A Partial View (updated)

What makes a character real and believable?

When you describe someone you always leave so much out. Physical descriptions often touch only the obvious: skin, hair, eyes and only broadly. I don’t remember the last time I read a description of the size of pores, the unevenness of the skin colour—nobody is the same colour all over—unless it was of a villian.

But if you were to describe absolutely everything you saw. Your writing would bog down. The aim is to suggest, not catalogue. But even the most cataloguey of writers—like Dorothy Dunnett and her glorious lists—always leave details out. The world’s too infinite to be exhaustively captured on a page.

There are all sorts of conventions that get in the way of describing what we actually see. I once tried to describe a very beautiful woman I used to know. She had very light almost fuzz-like hair all over her face, like a peach. You could only see it in certain lights, but it was distinct. The minute I described her like that no one would buy that she was beautiful. Gorgeous women do not have fur on their faces. But, trust me, she was—and I imagine still is—stunning.

In the 6 August New Yorker Louis Menaud takes some potshots at those who write biographies:

If we think about the laughable mess that is our own life—in which (even with the prevalence of cell-phone cameras) only a sliver of what we do and think and feel gets recorded, and the record that does exist is incomplete, or distorted, or captures states of mind that are transient—we may wonder whether the bits and pieces on which biographical narratives are often strung are not a little arbitrary. William James’s diary entry “My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will,” which makes a starring appearance in almost every life of him; Henry James’s dream of a chase through the Louvre, whose Freudian unpacking is given a prominent place in Leon Edel’s celebrated five-volume biography; Dickens’s story, first told to his biographer John Forster, about his experience in the blacking factory—once these “pivotal moments” or primal episodes get established in the literature, they acquire an unstoppable explanatory force. But what if William James decided the next day that free will was overrated but didn’t bother to write it down, or if Dickens later had a really good experience in a bluing factory, and never told anyone about it? All any biographer can hope, and all any reasonably skeptical reader can expect, is that the necessarily somewhat fictional character in the book bears some resemblance to the person who actually lived and died, and whose achievements (and disgraces) we care to learn more about. A biography is a tool for imagining another person, to be used along with other tools. It is not a window or a mirror.

What he said. It’s also true of fiction. No writer can give a complete picture of a character. And we fiction writers are even more shackled than the biographers because at least readers know that real people contradict themselves on occasion and change their minds. Trying to convey that in fictional characters is hard and if you bugger it up—and sometimes even if you don’t—will lead to accusations of inconsistency. And comments about “not buying that the protag would behave like that.”

In fiction, unlike real life, characters behave in ways that make sense. There are first shoes1 for later actions. Nothing comes out of nowhere. And if it does readers will complain that the book is badly written.

Fiction is more modelled on previous fiction than it is on real life. Readers’ expectations of where a story will go is shaped by how they understand story and how they understand the behaviours of characters in that particular kind of story.

No one’s life divides neatly into three or four acts which is why biographers often have such a hell of a job wrestling their sprawling material into a readable shape.

I guess these are reflections on rewriting. On trying to wrestle my novel into a readable whole that sits properly within story conventions but doesn’t bore me. I do, after all, write commercial fiction. It’s difficult and fun and exhausting.

I have a week left.

  1. Update: Several people have asked what I mean by “first shoe”. It’s a writing term I picked up from Scott and we use it so often I forget there are people who don’t know it. It comes from Damon Knight. Carol Emshwiller explains about halfway into this interview. But basically first shoes are things that happen early in the story that set up something that will happen later. Like if a character coughs early on that sets up their TB death by the end of the book. Or having a gun in a drawer early on means that at some point it will go off and the reader’s just waiting for when. []


  1. hillary! on #

    You have a week left for your many-other-things-than-fairys-fairy book to finish?

    When I read a book the visual I get of the characters depends on what the author describes or suggests, then I build on it depending on the characters’ actions, thought’s and spoken dialogue. So I know my idea is way differnet than anyone elses, and I like it like that. Having descriptive detail of a character really does bog a reader down, and the author, I’m guessing.
    But non-fiction is not something I can comment on since I’ve only ever read *Dreamtime Alice* and *Running With Scissors*, whick were both really good books respectively, but not something I would have read without my friends and teachers promptings.

  2. hillary! on #

    OOPS! I meant *can’t*! Can’t comment on non-fiction or memoirs. Since I’ve only ever read two memoirs

  3. janet on #

    I wouldn’t call that “taking potshots.” But I’m a huge Louis Menand partisan.

    Everything you say here makes perfect sense to me. Good luck with your wrestling match!

  4. hwalk on #

    I don’t think a complete view of a character is even desirable, except in a very long biography, and even that’s an interpretation. Bits and pieces are generally more accurate.

  5. jenny on #

    Hi Justine-
    This is a really interesting thread. I love your point about fiction being modeled on previous fiction more than real life. Characters that are written like “real” people aren’t really satisfying to readers as characters. But it’s also interesting to think about how different cultures have different story expectations. I’ve heard that we here in the west love things to come in threes, as the in the main character must overcome three obstacles. But on the other side of the globe the number might be two or seven!

  6. vicky on #

    i agree with your sentiments here. it’s true that some description is necessary; but too much is overwhelming and unnecessary. i think that one of the main reasons why “cataloguing”, so to speak, fails is that in real life, nobody ever knows every single thing about a person, at least for a good long while into a relationship; nor are you expected to. you glean what you can from looks and impressions and actions, and (usually) ignore or invent what you don’t. it’s usually the same in fiction, or writing of any kind.

  7. lili on #

    i never picture characters in books the way the author describes them. Actually, I don’t think I picture them at all. I’m not a visual thinker in that way.

    I also don’t do much describing in my own writing – i figure the reader is going to make them look however they want them to look, and unless they have some kind of physical something that affects the plot, they’re welcome to. So a character may have only one eye and a melted face, but you can figure out what colour her hair is. I’m not doing all the work.

  8. Justine on #

    Lazy cow, Lili! It’s peoples like you what are ruining the reputation of Australian literature!

    Seriously, either way can work. I’ve read books with none or very spare descriptions that work brilliantly. But others attempting the same come off as lazy and generic.

    And then there are books that have the most opulently detailed descriptions—like Dunnett—that I gobble up with a spoon.

    It’s true though that one of the most powerful devices for getting the feel of a character across (if it’s not from their pov) is dialogue.

  9. liliya on #

    nice post. I don’t read much biography because, though i subscribe to the view that real people’s lives are way more unbelievable and interesting than fiction, i hate the way most biographers try to fit their subject’s lives into some kind of pattern. and the outrageous assumptions they make about their subjects, claiming to know what they ‘must have been thinking about’ and so on.

    I’ve still got the beginnings of a novel I started when I was about 12. it’s awful, not least because all the characters’ appearance is described down to the minutest detail, like the length of their eyelashes. I guess I thought this stood in for actual character development(I don’t write like that anymore, honest)

    interesting what you say about fiction being based on fiction. or more film, these days? do you think we even judge real life in fictional terms, expecting real people to behave like book or film characters? it’s really interesting reading medieval or celtic literature from this point of view – or fairytales. characters often behave in utterly unmotivated ways, or, in terms of modern literature, act ‘out or character’

    good luck with the rewriting

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