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.
- 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. [↩]