f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: Day 1 of Characterization - Chchchchanges….

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

Monday, November 15, 2004

Day 1 of Characterization - Chchchchanges….

You come for the writing discussion, but you stay for the David Bowie references, I’m sure.

We’re going to talk about characterization for a while. No clue how long this is going to take, so we’ll just stick with it until the end. Here we go.

At home I’m currently reading a book on the wine industry called The Accidental Connoisseur. Nothing spectacular at the moment and hardly as irreverent as the subtitle suggests, but there was an interesting observation made by one wine maker in discussing his industry. (I’m paraphrasing.) He basically says that there are probably 2000 integral factors that go into actually making a superior wine. He thought he knew and could control about 15. He figured the great wine makers worked with about 25. After that, it just became too complex.

I feel the same about writing. Somebody once commented how they liked looked at “stakes” and “conflict” but wanted to discuss characterization because you can’t have those things without characters. Except you can’t have interesting characters without those things. Or setting. And none of it means anything unless you can actually put it to paper with syntax and diction. In other words, we have all these elemental areas of fiction that all have to, essentially, develop simultaneously for fiction to be great. Like the wine-maker above, I feel like I understand a handful. I see how great authors manage even more. If you were to ask my feelings on characterization, I don’t see it as a particular strong-point of mine. But it’s essential and we need to talk about it. So, together, we’ll see what we can discover.

So that’s what I’m reading at home. I watched a film this weekend—Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset.

It is, above all, a fascinating look at characterization. The sequel to the small, dialogue-driven, independent film Before Sunrise, the latest film essentially picks up with the two main characters as though nine has passed. And nine years has passed. Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy are both nine years older than they were in 1995. Their lives have changed. The world, as a whole, is a very different place. And the characters, while they feel very much the same, have changed, too. They’ve gone through loves and disappointments. One has gotten married, had a child. And what we’re left with are recognizable characters who’ve changed, tangibly. It’s powerful. (Partly, I’m sure, because I’m about the same age as these characters and my life has changed as dramatically in nine years and my hair is graying and my knees ache sometimes and part of me feels completely new and the rest feels 21 or even 14.)

Novels allow for that kind of change, too, and not only over long series. (Think of Harry Potter. One of Rowling’s real miracles has been letting Harry and Ron and Hermione grow and change and yet still remain true to who we loved in Book 1. But she’s had 2000+ pages to work at it.)

I guess a question arises: Why is change an elemental part of characterization? To me there’s two ways to get to know a character. The first is in relation to all of the other characters and the second is linearly, through time, as they change.

There’s a place for static characters. Long-running mystery series, for instance, usually feature a detective who is more or less the same from book-to-book, regardless of the body count that’s face. Harry Bosch hasn’t changed all that much for me in all the reading I’ve done of Michael Connelley. I doubt, though I could be wrong, that Kinsey Milhone of the Alphabet books has changed much.

Other characters change dramatically—sometimes in an instant, sometimes over genreations. Gabriel Conroy quiet ride home with his wife from a party in The Dead will change him irrevocably. Anne Tyler and Maile Meloy pack family sagas into their books in which children age, become adults, gain identities, etc.

And it raises an interesting question for me—are we allowing enough time for change to occur.

It seems to me that fiction is deeply in favor of the BIG CHANGE, i.e. love or death or illness or (in our books) confession completely alters a person in a heartbeat. This is powerful change and dramatic. It’s the lightning bolt rather than the geologic change of water running over rock.

That’s the method employed by Tyler and Meloy. It’s used by Richard Russo in The Risk Pool. Dickens in David Copperfield. Irving in A Prayer for Owen Meany. There is “richness” in the books, a special depth of feeling that we experience by spending a long time with characters.

Big change or slow change. Neither of these is necessarily better. What we need simply to understand as writers is how to carve out that appropriate “season of change” for our characters so that readers fully experience the difference that is supposed to be so crucial to our characters. Sometimes those do happen in a day, but I fear that too often we treat “faith” as something that can change in a day and then remain rock steady forever after. We are more about a moment of change and not the life-long impact.


So that’s it for today. How about that for a random leap into characterization. Tomorrow we’ll begin a more systematic look at this by talking about names. I just was thinking about change in characters what with Tyler’s book and Before Sunset and it seemed like a good option.


Go to Day 2 of our look at Characterization.