On Characterization

by Matthew Clark Davison

My office windows face northwest, and the sun is blazing low over Lake Merced. Soon I’ll need to turn on the lights. For now, it’s magic hour, and a fly buzzes between the window and its blinds. A student walks in and plops her backpack on the floor, then takes a seat on the old swivel chair. She’s in my Craft of Fiction class.

Several weeks ago, in a discussion about theme and subject matter, she’d said, “I really want to write stuff for people like me, but I can’t handle the pressure. I don’t want to be a spokesperson.”

People like you? I asked.

“Queer,” she said. “Writers of Color. I’m proud of who I am, but don’t want to be pigeonholed or deal with people’s assumptions.”

Up until that point in the semester, all of her creative turn-ins had been plot-driven fantasy fiction. An attempt, perhaps, to create characters that transcend gender and sexual orientation and race, by removing them from the world where people struggle because of gender and sexual orientation and race. The problem? Her alternate worlds didn’t explore the very issues she said she most cared about: identity politics, race relations, assumptions about gender and sexual orientation within and outside of her own culture.

In order to avoid reactions she assumed readers would have to her characters, she ignored her strongest artistic impulses. Two weeks later, I asked the students a tough question: How are you hiding?

Hers was the first hand to go up in the circle. She confessed: “I want to get good at realistic literary fiction. You know,” she said, looking around the circle, “James Baldwin/Flannery O’Conner-style. Characters so crazy real you can’t forget them.”

 

It’s now week 10 of 15. We’ve read brilliant stories by writers whose characters are sometimes “queer” and “of color.” They’re also sometimes straight and/or white. We’ve also read “speculative” fiction by writers whose characters struggle, both literally and figuratively, with the very issues my student felt she could avoid.

“All the characters we’ve read this semester are so real. So memorable. Specific and universal,” she tells me. “Maybe I didn’t need to switch to realistic fiction. Maybe I need to find the deep subtext and social commentary—you know—like the stories you’ve assigned in class.”

The sky turns pink outside my windows. She asks, “How do I write characters as great as the ones I read?”

We are fiction writers. Our imaginations are our instruments. Words are the notes, and craft is the set of techniques we use, in varying degrees of conscious and unconscious application, to translate what our imaginations conjure into words on the page. Most agree that deeply imagined characters are the lifeblood of literary fiction. Genius plots and exotic settings offer their thrills; but it’s the characters that readers must find compelling enough to invest in or relate to or root for.

What is characterization?

XJ Kennedy and Dana Gioia define it as: “The techniques a writer uses to create, reveal or develop the characters in a narrative.”

Seems simple, right? But “revealing” and “developing” depends on the writer’s ability to create characters they’re invested in enough to endure the often messy and arduous drafting process. 

 

Ann Charters, author of The Story and its Writer, defines character this way: “Any person who plays a part in a narrative. Characters may be FLAT—simple, one-dimensional, unsurprising, and usually unchanging or static—or ROUND—complex, full, described in detail, often contradictory, and usually dynamic, i.e., changing in some way during the story. The main character in the story can usually be labeled the PROTAGONIST or HERO; he or she is often in CONFLICT with some other character, an ANTAGONIST. Other characters who affect the ACTION slightly or only indirectly may be called minor characters; depending on the intention or the skill of the author, the main characters need not be round, nor the minor characters flat. Minor characters are often as full and complex as major characters, or fuller.”

How did something so seemingly simple become so complicated?

When it comes to “technique,” there are endless options and no definitive rules. Sure there are craft tools and guidelines to consider. Only fools scoff at craft and maintain that art magically arrives on the page free of technique. Still, the truest expressions in all art forms seem impossible to explain or define. Even if an artist can articulate the techniques she used (and often the best writers cannot) to arrive at a particular rendering of character, can she repeat the process for the next story? Can someone else use her approach to equal success? Each time an artist nails down a theory that’s seemingly definitive, a new artist emerges and delights us by unraveling the theory with new techniques.

And that’s the good news. It’s why we keep reading.

J. G. Ballard said: “We live in a world ruled by fictions of every kind -- mass merchandising, advertising, politics conducted as a branch of advertising, the instant translation of science and technology into popular imagery, the increasing blurring and intermingling of identities within the realm of consumer goods, the preempting of any free or original imaginative response to experience by the television screen. We live inside an enormous novel. For the writer in particular it is less and less necessary for him to invent the fictional content of his novel. The fiction is already there. The writer's task is to invent the reality.”

Jane Smiley said, “My characters never die screaming in rage. They attempt to pull themselves back together and go on.”

These quotes sound good. If we’ve read these writers’ work and find their themes compelling, their ideas about writing may resonate. If we relate to what we assume or glean from biographical information about each writer’s life experience, inspiration, and worldviews—we might even try inventing a character with their quotes in mind. But would their particular techniques work just as well for the brilliant young woman sitting across from me?

Characterization, along with every other craft topic, has varied in its application not only with each individual writer’s vision, but also within its historical and geographical context. Different times/social and political contexts create different impulses and artistic responses, which demand modification to techniques and strategies. Soon, seemingly new techniques disappear and resurface at another time in a new way. This is true of techniques in all of the arts.

“My first writing teacher said I should only write about characters I know,” she says, swiveling back and forth in the squeaky chair.

I ask her: Does that mean that a single Russian female of the age of twenty can only write about a single Russian female the age of twenty? That the young protagonist in her fiction can only have a mother that looks and acts like her own?

“Let’s hope not,” she says.

Milan Kundera said, “The characters in my novels are my own unrealized possibilities. That is why I am equally fond of them all and equally horrified by them. Each one has crossed a border that I myself have circumvented. It is that crossed border (the border beyond which my own ‘I’ ends) which attracts me most. For beyond that border begins the secret the novel asks about. This novel is not the author's confession; it is an investigation of human life in the trap the world has become.”

Kundera’s quote blows open the chestnut: “Write what you know.” Nathan Englander said, “‘Write what you know’ is one of the best and most misunderstood pieces of advice […] Most of the books that we truly love don’t exist because these things did not happen to the people that were writing them.  But why do we love those books?  Why do they change us? Why do they touch our hearts? Why do they hold so much meaning?  Because, they are truer than truth, ‘cause there is a great knowing within them. And I think what’s behind ‘write what you know’ is emotion.  Like, have you known happiness?  Have you ever been truly sad? Have you ever longed for something? [...] If you have felt that deep longing, that can also be a deep longing for a lost love or for liberation of your country or to […] reach Mars.”

I fumble in my attempt to convey these complexities to my student sitting across from me. As I talk, she takes a notebook and pen from her backpack on the floor. She switches on the light and scribbles down notes. I can feel her desire: if she speaks up in class often enough, nails her assignments, rereads everything three times, fills her notebook with the things others say, memorize definitions, master textbook strategies, she’ll one day get that character from her imagination onto the page.

“So much seems to depend on how we interpret the word ‘know’,” she says.

And now we’re finally getting somewhere. As writers, isn’t it our job to know our characters—even if they’re different from us? What if our characters resemble people who have hurt us? And what do we need to “know” in advance about a character? What is best when discovered along the way? She asks, “What if I don’t know my character’s motivation until I’ve been writing a while?”

I tell her a white guy named John Irving said, “Writing a novel is actually searching for victims. As I write, I keep looking for casualties. The stories uncover the casualties.”

She smiles, then looks down to her notebook, asks me to say it again.

In the name of experimentation, I’ve subjected my students (and myself) to countless characterization exercises over the years: thirty-page questionnaires which detail everything from physical quirks and political leanings to phobias and food allergies; deciding which enneagram personality our protagonists fit and then placing our antagonists on the opposite side of the enneagram’s circle. (Do people even have pro and antagonists any more?) The list of these experiments is long, and some have been more fruitful than others.

While in graduate school, my teacher Michelle Carter challenged my classmates and me to “ask” our characters questions similar to those used in “The Up Series” (a documentary “reality” series where the filmmakers ask the cast a set of questions every seven years. The viewers see how their needs/fears/wants/desires are and are not realized; and how their answers change as the result of what they’ve experienced in the seven years of life they’ve lived off-camera). By the time I’d started Michelle’s class, I’d already written hundreds of pages for Alex, the character I was working with at the time.

In keeping with Englander’s observation, I’d lent Alex the most concentrated and condensed emotions gleaned from my own and my friends’ experiences coming-of-age during the AIDS pandemic in San Francisco. I didn’t know it at the time, but those events, in their historical and political contexts, were already interesting. Perhaps because of this, my teachers and peers mostly talked about Alex as if he were interesting. The encouragement felt great, but like the student across from me, I still hadn’t portrayed Alex with the same level of depth and complexity in my characterization as my favorite writers did theirs.

I approached Michelle. She’d asked us to answer the same set of questions for our character every seven years from ages 7 to 70. As I remember it, I told her I’d do it from 7 to 28, explaining to her Alex dies of AIDS before 30.

She said, “Do it anyway. Tell me what he would’ve said, had he lived.”

Luckily, my desire to become a better writer was stronger than my reluctance. The answers I discovered for Alex at 70 were utterly relevant to his life at 22. More importantly, I discovered the literal and limited ways in which I’d been thinking about character. The result allowed me to reenter the process of writing with a much more complex and thrilling set of possibilities for what could be portrayed to a reader through characterization, and I came a step closer to writing the story I wanted to write.

“That’s awesome,” the student says, looking from my bookshelves to my eyes. “I should go to graduate school.”

Jim Harrison said, “It is the mystery of personality that seizes me, the infinite variety of human behavior that thumbs its nose at popular psychologisms. Even our dreams seem to wish to create new characters as surely as we do in our fictions, and our creation of our own personalities is most often a fictive event. In creating an environment for certain of my characters, I often find myself trying to create an environment for my own soul. The perception of reality grows until it is an accretion of the perceptions of all creatures. It is a daily struggle against the habitation and conditioning that bind us and suffocate us, destroying the fascinating perceptions that characterize the best writing. You continue under the willful illusion that the world is undescribed, or else you need not exist, and you never quite tire of the bittersweet mayhem of human behavior.”

I couldn’t have imagined discovering what I did about Alex until I’d written and thrown out a lot of pages. Most of those reinforced what one might expect from a gay runaway kid whose friends were sick and dying. I kept going because this particular character’s world had yet to be described, and I needed to create an environment for my soul. Until I imagined what his life would have been like, had he survived the pandemic, I wasn’t able to focus in on what made his story so compelling (tragic and urgent and heartbreaking and thrilling) for me, as the story’s writer, apart from how I imagined it being received by a reader.

Graduate school happened to be the place where this clicked for me, and I loved the experience of studying toward an MFA for many reasons, but I don’t know if the student in my office needs to go to graduate school to be a writer.

Successful characterization, I say, May be less about writing exercises and defining craft techniques, and more about engagement and curiosity. It may be less about what studying what dialogue or setting or plot must or must not do to reveal character, and more about investigation into the material we find most terrifying and thrilling. Once we’ve discovered (however unconsciously) the themes and emotions worthy of exploration in fiction, we can hone our skills as readers, paying attention to the stories that move us. We can observe those writers’ techniques and experiment with them until we find our own. We can certainly give up on simple solutions written to satisfy peer critiques in workshops; and in doing so, resist A+B=C formulas, the kind that reduce the complex psychology of human experience into clichés.

She tells me I’m an optimist, and my face flushes. “Terrifying and thrilling?” she asks.

“Our interest's on the dangerous edge of things. The honest thief, the tender murderer, the superstitious atheist,” said the 19th Century writer Robert Browning, I tell her.

Unless, I say and pause.

“Unless?”

Unless, of course, it isn’t. Maybe you’ll be the writer to uncover themes and characters whose experiences through your portrayals make it necessary to subvert these pearls for the sake of a new kind of fiction. So the question isn’t “How must it be done?” The question is “How, by looking at and trying on different and varied approaches, can I learn how to better serve my own fiction?” Your characters need to serve your fiction. Not your imagined reader’s.

She nods. Packs her notebook back into her backpack. Scratches her scalp with her pen through a wild cloud of dyed hair. Stands up. “One more quote?” she asks. “For the road?”

“Do not hurry; do not rest.” Goethe.

She stands in the doorway, sighs. “Alright, then?” she says.

Yes, I tell her. All is right.

Matthew Clark Davison is a lecturer in fiction at San Francsisco State University; a Communications Coach at Stanford University's Graduate School of Business; and an Artist Mentor for Performing Arts Workshop, where he coaches performing and literary artists who teach “at-risk” children. His private writing classes, called "The Labs" meet in San Francisco. His work has appeared or is forthcoming inThe Atlantic Monthly, The Mississippi Review’s EVO, Lodestar Quarterly, Lumina, Per Contra, The Creosote Journal, and others.

Read Matthew Clark Davison's fiction in Fourteen Hills 21.1
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