A Character Is Only as Interesting as the Character They're Up Against
Hi, y’all! Welcome (or welcome back!) to my eight-week course The Story Only You Can Write.
Here’s what we’re looking to accomplish this week:
- Learn how to create characters readers will remember;
- Write a scene between two strangers stuck in a place they can’t get out of; and,
- Read an incredibly short story that will teach us oodles about how to create complicated characters without wasting a reader’s time or patience.
You Don’t Have to Know Everything
I’m a huge fan of the author Lincoln Michel. I read his book Upright Beasts a couple of summers ago and it changed my damn life. He writes stories that are just as long as they need to be (whether that’s one page or many), he writes about shit that interests him even if it pushed the limits of his readers (my students both loved and were super-creeped out by Michel’s “Future Snacks” when we read it last semester), and reading his work gave me permission to do the same.
Michel, like Carmen Maria Machado and Karen Russel and maybe even my old literary crush Andre Dubus, is the type of writer I want us all to become. He’s a writer who’s writing the stories only he can write.
And so, when he offers his thoughts on writing, I pay attention. Michel is a guy who suffers no fools. If he smells bullshit, he’s not going to hold his nose and deal with it—no, he’s going to call it out.
I had a friend who said characters weren't fully fleshed out until you'd covered:
—what everyone knows about them
—what close friends / fam know about them
—what only they know abt themselves
—what they know but repress abt themselves
—what they don't know abt themselves
This conception of character is so bizarre to me. Like the idea Kafka was sitting around thinking "Does Gregor Samsa's best buddy know his favorite food?" and Melville was scratching his head trying to decide what Ahab's nephew thought about him.
Gregor Samsa, if you don’t know, is the main character of Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphisis; Ahab is from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.
And here’s the part where I admit something that I hope won’t disqualify me as your writing teacher. I haven’t read either of those books. But those characters still loom large in my imagination. I can imagine Samsa waking up as a bug and I can see in my mind the wild look in Ahab’s eyes as he chases after a whale, and I can do that because Kafka and Melville created characters that were so memorable that people are still talking about them a hundred years (or, in the case of Moby Dick, nearly hundreds of years) later.
Did they do that by writing complicated character biographies or filling out Dungeons & Dragons-style attribute sheets? No. Probably not.
They wrote their characters into situations that challenged them, that showed what they were made of, and then gave us the details that mattered.
Also: they left the rest up to their readers’ imaginations. Because they understood a simple truth that too many novice writers forget: writing is, in the end, a collaboration. In some forms of writing, like stage plays and movies, that’s more obvious. But even if you’re writing short stories or books, even if you aren’t working directly with actors and directors, there is still someone you’re eventually going to collaborate with: your reader. And if you don’t leave them a little room to get involved, to play with you, then that ain’t really collaboration. And while that might work for some readers, I’d wager it ain't going to work for many.
It’s About Juxtaposition
Writing great characters is all about juxtaposition. And I mean that in two ways:
- Great characters emerge by putting them in a room with characters and situations that challenge them; and,
- Great characters emerge through a combination of character development techniques and not an over-reliance on just one.
Let’s start with that first point. Characters work best in relief. That is: we can most easily figure out whether we like a character or not by seeing them in a scene with other characters.
“But Clark,” you say, “I’ve written two characters in a room together and it’s boring. Even I don’t want to read it.”
To which I respond: are the characters challenging each other in some way?
If not, then:
- Pick the character who interests you more;
- Decide what they want out of life, what they want more than anything else in the world; and
- Figure out how to make the second character get in the way of the first. If you can’t do that, toss the second character and come up with a new one.
I watched Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac recently and was mostly bored by it, but there was one fantastic scene on a train. The main character is competing with a friend to see how many men they can fuck before the train arrives at their station. It’s totally a horny dude’s plot line, but excuse that for one second.
What makes the scene I’m thinking of so special is that it’s one of the only scenes in the film where I can recall a true struggle between two characters with specific wants and desires.
The main character is in a compartment with an older man who, through a series of events, has just confessed that he’s on his way home to sleep with his wife. He and the wife have had trouble conceiving a child, but tonight’s the night. All the calculations have been done, his wife is at her most fertile, and now it’s all up to him.
The main character, however, wants to win the competition with her friend. If she can fuck this guy, she’s been guaranteed extra points because of the circumstances, and she’ll win the bag of sweets that’s up for grabs.
(Hey: I did warn it was a horny dude’s plot line, right?)
Of course, it goes down exactly as you imagine it might. She goes down on the guy, despite his protests (which become more half-hearted as the scene plays out), and the guy blows his chance to get his wife pregnant. We cut to the main character eating the bag of sweets and seeming very satisfied with herself.
It’s not the most original plot, but an interesting and dynamic character emerges from the scene. And that’s what we want. Our characters don’t need to be full or fleshed out or fully fleshed out, as many writers and teachers command.
Our characters just need to feel real.
All the Tools at Your Disposal
In Writing Fiction, Janet Burroway tells us that there are four direct ways to show character in a story:
We’ve talked enough about action, I think. Between last week’s lesson on plot and what I’ve said above, I think we’ve got action covered.
When it comes to appearance, all I’ll say is that a little goes a long way. Refer back to the lesson on significant, concrete details. That lesson applies double when describing what someone looks like. We don’t need a laundry list of their hair color, their skin color, and their bust size. We only need to know what we need to know.
The two tools of character development that I want to focus on most are dialogue and thought.
Dialogue is the stuff characters say to each other, and it’s the single most overused character development technique I see in my students’ writing.
Because our culture (as a whole) watches more movies and TV shows than we read books, students come into my classes writing pages of dialogue for every one sentence of action, appearance, or thought. Some of them are meant to be screenwriters and just don’t know it yet, but some of them—and some of you, I hope—are on the path to writing fiction and are just feeling a bit lost.
The tool that fiction writers have at their disposal that stage and screenwriters do not is thought. We have the freedom to juxtapose what a character says with what they’re thinking. And yet, so few of us take advantage of this. Especially when we’re starting out.
What a character is thinking, whether we see that directly from them or through the point of view of an all-knowing narrator, has a terrific power in fiction. Because there’s one great truth about conversations in fiction. To borrow from Burroway once again:
Tension rises when an unspoken subject remains unspoken. The crisis of a story is often when the unspoken tension comes to the surface and an explosion results.
So, here’s what you do:
- You put two (or more) characters in a room together, in a situation they can’t get out of;
- Have them talk about some dumb thing, anything from the weather to where the remote control is; and,
- Let us see what one (or more) of them is thinking but not saying, so that we’re sitting on the edge of our seats, your book clutched in one hand while we bite the knuckles on our other, just waiting for the moment when we leap to our feet and go “No way. No fucking way. She did not just say that!”
Michael Chabon’s novel Wonder Boys is about a bunch of writers and writing professors, and Chabon has a blast inventing and summarizing the stories and books his characters have written. He ends up making these totally made-up stories memorable in and of themselves through a variety of techniques, including juxtaposition. Take for instance the short story he describes his character Crabtree writing about “an encounter, at a watering place, between an aging Sherlock Holmes and a youthful Adolf Hitler.”
For this week’s exercise, here’s what I want you to do:
- Take five minutes and brainstorm a list of notable “strong personalities” (good or bad) from history or literature.
- Pick 2 individuals from the list.
- Write a scene in which these are the last two people on Earth, and they’re stuck in a bomb shelter together.
- Have one of them flirt with the other, either in the interest of repopulating the planet or just to get their rocks off.
The Reading Assignment
I’m a huge fan of stories so short that we can return to them time and again to learn from them. Pia Z. Ehrhardt’s “Following the Notes,” originally published as “His Hand Restless On My Leg,” is a favorite of mine. It’ll take you ten minutes to read, tops. Maybe five.
I want you to read it once for enjoyment, and then a second time to see how she develops character in such a short space.
Let me know how it goes. You can always reach me at email@example.com.
Good luck! And we’ll see you back here next week.