black paste onto the rib cage.
Ondaatje engages your senses. “The smell of rust”: You smell and see. “Screams of camels”: You hear and see. “… to rub green-black paste onto the rib cage”: You see and feel. The texture of the sensations is so rich that you experience the scene before you can doubt it. This healer’s handling his tools in his desert creates and sustains a scene – with substantiated characters in a setting. By substantiated I mean that we see the healer at work on his substances. Ondaatje does not merely tell, he shows.
Mood and atmosphere
You can set the tone of a scene with your handling of the setting. This is especially important in horror stories, romance, and other “mood” genres.
Here’s a mood-setter from a Gothic classic, Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights:
One may guess the power of the north wind, blowing over the edge, by the excessive slant of a few stunted firs at the end of the house; and by a range of gaunt thorns all stretching their limbs one way, as if craving aims of the sun … The narrow windows are deeply set in the wall, and the corners defended with large jutting stones …
The narrator completes the image of the house’s exterior with the following description:
A quantity of grotesque carving lavished over the front, and especially about the principal door, above which, among a wilderness of crumbling griffins, and shameless little boys, I detected the date “1500.”
Then she gives us the interior:
Above the chimney were sundry villainous old guns, and a couple of horse-pistols, and, by way of ornament, three gaudily painted canisters disposed along its ledge. The floor was smooth, white stone: the chairs, high-backed, primitive structures, painted green: one or two heavy black ones lurking in the shade. In an arch, under the dresser, reposed a huge, liver-coloured bitch pointer surrounded by a swarm of squealing puppies; and other dogs haunted other recesses.
The barren landscape, with stunted trees, thorns, and lack of sunshine, create a threatening mood. The interior of the old house, with its darkness, intensifies the sensation of threat. The smooth white stone adds coldness. Although the mere mention of all these details would create a threatening enough mood, the narrator does not stop there. She slants the verbs to distort the picture, to make it spooky. Chairs lurk in the shade. Dogs haunt recesses. Even the adjectives are slanted: villainous guns. She could have described pretty much the same thing with different verbs, “Chairs repose in the shade, and dogs roam in the recesses,” and she would have relaxed the mood. She guides the reader with verbs. Adjectives, and adverbs toward a single mood.
However, you don’t always need to use a long description to be effective. For example, German writer Günter Grass, in his novel Dog Years, gives us a startling detail to establish a surreal atmosphere:
… where the dike burst in ’55 near Kokotzko, not far from the Mennonite cemetary – weeks later the coffins were still hanging in the trees – he, on foot …
This is the middle of a half-page-long sentence, and the humble placement of the image of coffins hanging in trees only sharpens its effect, to augment the theme of postwar Germany, where war deaths hover in the air. Grass does not need to point with slanted verbs and modifiers at this grotesque image. It does its own work – but isn’t subtle, since it is a loud image. Grass’ technique is not superior to Brontë’s technique. They achieve different effects. Brontë’s narrator, passionately involved in the story, explicitly works on the mood, which anticipates disaster. Grass’ narrator, ironically detached, works his way out of a catastrophe, without needing to embellish it. Both methods are effective. When you choose a narrator emotionally involved in a drama, you might choose Brontë’s method; when you want distance, choose Grass’ cooler, more matter-of-fact method.
You can use setting to steer the reader’s expectations. Mood is a big part of foreshadowing. In the preceding example, Brontë foreshadows something frightening. The mention of villainous guns raises the suspicion that someone will be murdered. Darkness, griffins and haunting dogs forecast something in the verge of the supernatural. Later, she delivers on most of her promises.
In Stephen Crane’s ” The Blue Hotel,” a Swede believes that Nebraska is the wild West, and that he will be killed there. He provokes a fight, wins it, goes to another bar to brag about it, and there he is killed. As we follow him, we encounter these images:
In front of the saloon an indomitable red light was burning, and the snowflakes were made blood-colour as they flew through the circumscribed territory of the lamp’s shining.
The snowy night and the red flakes obviously foreshadow the bloodshed. In your writing, you may strive for a bit more subtlety, but it’s probably best to be somewhat obvious. If your foreshadowing is too subtle, there won’t be any shadows to see.
Setting as alpha and omega
In a screenplay, before every take you must indicate whether you are inside or outside, and the time of day. As a fiction writer, you may find these “establishing shots” tiresome, but you are not exempt from the obligation to establish where you are and what time of day the drama takes place. Of course, now and then it becomes boring to say, “in the evening.” So you may try twilights, dusks, noons, teatimes, and some other times, but eventually, even these will run dry. So be it. You still need to write, “in the morning,” just as in dialogue you must rely on one simple word, said. If you don’t tell when your action takes place, it might appear to happen in some generic time or always, as a repeated action. Unless you want that effect, indicate the days and nights.
For an example of how to open a piece of fiction with a setting and orient us as to the time the action takes place, take a look at Dickens’ brief opening of Our Mutual Friend:
In these times of ours, though concerning the exact year there is no need to be precise, a boat of dirty and disreputable appearance, with two figures in it, floated on the Thames between Southwark Bridge, which is of iron, and London Bridge, which is of stone, as an autumn evening was closing in.
The beginning draws us into a scene. We have a stage. At first we do not see the characters and the boat clearly, but enough is established for us to begin seeing and wondering.
In introducing the setting, it’s important that you orient us, make it clear where we should be imaginatively. Here’s how Guy de Maupassant opens “Mademoiselle Fifi.” He places us in an interior, with a vantage point toward the exterior.
The Major Graf von Farlsberg was reading … with his booted feet on the beautiful marble fireplace, where his spurs had made two holes, which grew deeper every day, during the three months that he had been in the chateau of Urville.
A cup of coffee was steaming on a round marquetry table, stained with liqueurs, charred by cigars and hacked by the penknife of the victorious officer … After throwing three or four enormous pieces of green wood on to the fire – for these gentlemen were gradually cutting down the park in order to keep themselves warm – he went to the window. The rain was descending in torrents, a regular Normandy rain, which … formed a kind of wall with oblique stripes.
Although de Maupassant does not tell us directly that it’s day-time, he makes it clear: He tells us several paragraphs later that the cup of coffee is Major’s sixth cup since that morning and that the officer looked over the flooded park (which he could not see at night).
Both of these openings set up moods and expectations – first for some murky action; second, for whimsical deeds to kill the boredom of a rainy day.
You can also close a story with the impressions of a place, which, in cinematic terminology, can create a perfect fade-out. This is how James Joyce closes his “The Dead” after the main character realises that without having passionately lived, he would fade away and die:
A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bogg of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.
What’s more to say after this? If the story ended with a philosophical statement, the impact would be smaller. In this way you’ll carry the images for days after you’ve read the story.
Setting as a character portrait
It’s hard to describe a person’s face in a fresh and telling way. After all, in how many ways can you describe eyes and a nose, if you don’t rely on metaphors? Not many. However, by describing a person through how he arranges his surroundings, you have quite a few options.
In Dead Souls, Nikolai Gogol uses objects in a living room to portray a character:
A lemon completely dried up, and no larger than a broken walnut-wood knob from an arm-chair; a wine glass covered with a letter, and containing some sort of liquid and three flies; … a toothpick, which was quite yellow, and with which the owner had probably cleansed his teeth prior to the arrival of the French in Moscow … From the middle of the ceiling hung a chandelier enveloped in a linen bag, to which the accumulated dust gave the aspect of a silkworm’s cocoon with the worm in it … It would have been impossible to affirm that a living being inhabited the apartment, had not an ancient, threadbare nightcap, which lay upon the table, borne witness to the fact.
The setting of the room gives us the character, a hoarder. This portrayal is augmented by other details:
For all of his domestic servants … Pliushkin had but a single pair of boots, which was always to be found in the vestibule. Anyone who was summoned into the master’s presence generally ran across the yard barefooted; but on entering the vestibule he pulled on the boots, and, thus arrayed, made his appearance in the room … If anyone had glanced out of the window in the autumn, and especially when the first morning frosts were setting in, he could have seen all the house-serfs taking such leaps as are hardly made on the stage by the most accomplished dancers.
How’s that for describing a stingy character? Certainly better than a pile of adjectives. To adhere to the principle “show, don’t tell,” present people by what’s around them.
Write one paragraph describing a place where you have worked. Describe how the people used their tools, machines or other equipment. Try to engage our senses, as shown in the Richard Yates’ example above. Share your paragraph in the comments below.
If you stated the type of workplace – an office, hospital ward or canning factory – delete the information and see whether it’s still obvious. If not, rewrite the piece with a focus on the sounds, sights, smells and general atmosphere of the place. Again, share in the comments below if you wish.
Think about how mood and circumstances affect perception. In 250 words, describe a supermarket visited by a woman who has just received a promotion at work.
Now, in another 250 words, write about the supermarket from the perspective of the same woman, who has just ended a love affair.
List 6 objects found in a character’s bedroom, office, garage, or other semi-private space. Be specific. Name them. For example:
Describe them, for example:
In 200 words, describe the character’s space in a way that provides clues to character. Now consider: could any of these objects lead to a larger story? For example:
Is there a shameful or glorious memory attached to one of them?
Do any of them belong to someone else?
Is one of them being hidden on behalf of another character?
Read the following extract which looks against place.
‘Setting as antagonist’ by Josip Novakovich
In a wide range of stories – westerns, journey stories, nature adventure stories, detective stories, war stories, prison stories, Gothic romance and most successful nongenre stories – setting provides the groundwork for the action. For example, Guy de Maupassant set many of his stories in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War. In this story “Ball of Fat,” he describes Rouen before the arrival of the Prussian troops:
A profound calm, a frightful, silent expectancy had spread over the city. Many of the heavy citizens, emasculated by commerce, anxiously awaited the conquerers, trembling lest their roasting spits or kitchen knives be considered arms … Shops were closed, the streets dumb.
When the Prussians come:
A strange, intolerable atmosphere like a penetrating odour, the odour of invasion … filled the dwellings and the public places, changed the taste of food …
Since a character can be shown better in defeat than in victory, Maupassant uses the setting to unmask people. A prostitute is brave and generous – she shares her last food with a group of rich travellers and lets herself be raped by a Prussian officer in order to set the travellers free. When it becomes their turn to share their food, they refuse, despising her on “moral” grounds.
The man-against-nature story (in which a character struggles, usually for survival, against a natural element) depends entirely on setting. For example, in “To Build a Fire” by Jack London, a man encounters a powerful antagonist, the cold, while he hikes in the Yukon territory in the middle of winter.
As he turned to go on, he spat speculatively. There was a sharp explosive crackle that startled him. He spat again. And again, in the air, before it could fall to the snow, the spittle crackled. He knew thatvat fifty below spittle crackled on the snow, but this spittle had cracked in the air. Undoubtedly it was colder than fifty below.
London describes how creeks freeze through the bottom, except for springs under the snow which “hid pools of water”:
Sometimes a skin of ice half an inch thick covered them, and in turn was covered by snow … There were alternate layers of water and ice skin, so that when one broke through he kept on breaking through for a while … wetting himself to the waist.
In subzero temperatures, being wet means freezing to death, unless you build a fire. The man falls into a spring and builds a fire, but a wind buries it in snow, and he freezes to death. After reading this story, you will remember the crackling of spittle in the cold much better than the man. (This detail, by the way, turns out to be false – I’ve spat in windchill of minus eighty in North Dakota, and nothing crackled. But for me, London’s description still crackles.) The setting is the main character of the story, as grand and unforgiving as God in the Book of Genesis.
Setting can sometimes generate the plot directly. For example, Nikolai Gogol based his novel Dead Souls on nineteenth century rural Russia, where a population census was conducted once every five years. If the last census was in 1830, and a serf died in 1831, the serf’s death would be registered in 1835. Gogol’s plot: a schemer travels around the country buying up dead serfs – relieving the landowners of the tax on them – to appear rich so he can mortgage his fictitious property and raise cash to buy real property. The schemer relies on the distance between the villages so that he won’t get caught as a swindler.
The setting need not be exotic, nor do you need it only if you write a long story or a novel. Even a short piece of fiction benefits from a strong sense of place. Jim Heynen, the author of the story collection The One-Room Schoolhouse, sets his stories on an Iowa farm. I suppose if you don’t live in Iowa, the setting may strike you as exotic, but if you do, it will not. The same applies to any place. Heynen’s trust in the place created a genre: midwestern farm tale. Here’s an excerpt from one, “Dead Possum”:
The boy whose job was to check the level of the big cattle drinking tank found a dead possum floating in it … The dead possum had a big red apple wedged in its wide-open mouth. It looked like somebody with a big mouth who had been bobbing for apples.
The boy wanted to yell for the others to come see, but knew they wouldn’t believe him, or even if they did, wouldn’t be in the mood. One of them would probably say something like, a dead possum with an apple in its mouth? Why don’t you ask him to share?
Isn’t this something? he said to the cows. Isn’t this something?
Some nodded, then stepped past him to drink.
Heynen does not even have a distinct character here, just “the boys,” which gives us more if a setting of boyhood than a single boy as a character. The place – populated with animals, vegetables, and farm boys – makes the story. Heynen gives you the place – no more than necessary – as the story moves along. This way, there’s no risk that the reader will say, “When does this description end? I hope soon.”
He offers you two viewpoints taken by the boys. Some treat the desd possum as quite familiar – and one boy treats it as something truly extraordinary. The group of boys, feeling jaded, familiarise even strange things, but the boy who checks the water level “defamiliarises” them, finds something exotic in the potentially drab place on a dreary day. As a writer you should attain the skill for defamiliarising your immediate surroundings, like the boy.
Every place is exotic to those who are far away from it. Write about the places exotic to you, but it’s cheaper (no air fare), and usually more effective, to find the exotic in the familiar. The trick is to treasure your impressions of the places you know well. When you neglect a place, you impoverish yourself.
Heynen is right to give us a young boy as the bearer of the freshest vision. I took my eight-month-old son to the zoo to see the elephants. He found a bee circling around us far more intriguing than a dancing elephant. Instead of gibbons leaping in trees, he noticed fish in the water. It struck me that his perspective had a tremendous advantage over mine. He saw the world while I saw the zoo.
By noticing with a fresh eye the fall of a common apple, Newton revolutionised science. He did not need a pineapple.
But you need not limit yourself to the places you know. If you write science fiction, you do not run away from the obligation to give us a setting. Without creating a thorough setting – imaginary science and technology, fashion, architecture, cuisine, drugs – you don’t make a good science fiction story. So devise ideas and images that will be unfamiliar to the reader, but make them appear familiar.
And for historical fiction, you can’t have experienced every place and time. So you research to make sure that your characters in 1920 don’t watch television and that your characters in Philadelphia of 1840 have the option to ride trains or at least listen to the whistles.
Write a scene in which a character is unhappy in his or her surroundings. For example, he or she might be:
Show the feelings through the description of the place, rather than by naming the feelings.
Share your scene in the comments below.
Write a scene in which two characters are quarrelling about the setting. One wants to stay and the other wants to leave. A setting could be:
Showing the setting in your story is just as important as creating convincing characters. Character itself is a product of place and culture, so the interplay of both contributes to your story’s meaning and insignificance. Elizabeth Bowen’s maxim warns of the kind of floundering and confusion which arises without a firm grounding in place.
Read the following extract which deals with the importance of setting and its links with plot.
‘Setting’ by JosipNovakovich
When and where does your story take place? Give us that place. Setting means a certain place at a certain time, a stage. You might even start your fiction by showing us the stage briefly. For example, Grand Central Station during the morning rush hour on the first day of winter in 1988. You might give us the details of the train station (the flipping of destination letters on the blackboard, slushy water on the tiles, crackling loudspeakers with Long Island nasality) and the people (the jacketed commuter crowd, a gaunt police officer with a startled dog). What startled the dog? We are ready to visualise the action now that we have the stage and something to look for on it.
Place for a place
Do you need real places for your fiction? The strongest novels I can think of – War and Peace, David Copperfield and others – are set in real cities or during real wars. Setting has these days fallen out of fashion at the expense of character and action. Perhaps this trend has to do with our not being a society of walkers. Big writers used to be big walkers. Almost every day, Honoré de Balzac spent hours strolling the streets of Paris; Charles Dickens, the streets of London; Fyodor Dostoyevski, the streets of St. Petersburg. Their cities speak out from them.
There is a common argument against detailed descriptions of setting: They can be outright dull. In their eagerness for excitement, readers often skip the passages that deal with establishing the setting. I certainly do – it took me years to return to Thomas Hardy’s The Returnof the Native because the first ten pages of the novel are spent mostly in describing landscape, and no matter how fine the descriptions, I suspect that even the English readers of the leisure class skipped those pages.
Many writers avoid laying out the setting because they fear boring their readers, but the lack of a vivid setting may in turn cause boredom. Without a strong sense of place, it’s hard to achieve suspense and excitement – which depend on the reader’s sensation of being right there, where the action takes place. When descriptions of places drag, the problem usually lies not in the setting, but in presenting the setting too slowly. Make your descriptions dynamic and quick; give bits of setting concurrently with characters and action. Take cues from drama: It would be a perculiar play in which all the props where displayed for half an hour before the actors walked on stage. Stage managers give you only the pieces necessary for a scene with actors already present. So as you write, though you may have sketched out all the jails, creeks, and mules, don’t show them all first, before the characters. And when you show the setting, be selective, giving only a few details that’ll evoke a place. If the chosen details are vivid, the reader will piece together the whole picture from her imagination. Leave her that pleasure.
I’ve mentioned vividness (a result of using setting correctly) as a necessity for excitement. Fiction, in many ways, is similar to painting. Henry James certainly thought so. In “The Art of Fiction,” he wrote: “The analogy between the art of the painter and the art of the novelist is, so far as I am able to see, complete. Their inspiration is the same, their process (allowing for the different quality of the vehicle) is the same, their success is the same. They may learn from each other, they may explain and sustain each other.” Medieval paintings had no landscape for background, and the characters they portrayed expressed little emotion – no laughter. By the end of the Middle Ages, exuberant life appeared in the foreground and landscapes and cityscapes in the background. Coincidence? I don’t think so. So, give your characters – children of your imagination – a lot of rich ground to move on, to play out their drama. A child with sand on a beach has a chance to be more active and creative than a child without sand.
These days, many writers – certainly not all – withdraw their gazes from city architecture and country life, and as they do, their fictional worlds diminish. The exterior and the interior go together. A destitute vision of what’s around us can’t result in a wealth of inner substance. Writing that deals only with ego – Did my father abuse me? – to my mind attains the humourless bleakness of a medieval painting, in which only the questions of sin (abuse) and pardon (recovery) matter. A character, let’s say a sculptor, is interesting by virtue of what he does to the stones around him. If we never see the sculptor tackle the stones and other materials, his being a sculptor is merely an abstract trait. Whatever happens psychologically can be expressed in the environment: Mark Twain’s humour in Huckleberry Finn would not work without the Mississippi setting.
Of the journalist’s six questions – who, what, when, where, how and why (a good piece of fiction strives to substantiate as much as a good piece of journalism does) – setting answers two – where and when – and therefore is extremely important.
Real or imagined setting
Before beginning to write a piece of fiction, decide whether you want to use a real place for your setting or an imagined one. The advantage of anchoring your writing in a real place – entirely or partially – is that you will be rooted, you will draw new inspiration (and some old ghosts) out of the houses and streets. Each town, street, house has its own history; if you walk around a street, talk to its residents, read about it in old newspapers, you might unearth all kinds of interesting facts that’ll compete to enter your fiction. In portraying a place accurately, don’t fear a lawsuit, which could happen only if the locations give unmistakeable leads to real people. So, import your characters from other places and mask them so that not even their fathers would recognise them, or better yet, make them up.
Notice how proud people are if their town has been used as a setting for a movie. The same is true of a successful book that uses an authentic setting. However, if you fear lawyers, you can always change the name and the looks of the town and its streets, and lie in a disclaimer on the front page that any resemblance to real places is purely accidental. I think, though, that if you have a talent for lying, you are better off transforming the places you know in your fiction than making such disclaimers.
Setting as the groundwork of fiction
For me, setting has been the primary source of fiction. Once I left Croatia, I began to set most of my stories there. That caught me by surprise because I had been terribly eager to get to the States. My stories gained resonance from my knowledge of Croatian towns far more than from American settings, which took time to reach my imagination. People ask me if my work is autobiographical. “No, it’s topographical,” I say, and though people stare at me blankly, I do mean it. I write about places.
The importance of the setting could be expressed in this formula: Setting = Character = Plot. Out of a place, a character is formed; out of a character’s motives, plot may follow. This may sound like a psychological theory that the milieu is everything, that a character is a product of her environment. On the other hand, to disregard the importance of setting and to rely on a character’s innate nature may sound too much like determinism. If the genes or something else in a character takes place of everything, why bother playing out the drama in the environment and on a novelistic stage? Without places and actions influencing the character, you can’t have much link between events. For a novelist, the theory favouring environmental importance can usually function better than the theory distegarding its importance.
A compromise, giving weight to both nature and nurture, works best. This approach could be expressed as Setting + Character = Plot. Out of a character’s relationship with the setting, or out of the character’s conflict with the setting, you get the plot (or at least a part of the plot, or a dynamic backdrop for your plot). The character, of course, has some independent inner core, some traits that can’t be explained merely by environmental influences.
Let me illustrate this formula in practice. In my story, “Rust,” a setting and character in conflict with each other generate the plot:
If you walk through the green and chirpy tranquility of the park around the castle at Nizograd, Yugoslavia, past the Roman Baths, you will come upon this monument: two dark, bronze partisans stuck on a pedestal uncomfortably high, back to back, one perpetually about to throw a hand grenade, another shoving his rifle into the air and shouting a metallic silence, his shirt ripped open. Their noses are sharp, lips thin, cheekbones high, hands large and knotty … The monument was done by Marko Kovachevich, a sculptor educated at the Moscow Art Academy who was a Communist before the war and one of the first partisans.
The sculptor’s work, as a part of the place, introduces to us the man and, later, his home completes the picture.
His house was a grand sight – the redness of its bricks cried against the forest in the background. Its massiveness cast a long shadow over the backyard, prostrate and vanishing in the darkness of the woods. What was in the shadow attracted even more attention, so much so that the bright house would sink into a shadow of your mind, while the darkened objects in the background would begin to glow – planks of wood with bent nails sticking out, bike chains, rusty train wheels, tin cans, cats, buckets, winding telephones, a greater disarray than Berlin on May 2, 1945. The backyard seemed to be a witness to the collapse of an empire. Marko seemed entrenched in a war of sorts, with chaos gaining the upper hand.
By casting the shadows of World War II in a story set in the seventies, I build the plot. Marko, as a World War II guerrilla fighter, continues his fight, now against his former comrades, against the town and against himself: because he does not know how to live in peace. Instead of working as a sculptor, he makes tombstones, to bury communists. Just as his iron-strength rusts, and he collapses, without ever conforming (since he got stuck in the past), so does Yugoslavia collapse, for the second time (since she got stuck in the World War II mentality, which gutted any kind of progress). The setting is as much a character as Marko is. I wrote this story in the eighties – before Yugoslavia collapsed. I don’t mean that there was anything prophetic in the story. The setting gave me nearly everything – the seed for a grand character and for the intuition about Yugoslavia’s doom.
Even if the setting and the character together do not give you the plot, your story should appear as though the formula worked so that the place, the people, and the action are integrated. If you import a plot from a newspaper (or wherever) and apply it to places and the people you know, you must transform the places and the people so that the plot – what happens – would be completely believable. Your characters should have sufficient motives to act the way they do, and these motives should be tied to the environment. To give a simple example, don’t organise a water polo game on a baseball field; or if you insist, you must first make a swimming pool in that field. It’s simpler to find a swimming pool elsewhere.
Make a list of objects you remember from your childhood home. Don’t use any particular order or many adjectives. Don’t censor yourself – something seemingly unimportant may evoke strong impressions. Read through your list and circle the objects that evoke the strongest feelings and memories of events.
What are these events?
Do you see a story lurking there?
Now write a paragraph describing one of these events.
Where exactly did it happen?
What objects were involved?
Don’t use any overtly sentimental language – let the details speak for themselves.
Example: In the space beneath the staircase I find my old dog’s house, with his shaggy hair caught in the rough edges of the wood planks, although the dog is long gone.
If you don’t spell out the emotional significance of the dog, you create poignancy without sentimentality.
Read the following extract which outlines the main methods of revealing character in fiction.
‘Portraying a character’ by Josip Novakovich
The way you present a character is at least as important as where you get the character. Fleshing out your characters in various ways may take up most of the story. So if you learn how to make your characters act on a stage, in your setting, you’ll certainly be able to write stories. In this section you’ll find a variety of ways to portray a character.
You can tell us outright what your fictional characters are like and what they do. If you answered the questionnaire at the end of the previous section, you have a rough character summary. Link the character traits that strike you as the most important ones, and you’ll have a complete character summary. Here’s a classic summary from Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes:
This gentleman, in the times when he had nothing to do – as was the case for most of the year – gave himself up to the reading of books of knight errantry; which he loved and enjoyed so much that he almost entirely forgot his hunting, and even the care of his estate …
He so buried himself in his books that he spent the nights reading from twilight till daybreak and the days from dawn till dark; and so from little sleep and much reading, his brain dried up and he lost his wits.
Cervantes goes on with the summary for several pages, but I think this excerpt gives you an idea of how summary works. We find out Don Quixote’s work and leisure habits, hobbies and passions, and the consequences of pursuing these – his obsession with books results in his illness, madness.
The advantage of this method is its simplicity and readability: The writer quickly focuses on the main character’s conflict and supplies the background we need to know. You clearly set up expectations for what follows if you use this method in or near the beginning of your story. Unless you botch the summary, your reader will easily understand what the main character traits and conflicts are about.
The disadvantage to this method is that you are bound to tell rather than show what your character is like – this method makes it hard to see and hear the character. While the summary goes on, no dramatic action, no dialogue, takes place. We are waiting. Still, the character summary is often worth risking; after you orient the reader clearly and quickly, you will not need to stall the dramatic action (in order to supply the background) once it begins to take place.
Here’s another example of how summary works, from The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway. See how quickly we learn the character’s main concerns:
Robert Cohn was once middleweight boxing champion of Princeton. Do not think that I am very much impressed by that as a boxing title, but it meant a lot to Cohn. He cared nothing for boxing, in fact he disliked it, but he learned it painfully and thoroughly to counteract the feeling of inferiority and shyness he had felt on being treated as a Jew at Princeton. There was a certain inner comfort in knowing he could knock down anybody who was snooty to him, although, being very shy and a thoroughly nice boy, he never fought except in the gym.
This is the opening of the novel. There’s no scene for us to visualise, but we receive the basic outline of the character’s psychology and motivation. Later, we’ll hear the character speak, see him act, but for now, we have some guiding ideas about him (and the novel), which will help us understand what follows.
If this approach strikes you as too much “telling,” try to show all the information in a dramatic scene, and you’ll realise that you’ll need at least several pages to do it. Since the action Hemingway is concerned with is not in the past but in the dramatic present (which will follow), to go back into the past dramatically would dissipate the novel’s focus. The summary gives us the relevant aspects of the past, so we can stick with the dramatic present. While it’s not the most graceful method, it’s certainly useful.
Repeated action or habit
This is the most common notion of character – the expectation of how a person will behave in a given situation, based on the observation that she has behaved like that many times, that she has the habit. This may be an effective way of describing a person when you don’t have the time to go into the scenes to show us how she behaves. Here’s an example from “Where are you going, Where have you been?” By Joyce Carol Oates:
She was fifteen and she had a quick, nervous giggling habit of craning her neck to glance into mirrors or checking other people’s faces to make sure her own was all right.
Now we know that in many situations the girl behaves this way. It would take an awful lot of time to show this habit dramatically. If the sole point of the scenes were to show her habit, the scenes would be a strain on the reader. Describing it in a summary will save you time. That’s the advantage. The disadvantage is that doing this will delay your entry into your main dramatic scenes, where the story takes place.
The writer may let the character introduce himself to us. Again, this usually will be a summary of the basic concerns, at least in the beginning. Notice that a self-portrait can be achieved indirectly, as Hemingway’s narrator does in the example of character summary from The Sun Also Rises. The narrator says, “Do not think that I am very much impressed by that as a boxing title, but it meant a lot to Cohn.” In this sentence we notice a certain sense of superiority, perhaps arrogance, on the part of the narrator. When he characterises Robert Cohn as “very shy and a thoroughly nice boy,” we hear the narrator’s voice. Who would speak of a twenty-year old as a “thoroughly nice boy”? We begin to surmise inferences about the narrator. The narrator’s summary gives us an explicit portrait of Robert Cohn and an implied and indirect self-portrait. Good economy.
Here’s a direct self-portrait by the narrator of Notes From Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevski:
I am a sick man … I am a spiteful man. I am an ugly man. I believe my liver is diseased. However, I know nothing at all about my disease, and do not know for certain what ails me. I don’t consult a doctor for it, and never have, though I have a respect for medicine and doctors. Besides, I am extremely superstitious, sufficiently so to respect medicine, anyway (I am well-educated enough not to be superstitious, but I am superstitious). No, I refuse to consult a doctor from spite … My liver is bad, well – let it get worse!
Here, the advantage over the third-person summary is that the way sentences are put together, the way of thought, is our picture of the character just as much as the content of the thoughts. The Underground Man thinks in paradoxes, spitefully, in intentional self-contradictions. He certainly prepares us for the humorous and self-destructive acts to follow, so the didadvantages of this method, that it is not dramatic and that it does not create pictures, are not significant.
Image is not everything, but it does account for a lot. Through how a person looks, you may try to infer what the person is like – but appearances may be deceptive. Still, to suggest the person’s character, you may select and interpret details, to guide the reader’s expectations.
George Eliot uses this approach in the following paragraph from Middlemarch:
Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress. Her hand and wrist were so finely formed that she could wear sleeves not less bare of style than those in which the blessed Virgin appeared to Italian painters; and her profile as well as her stature and bearing seemed to gain the more dignity from her plain garments, which by the side of provincial fashion gave her the impressiveness of a fine quotation from the Bible – or from one of our elder poets – in a paragraph of today’s newspaper.
Eliot draws a portrait of a Victorian lady who drives the modesty of her dress to such an extreme that we are alerted by it. Immediately after this, Eliot gives us an inkling of how to interpret the appearance. “She was usually spoken of as being remarkably clever, but with the addition that her sister Celia had more common sense.” Miss Brooke is so ascetic that she creates problems for herself; she imprisons herself in a sterile marriage to a priestly scholar. Her appearance points in the direction of the key conflict of the novel.
Eliot’s description works like a painting, in which the surface details suggest character and mood. Sometimes the appearance of a character can indeed attain the quality of a good drawing, a cameo, as in the following example from “Patriotism,” by the Japanese writer Yukio Mishima:
For the beauty of the bride in her white over-robe no comparisons were adequate. In the eyes, round beneath soft brows, the slender, finely shaped nose, and in the full lips, there was both sensuousness and refinement. One hand, emerging shyly from a sleeve of the over-robe, held a fan, and the tips of the fingers, clustering delicately, were like the bud of a moonflower.
Notice how in the two above examples, the authors draw the hands more successfully than the faces. While hands are often more difficult than faces to render in paintings, in writing it’s the reverse, because writing can capture motion and activity better than painting can. Hands can do more than faces can – unless we are mimes, and even with mimes, hands are at least as active as faces. In describing faces, it’s easy to resort to smiles and frowns, and difficult to strike a fresh image. With hands, you can play with a large array of possibilities.
You can characterise someone even by his feet or his walk, as does Thomas Hardy in The Mayor of Casterbridge:
His measured, springless walk was the walk of the skilled countryman as distinct from the desultory shamble of the general labourer; while in the turn and plant of each foot there was, further, a dogged and cynical indifference personal to himself.
No matter how you describe a character’s appearance, your reader must be able to see it. If you rely on an adjective and give us little besides, you will probably fail to make us visualise anything. In his novel The Citadel, British author A.J. Cronin makes this mistake and gives us an example of what not to do:
Late one October afternoon in the year 1921, a shabby young man gazed with fixed intensity through the window of a third-class compartment in the almost empty train labouring up the Penowell valley from Swansea.
This is the opening line from the novel. It accomplishes a lot in terms of setting, but the adjective shabby adds nothing. Judging from our being in a third-class compartment, we should get the notion of shabbiness anyhow, and shabby does not in any way give us the look of the man. The Citadel is an excellent novel, and it’s good to see that not everything needs to be perfect for a novel to succeed. If you don’t want to describe appearance, perhaps you can get away with it – but then don’t pretend that you are depicting. Scratch out the shabby.
In a scene you set your character in motion. Especially if she’s speaking, you can show us the character in action, without needing to summarise and generalise, although you may supplement the scene with a summary.
Christopher Isherwood in “Sally Bowls” draws a character portrait in a scene with dialogue:
“Am I terribly late, Fritz darling?”
“Only half or an hour, I suppose,” Fritz drawled beaming with proprietary pleasure. “May I introduce Mr. Isherwood – Miss Bowls? Mr. Isherwood is commonly known as Chris.”
“I’m not,” I said. “Fritz is about the only person who’s ever called me Chris in my life.”
Sally laughed. She was dressed in black silk, with a small cape over her shoulders and a little cap like a page-boy’s stuck jauntily on one side of her head:
“Do you mind if I use your telephone, sweet?”
“Sure. Go right ahead.” Fritz caught my eye. “Come into the other room, Chris.”
“For heaven’s sake, don’t leave me alone with this man!” she exclaimed. “Or he’ll seduce me down the telephone. He’s most terribly passionate.”
As she dialed the number, I noticed that her fingernails were painted emerald green, a colour unfortnately chosen, for it called attention to her hands, which were much stained by cigarette-smoking and as dirty as a little girl’s.
Here we meet the character through her voice, appearance, action, as though in a theatre, and certainly, she is theatrical. She says, “He’s most terribly passionate.” This string of three adjectives is a kind of sophisticated excess that achieves a theatrical sound, as though we were listening to an ironic actor. Isherwood guides us to intetpret the details, to see the little girl behind the sophisticated guise. The hands are as dirty as a little girl’s. Emerald green for fingernail paint seems gaudy and excessive; in her attempt to appear sophisticated, she fails, but achieves a charm, especially through her flirtatious talk: “He’ll seduce me down the telephone.”
The advantage of introducing a character in a scene is that we hear the character’s voice and diction, and we see the person. So when the narrator analyses this character, he does not do it abstractly, but in conjunction with what we have seen and experienced. The scene combines appearance, action and dialogue; it’s a highly versatile approach. The drawback is that you can’t supply the background easily without stalling a scene.
Sometimes you can introduce a character through action, so we begin to see her without needing much dialogue, as does Bobbie Ann Mason in “Shiloh”:
Leroy Moffit’s wife, Norma Jean, is working on her pectorals. She lifts three-pound dumbbells to watm up, then progresses to a twenty-pound barbell. Standing with her legs apart, she reminds Leroy of Wonder Woman.
“I’d give anything if I could just get these muscles to where they’re really hard,” says Norma Jean. “Feel this arm. It’s not as hard as the other one.”
The advantage of this method is that the reader is immediately with you, visualising, experiencing a scene. You can show and suggest what you could have told us about – such as that Norma Jean is a fitness nut, a body builder, a self-obsessed person. The scene implies all this information without completely committing such a blatant interpretation, so it’s less judgemental than a summary to this effect would be. (This is most lifelike. We watch how people behave, we never see abstract qualities such as self-obsession – we merely see the signs, symptoms, which we interpret.) The author leaves the opportunity of judgement to the reader. Whenever you can, show character traits acted out in scenes. If you are interested in directly judging your characters, of course, rely on summaries and interpretations. (Judgement does have its virtues – it’s abstract, possibly philosophical.)
The disadvantage to the scenic characterisation method is that it’s awkward to construct scenes that are outside of the main time frame of the story, unless you do flashbacks and memories. There’s a limit to how many flashbacks you can handle without destroying the flow of the story. And there’s a limit to how many things you can show, anyhow. Thus, although scenes are probably the most attractive method of characterisation, you probably need to resort to summaries of relevant character deeds and inclinations outside of the story’s time frame.
Most developed character descriptions combine two or more approaches. During the course of a novel, we see a character in the ways the author chooses for us. That, too is lifelike – you hardly ever experience all the aspects of a friend right away. It takes time – different situations, communications, perceptions, and thoughts.
In Flannery O’Connor’s “The Artificial Nigger,” we see three approaches: habit, summary and appearance.
The alarm on the clock did not work but he was not dependent on any mechanical means to awaken him. Sixty years had not dulled his responses; his physical reactions, like his moral ones, were guided by his will and strong character, and these could be seen plainly in his features. He had a long tube-like face with a long rounded open jaw and a long depressed nose. His eyes were alert but quiet, and in the miraculous moonlight they had a look of composure and of ancient wisdom as if they belonged to one of the great guides of men.
“Strong character” is an abstract summary. “A long tube-like face” is a caricature, appearance. “He was not dependent on any mechanical means to awaken him” is a habit summary. These traits give us a quick synopsis of this man, which lead us into a scene, where we observe him in action.
Mr. Head went to the stove and brought the meat to the table in the skillet. “It’s no hurry,” he said. “You’ll get there soon enough and it’s no guarantee you’ll like it when you do neither.”
Now we hear him talk. Later we’ll see him talk and act at greater length, each time getting to know him better. O’Connor’s approach is incremental.
Here’s a portrait of a paranoid schizophrenic, drawn by summary of habits, appearance and psychology. In “Ward VI,” Anton Chekhov portrays the character so gently that he undermines our trust in the diagnosis of madness; later in the story we begin to perceive Russian psychiatry as mad, so that the character is quite justified in feeling persecuted.
Ivan Dmitrich Gromov … is always in a state of agitation and excitement, always under the strain of some vague undefined expectation. The slightest rustle in the entry or shout in the yard is enough to make him raise his head and listen: are they coming for him? Is it him they are looking for?
I like his broad pale face with its high cheekbones … His grimaces are queer and morbid, but the fine lines drawn on his face by deep and genuine suffering denote sensibility and culture, and there is a warm lucid gleam in his eyes. I like the man himself, always courteous, obliging, and extremely considerate in his treatment of everyone except Nikita. When anyone drops a button or a spoon, he leaps from his bed and picks it up.
I think this is an excellent pattern not only combining summary and scene, but also sympathy. Chekhov treats a type, a paranoid schizophrenic, with enough sympathy that the type no longer threatens to reduce the human qualities and complexities of Ivan’s character. Ivan has become a person for us.
Gustave Flaubert portrays Madame Bovary in a succession of different approaches. Each time we meet her, we see a different aspect of her, in a new light, and in a new approach:
[Brief Silent Scene] She made no comment. But as she sewed she pricked her fingers and then put them into her mouth to suck them …
[Silent Scene, Habit, Appearance] As the room was chilly, she shivered a little while eating. This caused her full lips to part slightly. She had a habit of biting them when she wasn’t talking …
[Psychological Summary] Accustomed to the calm life, she turned away from it toward excitement. She loved the sea only for its storms, and greenery only when it was scattered among ruins. She needed to derive immediate gratification from things and rejected as useless everything that did not supply his satisfaction. Her temperament was more sentimental than artistic. She sought emotions and not landscapes.
And later, of course, Flaubert stages Madame Bovary, just as Isherwood does Sally Bowls.
I recommend this pattern of multiple approaches particularly for your main characters in a novel. If your character is complex enough, you might try all the approaches you can think of to understand who you are creating. Your readers will probably get involved, too, trying to understand with you. The trick is to be genuinely curious about the people populating your fiction.
Imagine a new character and build a strong sense of the person by using the checklist shown previously.
Now present your new character in the four different ways outlined above. Here they are again:
Make a summary of what the character is like.
Show him or her through appearance.
Show him or her through a habitual or repeated action.
Finally, show him or her through a speech in a scene.
Share your results in the comments below.
Review your four ‘takes’ on this character. Although you may have shown different aspects of your character, check that there are no inconsistencies. For example, Flaubert’s depictions of Madame Bovary all show her as sensual, whatever the means of portrayal.
Make a character desire something, and make the desire his or her driving force. Write a scene or a summary that creates reasons why s/he can never have what s/he wants. (‘Three hours between planes’ is a good example if this.)
Check that you have made the object of desire desirable in our eyes – make us see from the character’s perspective.
Read the extract below on the ‘Sources of characters’. This outlines the main method of finding and developing fictional characters.
‘Sources of characters’ by Josip Novakovich
Where do you find fictional people?
You can completely make them up, using psychology textbooks, astrology charts, mythology, the Bible or, simply, your imagination. This is the ideal method – ideal in a sense that you work from a purely intellectual creation, an idea about a character whom you have not observed and who is not you. Although by using this method you don’t draw from people you know to make your characters, you must speak of real passions, and each character must appear like a real person. Real person is a bit of a contradiction in terms because persona, the Latin root for person, means “mask.” We usually take a mask to be the “unreal,” phony part of a person. But wearing a mask at a carnival can help you live out your true passions that otherwise, due to social pressures, you keep in check. Fiction is a carnival. So give us real passions with good masks, and everybody will be fair game! Make up character masks, release dramatic conflicts beneath them, and you will create startling people, such as you would like, or fear, to meet.
The mother of all methods – though not necessarily the one you should use most – is the autobiographical method, for it is through your own experience that you grasp what it is to bea person. Because of this, you are bound, at least to some extent, to project yourself into the fictional characters you render by any other method. Many writers project themselves into all the characters they portray. This is, metaphorically speaking, the fission approach: an atom may be split into several, during which an enormous amount of energy is released. Fyodor Dostoyevski split his personality into many fictional ones, all of them as temperamental as he. Mel Brooks, the comedy writer and movie director, thinks this is the primary way to write: “Every human being has hundreds of separate people living under his skin. The talent of a writer is his ability to give them their separate names, identities, personalities, and have them relate to other characters living with him.”
In the biographical method, you use people you have observed (or researched) as the starting points for your fictional character. This seems to be the most popular method. Despite legal limitations on the biographical method, don’t shut down this basic source of fictional characters. Hemingway said that if he explained the process of turning a real-life character into a fictional one, it would be a handbook for libel lawyers. The notion that writers work this way will keep some people quiet around you lest you broadcast their secrets. For a long while it irritated me that my older brother would not believe that I was becoming a writer; and now that he does, it irritates me even more because he does not tell me anything about himself. To find out about him, I talk to our middle brother, and as soon as my older brother finds out that that’s how it works, he probably won’t talk to him either.
Most fictional characters are directly or at least indirectly drawn from life. E.M. Forster, author of A Passage to India, said: “We all like to pretend we don’t use real people, but one does actually. I used some of my family … This puts me among the large body of authors who are not really novelists, and who have to get on as best they can.” (By the way, most novelists are not really novelists, and they must get on as best they can. Nobody is born with this stuff, and hardly anybody becomes quite secure in the craft. I think that’s comforting: Novelists are regular people, like you and me.)
Using the biographical method, writers often compose their characters from the traits of several people. To express it with another term from nuclear physics, this is the fusion approach: You fuse character traits the way you fuse atoms. Lillian Hellman, author of Pentimento, supports this view of making fictional characters: “I don’t think you start with a person. I think you start with parts of many people. Drama has to do with conflict in people, with denials.” She looks for conflicts in real people and gives these conflicts to her fictional characters, whose traits she gets from other people.
The fourth way to create fictional characters is the mixed method. Writers frequently combine the biographical and the ideal method since there’s a limit to relying on direct knowledge of characters. In part, this stems from our inability to know people in depth. Somerset Maugham, author of Of Human Bondage, said: “People are hard to know. It is a slow business to induce them to tell you the particular thing about themselves that can be of use to you.” Unless you are a psychiatrist or a priest, you probably will not find out the deep problems of the people around you. That does not mean you can’t use some aspects of the people you know. But soon you must fill in the gaps, and let’s hope that then you will create a character independent from the real-life model. You may use ideas and imagination, or it may happen spontaneously, as it apparently did to Graham Greene, author of The Human Factor, who said: “One gets started and then, suddenly, one cannot remember what toothpaste they use … The moment comes when a character does or says something you hadn’t thought about. At that moment he’s alive and you leave it to him.” If your character begins to do something different from what the real-life precedent would do, encourage this change, and forget about the real-life model. Soon you should have someone answering to the necessities of your plot and conflicts, not to the memory of the person you started with.
The ideal to strive for is a character who will come to life seemingly on his own. It will no longer be the person from life outside the novel that served as a starting point, but a fictional one, who not only is there to be written about, but who, in an optimal case, writes for you. Erskine Caldwell expressed this blessed autonomy of fictional characters: ” I have no influence over them. I’m only an observer, recording. The story is always being told by the characters themselves.”
Not all writers give their characters autonomy and allow them to dictate what to write down. John Cheever said: “The legend that characters run away from their authors – taking up drugs, having sex operations, and becoming president – implies that the writer is a fool with no knowledge or mastery of his craft. This is absurd.” Of course, Cheever believed in his method and distrusted the methods of other authors. I think it’s silly when a writer assumes that his method is the method for all writers. However, it is good to learn what approaches exist, to try them all, and to see which works best for you.
But one principle about constructing characters can be stated unequivocally. Whether your characters attain autonomy or not, whether they came from you or from Greek myths, the more you get to know them, the better you will work with them. To work with a character, you might need to sketch it in several ways. You could start with this questionnaire (or make one up for yourself): Name? Age? Place of birth? Residence? Occupation? Appearance? Dress? Strengths? Weakness? Obsessions? Ambition? Work habits? Hobbies? Illness? Family? Parents? Kids? Siblings? Friends? Pets? Politics? Tics? Diet? Drugs? Favourite kinds of coffee cigarettes, alcohol? Erotic history? Favourite books, movies, music? Desires? Fears? Most traumatic event? Most wonderful experience? The major struggle, past and present?
If you give quick, spontaneous answers, you might surprise yourself with the character that emerges. Don’t worry if this works like a Rorschach blot, if it reveals something about you. You might do it in a silly way, have fun, and still get an idea for a character. And you might do it quite thoughtfully, in relation to your plot, if you’ve chosen one. (Let’s say, your plot involves a son who gambles away his patrimony, until he becomes a father, and then works so hard to leave his son with a patrimony that he can’t spend any time with him, and his son disowns him. You must devise character traits that would make him plausible.) If you don’t have a plot yet, some of the answers to these questions. Particularly the last one – the character’s major struggle – might give you ideas.
Once you know almost enough – you hardly ever know enough – about the character, test her out. Portray her.
Imagine a character very like you but give him or her a dramatic external alteration. You might make the character the opposite sex, for example, or make them significantly older or younger. You choose.
Now write a brief character sketch in which you reveal the character’s appearance, their feelings about it, and their current circumstances. Use a third-narrator (‘he’ or ‘she’). Share your sketches in the comments below.
‘Write what you know’ is a familiar piece of advice often given to writers. But ‘what you know’ can expand through imagination and sympathetic identification with others who are not like you at all. This is similar to what actors do – they are not confined to ‘playing themselves’ – and neither are writers.
In your notebook, as an ongoing exercise, use the following method of building character outlines to flesh out your characters and see how much you can discover about them.
Physical/biological: age, height, size, state of health, assets, flaws, sexuality, gait, voice.
What about minor or peripheral characters? How deeply do they have to be imagined?
Read the following extract on round and flat characters. Showing the contradictions in characters is one way of making them ’round’.
‘Round and flat characters’ by Josip Novakovich
Most of the characters in the above example could be called round characters because they have three dimensions, like a ball. These characters are complex, possessing conflicting traits. Mme. Loisel is both frivolous and responsible. The Swede is paranoid yet insightful. John Marcher is sensitive yet callous. In writing, you must not oversimplify – that is, create flat characters. (It’s all right to have flat characters as part of a setting but not as part of an interactive community, the cast of your story.)
Flat characters have few traits, all of them predictable, none creating genuine conflicts. Flat characters often boil down to stereotypes: fat, doughnut-eating cop; forgetful professor; lecherous truck driver; jovial fatso; shifty-eyed thief; anorexic model. Using these prefab characters can give your prose a semblance of humour and quickness, but your story featuring them will have about as much chance of winning a contest as a prefab apartment in a competition of architects. Even more damaging, you will sound like a bigot. As a writer you ought to aspire toward understanding the varieties of human experience, and bigotry simply means shutting out and insulting a segment of population (and their experiences) by reducing them to flat types.
But can you have a character without types? What would literature be without gamblers or misers? The answer, I believe, is simple: Draw portraits of misers, but not as misers – as people who happen to be miserly. And if while you draw misers as people you feel that you fail to make characters but do make people, all the better. Ernest Hemingway said, “When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people, not characters. A character is a caricature.” So, give us people. (“Give me me.”) Let the miser in me come to life – and blush – reading your story.
Take one of the stereotypes mentioned (shifty-eyed thief, jovial fatso, etc) or use one of your own. Write a brief scene in which you portray that character in a complex way, going against the usual expectations.
the bullying headmaster with a tender sentimental side;
the meticulous manager who lives in a messy house;
the shy librarian who goes bungee-jumping;
the habitual flirt who avoids relationships.
Share your writing in the comments below.
Check what you’ve written to see if you’ve shown the character in a sympathetic light. If your portrayal seems distant or aloof, rewrite it. Try to identify more closely with the character. If you haven’t already used the first person (‘I’), write it in the character’s own voice. Does that make a difference?
Read the first few paragraphs from Novakovich’s chapter on ‘Character’ below:
Fiction Writer’s Workshop by Josip Novakovich
Most people read fiction not so much for plot as for company. In a good piece of fiction you can meet someone and get to know her in depth, or you can meet yourself, in disguise, and imaginatively live out and understand your passions. The writer William Sloan thinks it boils down to this: “Tell me about me. I want to be more alive. Give me me.”
If character matters so much to the reader, it matters even more to the writer. Once you create convincing characters, everything else should easily follow. F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “Character is plot, plot is character.” But, as fiction writer and teacher Peter LaSalle has noted, out of character, plot easily grows, but out of plot, a character does not necessarily follow. To show what makes a character, you must come to a crucial choice that almost breaks and then makes the character. The make-or-break decision gives you plot. Think of Saul on the way to Damascus: while persecuting Christians, he is blinded by a vision; after that, he changes, becomes St. Paul, the greatest proselyte. Something stays the same, however; he is equally zealous, before and after. No matter what you think of the story of Paul’s conversion, keep it in mind as a paradigm for making a character.
Of course, not all characters undergo a crucial change. With some characters, their unchangeability and constancy makes a story. In “Rust,” my story about the sculptor-turned-tombstone-maker, everything (the country, family, town) changes, except the character. Even his body collapses, but his spirit stays bellicose and steadfast. Here he is, at work:
He refused to answer any more of my questions. His hands – with thick cracked skin and purple nails from hammer misses – picked up a hammer. Veins twisted around his stringy tendons so that his tendons looked like the emblem for medicine. He hit the broadened head of the chisel, bluish steel cutting into grey stone, dust flying up in a sneezing cloud. With his grey hair and blue stubbly cheeks he blended into the grain of the stone – a stone with a pair of horned eyebrows. Chiseling into the stone, he wrestled with time, to mark and catch it. But time evaded him like a canny boxer. Letting him cut into rocks, the bones of the earth, Time would let him exhaust himself.
Seven years later I saw him. His face sunken. His body had grown weaker. Time had chiseled into his face so steadily that you could tell how many years had passed just by looking at the grooves cutting across his forehead. But the stubborness in his eyes had grown stronger. They were larger, and although ringed with milky-grey cataracts, glaringly fierce.
Whether or not there’s a change in you, character is not the part of you that conforms, but rather, that sticks out. So a caricaturist seeks out oddities in a face; big jaws, slanted foreheads, strong creases. The part of the character that does not conform builds a conflict, and the conflict makes the story. Find something conflicting in a character, some trait sticking out of the plane, creating dimension and complexity. Make the conflict all-consuming, so that your character fights for life. Stanley Elkin, author of The Dick Gibson Show, emphasised the need for struggle this way: “I would never write about someone who is not at the end of his rope.”
Think of the basic character conflicts in successful stories. “The Necklace” by Guy de Maupassant: Mme. Loisel, unreconciled to her lower-class standing, strives to appear upper class, at all costs. Out of that internal conflict ensues the tragedy of her working most of her adult life to pay for a fake necklace.
“The Girls in Their Summer Dresses” by Irwin Shaw: Though married and in love with his wife, a young man is still attracted to other women.
In Henry James’ “The Beast in the Jungle”: John Marcher waits for some extraordinary passion to take hold of him; he dreams of it so much that he does not notice he is in love with May Bertram, who is at his side all along. Only when she dies, of neglect, does he realise it.
In “The Blue Hotel” by Stephen Crane: The Swede, visiting a small town in rural Nebraska, imagines that he is in the wild West and consequently sets himself against a bar of ordinary people whom he imagines as gamblers and murderers.
In all these stories, characters suffer from a conflicting flaw. Aristotle called these character flaws hamartia – usually interpreted as “tragic flaw” (most often hubris or arrogance) when we talk about tragedies. Sometimes, however, a flaw may not lead to disaster, but to a struggle with a subsequent enlightenment. (St. Paul’s zeal, for example, leads him to an epiphany.)
A flaw could result also from an excessive virtue. Look at the opening of Michael Kohlhaas by the early nineteenth-century German writer Heinrich von Kleist:
Michael Kohlhaas … owned a farm on which he quietly earned a living by his trade; his children were brought up in the fear of God to be industrious and honest; there was not one of his neighbours who had not benefited from his goodness and fair-mindedness – the world would have had every reason to bless his memory, if he had not carried one virtue to excess. But his sense of justice turned him into a robber and a murderer.
Since his horses were abused at a border crossing between two principalities, and he could not get a just compensation in courts, Kohlhaas takes justice into his hands and burns down the castle where the horses suffered. In addition, he burns the city of Dresden, which protected the offenders. His sense of justice provokes a war. His uncompromising virtue may amount to vice – certainly it’s a flaw, the plot-generating flaw.
The dictum that ‘character is plot, plot is character’, attributed to Henry James (in Novakovich, 1995) is a familiar one, similar to Shakespeare’s ‘Character is destiny’ (from King Lear). This is not to say that what happens to characters is inevitable or predetermined. It’s simply that particular characters seek or attract certain events or encounters. If you start by building a strong sense of your main character or characters, then add a dilemma, challenge or conflict, you will atomatically be generating your plot. Starting the other way round, with a chain of events into which you then fit characters, can often be more difficult and less convincing.
Character + conflict = plot
As an ongoing exercise, apply this formula when building stories in your journal. See if it works for you.