f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: Back to Characterization (Day 5) – Identifying With Your Characters

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Back to Characterization (Day 5) – Identifying With Your Characters

I was going to start a piece today about character description. Instead I’m going to post an essay I wrote for my now-defunct author-site. It’s a touch scatter-shot and references two sources you probably haven’t read (one of which I've referenced before in our POV series here) but it’s something I want to address first before moving on to physical description tomorrow.

Positive Identification

Pardon if this gets digressive, but this month’s thought arrived from a few varied sources.

The first was a slim book I recently finished by a British author named Magnus Mills called Three to See the King—a title, that despite its obvious Magian connotations, I’m not sure I can even explain at this point.

The second is a meta-graphic novel I read years ago for a psychology class about the very process of understanding comics. This was titled (for good reasons) Understanding Comics and was written/drawn by Scott McCloud. I’ve had an off-and-on fascination with the form for many years and highly recommend the book. At the very least it shows the benefits of an artist understanding the underpinnings of his craft.

The final source is the parables.

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In his book, McCloud defines two principles of comics.

The first he calls, “amplification through simplification.” His point, if I can summarize, is that by drawing an “abstract” or “simplified” character , artists are able to focus readers’ attention on specific details. By stripping away details which would otherwise distract us, what remains is amplified simply by being the only thing a reader can focus on.

His second point, related to the first, is that this stripping process also creates a universality of imagery by which a multitude of people are able to relate to the character on the page.

Graphically he explains it like this: when we see a photo or a photo-realistic drawing, we see it as the face of another. When we see a simplified cartoon (Charlie Brown for instance), we are more likely to see own reflection. To quote: “The cartoon is a vacuum into which our identity and awareness are pulled…an empty shell that we inhabit which enable us to travel in another realm.

And this relates how? I’m getting there.

Three to See the King is an odd book. Truly odd in a way I’m not sure I can even explain. I recommend it, though. The one thing I took from it, however, was a sense not of reading a story about a bunch of characters, but one about myself…and a bunch of characters. Mills created a world in which the protagonist, unnamed (of course) is everyman-ish enough that we don’t read about his life…we enter it.

The story in a nutshell (don’t be weirded out):

There’s a guy who always wanted to live in a tin house at the bottom of a canyon. On his journey to do so he found a perfectly good, but empty, tin house sitting vacant on a plain. And so he decides to live there instead. One day a woman (Mary Petrie) shows up and joins his isolated, but acceptable life. Friends visit. They all live in their own tin houses miles apart, but have heard rumors of a great thing being done just over the horizon. There, it is said, a man named Michael Hawkins is building a canyon so he can live at the bottom of it. Our man’s (our) world is turned upside-down. What should he/we do now?

Other reviews I’ve read have linked the story to a retelling of Genesis. It’s there, but I don’t think you can call it an allegory. It is however a meditation on marriage, friendship, and isolation in the modern world. It’s a story about vision and yearning, a story about leaders and followers, a story about the very things we need to live. Reviewers used the word “fable” but in reading it, one other word kept coming to me: PARABLE.

Look at Jesus’ stories. Why do they go over so easily with children? Why could he tell them to multitudes? Why are we always discussing “our role” in them? Simply put, because of McCloud’s ideas stated above: amplification by simplification and universality.

Parables are filled with men and women just like us (or just like the Jews of the time) in everyday situations. Sure some poor, some were rich, but for the most part they were generically “us.” And when we read the stories we don’t sit back and watch, we don’t read of something happening to someone else, we become part of the story. We step into the world Jesus was spinning and in doing so He forces us to learn the lesson each story has at hand. It’s amazingly effective.

I don’t really have any grand point in all of this. But it’s an astounding trick, to be able to not only pull a reader into your story but force them to be participants in what is happening. I don’t personally see typical fiction as the place to do it (Mills’ book is the most extreme example I've come across) but you should be aware of how much you want us to relate to your main characters. Are we to simply stand on the side and watch? Are we to stand alongside? You can vary your readers place in the story by the amount you make your main characters accessible. (A more typical example are the “detached narrator” stories like The Great Gatsby, in which a nominal everyman tells the story of someone great—and warns of the perils or joys that attend such greatness. And we stand alongside the Nick Carroways, experiencing it with him.)

It’s just another tool for authors to use, another trick to be aware of as you’re reading.
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Continue on to Day 6 of Characterization.