When I read fiction, I’m seeking experience apart from mine; an island, a ship, afloat from everyday life (wondrous as the everyday can be in its own terms.) I want a trip to the other side of what I know.
I’m on a quest for adventures that I wouldn’t otherwise have (or even want to have). Reading fiction is a way of wearing and walking in the shoes of others; of thinking with another mind, seeing with other eyes, in another time and place. In the work of Vladimir Nabokov, you can almost caress the world with your fingertips. (If you gather I lean away from contemporary realism, such as the kind Jonathan Franzen writes, you’d be right.)
I don’t read fiction like a mirror, looking for my face (though when it happens, it is an amusing surprise; nevertheless, the room behind the face is never mine; no shower curtain, for example).
Nor do I read fiction for moral uplift, education, or noble ideas; even the most vivid and skillful historical novel should be read with salt sprinkled across its pages. (Nonfiction is still best door into the realities of human history, no matter how bitterly deconstructionists mutter otherwise as they crouch over their laptops at the coffee shop.)
Good fiction comes about through alchemy; a stirring of elements, all chopped, stirred, boiled, blended, basted, baked, and braised: setting, story, plot, thought, outlook, style, and imagination. There is calculation and discipline involved, but there is no science to it and hence no “formula.” There are no absolutes. The godly author can strangle a man in his bed on page one or let him doze for twenty-plus languorous pages as he dreamily muses over a favorite sugary confection. Either approach may work or it may not. (I’d go with strangling, but that’s just me.)
One more alchemical element is character—the inhabitants of the world within the book. While some writing teachers and workshops emphasize character as though it were all that matters—often leading to the kind of twee, static, lugubrious explorations of the heart that can freeze-dry mine—character in fiction does count for gold. Characters are the ground-fire of emotion.
Yes, my hero Nabokov loudly and publicly disdained such claims, but you only have to read Pnin—short, elegant, lovingly thin—to realize you should shake yet more salt across such comments, especially when made by a mischief-maker and gamester like him.
Somehow, the souls on the page, and the soul who put them there, have to clasp hands, even if only briefly and indirectly, with the soul with the book in his lap.
And so, at last, I come to David Corbett’s new book The Art of Character. David (logrolling alert: I know him personally) is the author of several acclaimed, acutely imagined, superb thrillers, including most recently Do They Know I’m Running? He now wields his adroit pen in nonfiction with The Art of Character, his generous and eloquent writer’s “toolkit” for creating the characters, the inhabitants of the fables, tales, and stories we tell.
This is a guide for serious writers, for those whose goals reach beyond the bestseller lists, that fleeting monument to notoriety and mediocrity (though I’d sure like the money); for writers ranging from the genius whose fingertips spark with fire to the genre chef who makes the best damn burger and fries you could wish for.
David provides a chapter-by-chapter array of approaches to nurturing and growing captivating fictional characters, mostly from novels with occasional examples from theatre (The Prize), film (Chinatown), and cable TV (The Sopranos).
You don’t have to read The Art of Character from cover to cover (as I did for this review); yet no single method discussed here stands completely alone. All of them are threaded in varying ways to varying degrees. “You don’t know yourself by yourself” David quotes a relative as advising him.
The same can apply to the techniques he offers here. Like Noah Lukeman’s The Plot Thickens, it’s a good book to turn to when you’re up to your ankles in mud; or your weave seems too thin. It can shake questions out your head that needs asking.
His first chapter, with the eerily apt title “Fingering Smoke,” discusses how characters are created through a blend of conscious creation and discovery. He warns against starting from archetypes, because of how they represent mere ideas rather than uniquely mysterious human experience and often become mere mouthpieces for the author’s opinions on things.
While an archetype can be a starting place, eventually the serious writer has to dig deeper to find the fuzzy border where archetype and humanity meet. (An example might be Richard Stark’s indelible thief, Parker, a representative of untrammeled individual freedom who is, if not appealing in the sentimental sense, is at least unnervingly understandable.)
The richest wells to draw from are the people in your own life, both those you know well and those you don’t. Genre writers have done this: Sherlock Holmes was based on one of Conan Doyle’s favorite med school teachers; John le Carré created Alec Leamas, the angst-torn Spy Who Came in from the Cold after a brief, wordless encounter with a stranger at an airport bar. Carla, from my novel Dragon’s Ark, is a blend of several women who have bounced and flown in and out my life, for moments and for hours, romantically and not, impossible to live with, impossible not to love.
Subsequent chapters propose exercises and techniques for mining your characters from your own life; probing your own psyche and emotions in the way some Method actors are trained, too (though, as a more comic writer, I resist this tendency); the five cornerstones of characterization; and more matters than I can fit comfortably here without you all clicking back to Kim Kardashian.
The Art of Character is big-hearted, fluid, rich, busy, well-worth keeping at hand. And a delight to read throughout for its patient and intelligent voice.
Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield
Photo by authorThomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.