Lew's AUTHOR BLOG

* character development

Posted by Lew Weinstein on January 26, 2012

Executive Power by Vince Flynn

  • Characters must be given the opportunity to become the object of our emotions.
  • In Executive Power, Vince Flynn gives Mitch Rabb a terrific triumphal scene (p. 319) to match his outsized, outrageous character.
    • Rabb barges into  a meeting of the National Security Council and first berates, then arrests the Assistant Secty of State whose email had caused the failure of an attempted hostage rescue and the deaths of two commandos.
    • Realistic? Probably not, but who cares.
  • The hero has been heroic, and his triumph in Washington is more important, for this reader, than his previous triumph on the battlefield.

Old Man by William Faulkner

  •  “nobody told them for what or for why”
  • this convict does not control his life in any meaningful way; the tragedy is that he clearly could, he has enormous capabilities, but he has no concept that this is possible for him; he is stuck withn an almost feudal sense of his place in the world, unchangeable.
  • “things had moved too fast for him”
  • but he will respond to whatever happens (and much does happen), stolidly plowing on, showing great creativity but only to accomplish the task he has been set, not to improve his own lot in life;
  • “he thought quietly, with a sort of bemused amazement, Yes, I reckon I had done forgot how good making money was. Being let to make it” … and later … “Then he would retire himself, he would take a last look at the rolled bundle behind the rafter and blow out the lantern and lie down as he was beside his snoring partner, to lie sweating (on his stomach, he could not bear the touch of anything to his back) in the whining ovenlike darkness filled with the forlorn bellowing of alligators, thinking not, They never gave me time to learn but I had forgot how good it is to work”
  • among the few times in the story where Faulkner leads the reader to think what might have been for this convict, with all his talents and determination, but for one stupid mistake when he was 19 years old.
  • and at the end …
  • “Yonder’s your boat, and here’s the woman. But I never did find that bastard on the cottonhouse.”
  • “All right,” the convict said. “If that’s the rule.” So they gave him ten years more and the Warden gave him the cigar and now he sat, jacknifed backwards into the space between the upper and lower bunks, the unlighted cigar in his hand while the plump convict and the four others listened to him.”

Eye of the Needle by Ken Follett

  • Faber is of course the villain. But he is also patriotic, enormously competent, and capable of feelings, which he must repress in order to carry out his mission. He is an wonderful lover, which he could not be if he were truly without feeling, no matter how much he will not allow himself to express it.
  • This complex character must be admired even as we hate and fear him. A remarkable achievement.
  • Lucy starts out as a dominated young woman, who chooses to escape to her father-in-law’s island rather than live among people. But in her relative solitude, she develops an unexpected resolve, and when facing the ultimate challenge, she rises to it.
  • Is what she does believable? Maybe not, although in wartime people do extraordinary things.
  • In any case, Follett portrays this larger-than-life character in a way that arouses the reader’s emotions as we root for her to succeed against overwhelming odds.
  • The final scenes and epilogue drew tears from this romantic reader, always a sucker for melodrama.
  • Godliman (what a name! I’d like to know where Follett found it) is the enabler of the story, providing the narrative links that eventually lead Faber to Lucy.
  • But how much better to provide these through an interesting character than through narrative prose. Godliman’s growth from nebbish professor to razor-sharp spycatcher is done a little quickly. We can believe it, but we would like to know more about him. Perhaps as #3 character, he doesn’t warrant more attention.

Scaramouche by Rafael Sabatini

  • Andre-Louis is clearly a larger-than-life character. We meet him as an obscure attorney representing Privilege, but, enraged by the murder of his friend, he embarks on a succession of spectacular careers.
    • He becomes a political orator, with a message he does not believe.
    • Forced to go underground, he hides in plain sight as the actor Scaramouche in a traveling cast of players.
    • When his own actions destroy that career, he becomes a fencing master, inventing new techniques that later become the standard.
    • Later, he is a member of the National Assembly drafting the constitution for the new republic of France.
  • Through all of his many incarnations, Andre-Louis controls his feelings with an iron determination, and we never really learn what he’s all about. Whatever he is feeling for Aline is never revealed. He is not given to introspection.
  • M. de Kercadiou, Andre-Louis’s godfather to Andre-Louis: “Why can’t you express yourself in a sensible manner that a plain man can understand without having to think about it?”
  • But Andre-Louis always hides his feelings behind a veil of sarcastic humor and his self-imposed rigid Stoicism, of which he is so proud. he says many times that he is not a man of action, but this is not true. He exists almost solely through his actions, not his thoughts, and surely not his feelings.

Silence in Hanover Close by Anne Perry

  • the characterization of Inspector Pitt begins on the first page, through the eyes of the sergeant … “He did not meet the sergeant’s conception of a senior officer … downright scruffy … the man let the force down. Still, the sergeant had heard Pitt’s name and spoke with some respect.”
  • Is Perry writing for readers who have read the previous books, or for the reader who has not read any of the Pitt series? She must accommodate both.
  • Pitt feels guilty at taking the case from another man, and uncomfortable with his evasive poking around … we have an immediate (p2) sense that we are dealing with a man of exceptional integrity
  • “Mobray took a deep breath and sighed slowly. “The elder Mrs. York was a remarkable woman …” This begins the characterization of Mrs. York, who turns out to be a lot more sinister than Mobray’s infatuation would suggest.
  • Pitt’s interrogation technique changes from simple questions to complex, and he immediately trips up the Foreign Service officer he is questioning. We are impressed that he is a skillful detective.
  • “Ballarat … was the antithesis of the disheveled Pitt, whose every garment was at odds with another …”
  • Charlotte is first mentioned on p17. Her first words are “Any interesting cases?” If the reader is familiar with the series, this would be in character with earlier stories. If not, it serves to set her character and an important aspect of their relationship in just 3 words.
  • Emily, who will be such a major player in this story, is briefly mentioned, but not truly introduced until p29. The initial characterization of her starts out as a description, from Emily’s perspective, of her recently murdered husband George, but evolves in a few sentences into a self-characterization of her feelings for George, her wisdom, her intolerance for injustice, and her evolution into someone more like Charlotte – opinionated, quick to anger, and a fighter against “all she perceived to be wrong” even if “sometimes hasty.” A perfect setup, in one paragraph, for the role Emily will play.
  • “Jack Radley entered … casually dressed … his tailor was clearly his chief creditor … his smile … those remarkable eyes.” All this from Emily’s POV tells us about Radley and Emily’s feelings for him. Next page: “his eyelashes still shadowed his cheek.” Another reference to his eyes, his individualizing feature.
  • Mrs. York. They are discussing the winter art exhibit at the Royal Academy, and Charlotte says she does not paint very well. “I had not supposed you to enter a work, Miss Barnaby, merely to observe.” Nasty! We don’t like Mrs. York.
  • Pitt’s persistence is shown in his relentless pursuit of leads, even after so many of them turn prove unproductive (at least for now).

The Writer’s Chapbook edited by George Plimpton

  • Eudora Welty … You can’t start with how people look and speak and behave and come to know how they feel. You must know exactly what’s in their hearts and minds before they ever set visible foot on the stage. You must know all, then not tell it all, or not tell too much all at once; simply the right thing at the right moment.
  • Samuel Butler … the Ancient Mariner would not have taken so well if it had been called The Old Sailor.  ·     Kurt Vonnegut … make your characters want something – right away
  • E.M. Forster … human beings have their great chance in the novel
  • John Gardner … the first thing that makes a reader read a book is the characters
  • Lillian Hellman … I don’t think characters turn out the way you think they are going to turn out
  • Aldous Huxley … fictional characters are much less complex than the people one knows
  • William Kennedy … what moves you forward to the next page is wondering why he or she acted in this particular way … what’s most interesting is not the plot … the character does something new, and then the story begins to percolate
  • Norman Mailer … what’s exciting is the creative act of allowing your characters to grow … to become more complex … then a character becomes a being, and a being is someone whose nature keeps shifting
  • Francois Mauriac … you may start with a real person, but he changes … only the secondary characters (undeveloped, the ones who don’t grow) are taken directly from life
  • William Styron … I try to make all of my characters “round” … it takes a Dickens to make “flat” characters come alive
  • William Trevor … fiction writers remember tiny little details, some of them quite malicious
  • Norman Mailer … one’s ignorance is part of one’s creation. If you’re creating a character whose knowledge of a subject is spotty, then perhaps your own spotty knowledge is a plus (I don’t think so).

The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder

  • Dona Maria – characterized both by the derision of Perichole and the theater audience, and her own unawareness of what is happening, and then immediately after by her sad (pathetic) letter to her daughter
  • Pepita – first characterized by her kindness to Dona Maria in the theater
  • Pepita’s letter, read by Dona Maria, is her first attempt to express herself to the Abbess, “her first stumbling misspelled letter in courage.” Pepita tears up the letter, and soon sets out with Dona Maria for the bridge. The Abbess will never know Pepita’s first steps of growth toward the mature personality the Abbess has worked so hard to create.

The Instrument by John O’Hara

  • in the dialogue … Jiggs to Yank … “I never saw such a miserable, ungrateful bastard in my whole life.”
  • O’Hara has characters ask each other questions.
    • Jiggs to Yank: “are you a writer?”
    • Ellis Walton (the producer) to Yank … “Where is your home town?” (Ellis asks this out of nowhere) … “What do your people do?” … “Have you ever been married?” … “What was your wife like?” … “Why did you happen to marry her, if you don’t mind my asking?” (finally, Ellis realizes that his questions are intrusive … but he keeps on asking) … “And what finally broke it up?”
  • This is a lazy dubious approach to characterization
  • New characters are often introduced first in the conversation of other characters. Yank and Ellis Walton discuss (and begin to characterize) Zena Gollum, David Salmon, and Barry Payne before we meet them.  c
  • haracterization is provided through the eyes of a minor character (only possible with an omniscient narrator) … “The porter sized him up …”
  • Yank’s self awareness: “I’m a genius now, but ten plays from now I may not even be good.”

The Club Dumas by Arturo Perer-Reverte

  • characterization of Lucas Corso … brilliantly presented over a long period of time …  a mercenary of the book world … talking fast … getting his hands dirty … a prodigious memory … canvas bag on shoulder (a recurring image) … steel rimmed glasses … untidy fringe of slightly graying hair … facial expressions of a rabbit (never got this … who knows what a rabbit’s facial expressions are like?)
  • THINGS NOT TOLD IN INITIAL DESCRIPTION: tall or short, lean or heavy, handsome or not.
  • bottomless pockets of his coat … appears fragile yet solid as a concrete block … features are sharp and precise, full of angles … alert eyes … ready to express an innocence – dangerous for anyone who was taken in by it … seemed slower and clumsier than he really was … looked vulnerable and defenseless … later, when you realized what had happened, it was too late to catch him … an oblique, distant laugh, with a hint of insolence … a laugh that lingers in the air after it stops …  attractive to women. … (Corso would) say something casually, as if he had no opinion on the matter, slyly goading you to react … (getting you) to give out more information (than you had intended).
  • NOTE: the adverbs are the key words. Who says don’t use adverbs?
  • thin and hard like an emaciated wolf (ie, he is a hungry hunter)… a well-trained, patient wolf.
  • but then, Corso’s actions are not consistent with character. Corso has been beautifully presented as dangerous both mentally and physically, someone who is not what others see him to be.
  • This is excellent, but I’m not sure the author has then had Corso act in a way consistent with these characteristics. He acts weak and unsure, he is as often manipulated as he is the manipulator.
  • glasses and canvass bag as props. Corso often takes his glasses off. his vision is then limited to vague outlines. He is inseparable from his canvas bag. I found myself wondering what he would do if he were ever disconnected from either, and this does happen, on the bridge in Paris. However, the green-eyed girl retrieves both objects for him before too much damage is done.
  • I think more could have been done with that, given all the build up.
  • As with the resolution of major plot details, Perez-Reverte does not finish what he has started in the way of characterization. Why?

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

  • Karenin … a pathetic character, unable to act in furtherance of his own wishes, but motivated only to avoid being embarrassed by his professional and social associates.
  • Stiva has no money. Tolstoy shows this, when Dolly asks him for money for clothes for the children … “Tell them I’ll pay.” The reader knows he won’t. He is spending his money to buy a necklace for his actress girlfriend.
  • “I haven’t stopped thinking about death,” said Levin. “It’s true that it’s time to die. And that everything is nonsense. … Once you understand that you’ll die today or tomorrow and they’ll be nothing left, everything becomes so insignificant … So you spend your life diverted by hunting or work in order not to think about death.”
  • Q: How does Tolstoy have Levin adjust these depressing thoughts to marry Kitty and have a life? A: he sees Kitty and instantly reverses everything.
  • Characters do this often in this on-going soap opera.
  • from Mailer – The Spooky Art  … Tolstoy is a great writer – maybe he is our greatest novelist – because no other can match his sense of human proportion. Tolstoy teaches us that compassion is of value and enriches our lives only when it is severe – when we can perceive everything that is good and bad about a character but are still able to feel that the sum is probably a little more good than awful.

Write Away by Elizabeth George

  • Analysis of character is the highest human entertainment
  • Human character is the greatest of puzzles
  • what we take away from a good novel is the memory of character
  • Characters effect events and events effect characters
  • Real people have flaws; no one wants to read about perfect characters
  • Characters who make mistakes, have lapses of judgment, experience weakness, are interesting
  • We want to cheer when the character (finally) comes into her own
  • Characters learn from unfolding events
  • A character is (best) revealed slowly by the writer
  • characters are interesting in their conflict, misery, unhappiness, confusion; not their joy and security
  • begin with a name; names can suggest anything to the reader (personality traits, social and ethnic background, geography, attitude)
  • Names influence how a reader will feel about a character
  • Create an analysis of each character, facts, a full psychological profile
  • Do not bring a character to a book unless he or she is alive before the book begins
  • Create your characters in advance; use personality quirks and telling details; know your characters, who they are, how they’ll react
  • constantly ask yourself questions about what each character would do in the situation in which he finds himself
  • become the character’s analyst
    • understand your character’s core need
    • What does the character do when under stress? (generally the flip of the core need)
    • delusions, compulsions, addictions, denial, illnesses, self-harming behavior, manias, phobias
    • what is the character’s attitude toward sex, what is his/her sexual history
    • What does the character want in the novel?
  • As you write, frequently refresh your memory about your characters
  • the behavior of a character is rooted in who that characters is and what has happened in the scene (and before)
  • we all suffer from guilt, fear, worry, doubt
  • a character’s inner conflict will show that he is real
  • rising conflict, built over time, reveals more facets of character as incidents occur
  • at the climax, the character stands before the reader fully revealed
  • a reader can bond with a character if there is something in common
  • Every character has two landscapes: (1) external, (2) internal
    • External landscape: select details which will resonate with the reader
    • Internal landscape: emotions, wants, needs, reflections, speculations, obsessions
  • Allow characters to reflect – reveal what’s in their heads
  • characters in a novel are more interesting if they have lives outside the (action of) the novel, before the novel was written, and after.
  • We admire characters who face and prevail over situations we ourselves have experienced, who unflinchingly examine themselves, learn from their mistakes, meet challenges with courage

What Makes Sammy Run by Budd Schulberg

  • Glick is characterized mainly through Manheim’s observations, and only rarely by his own words or actions. ·   simile … “he would come back to me panting, like a frantic puppy retrieving a ball.”  ·   “one stupendous talent, his ability to blow his own horn.” So the die is cast for the rise of Sammy Glick.
  • “You know what, Mr. Manheim, these are the first brand-new shoes I ever had.” Whenever Sammy calls him Mr. Manheim, that is a signal that he is making an important statement.
  • Sammy’s obsession with shoes is a continuing motif, which is not explained until Manheim learns about Sammy’s family, and the too big, hand-me-down shoes (from his older brother) he had to wear as a young boy, and which were often a source of humiliation to him.
  • Sammy grew in superficial ways, ie, he became more successful, but his character never changed significantly. Nor did Manheim’s.
  • At the end of the book, both were essentially the same as at the beginning … which is perhaps less interesting than if they had changed
  • Miss Rosalie Goldbaum. A character introduced so Sammy can throw her aside, which the reader knows instantly will happen.
  • Julian Blumberg. Another schlub for Sammy to throw aside? Not quite, because Julian has something Sammy will continue to need, the ability to write.
  • Julian is from a background similar to Sammy’s, and offers a contrasting development, taking a moral position to his own detriment in a way that surely Sammy could never do. Who is happier in the end?
  • Julian Blumberg and Kit Sargent each play their roles in the plot, but neither was allowed to realize the emotional pull that might have been possible. We were never inside their heads so we didn’t have the opportunity to really care about them, although the things that happened to them would have permitted such caring if Schulberg had wanted to go in that direction.

The Spooky Art by Norman Mailer

  • Tolstoy teaches us that compassion is of value and enriches our lives only when it is severe – when we can perceive everything that is good and bad about a character but are still able to feel that the sum is probably a little more good than awful.
  • an author needs to ask himself constantly if he is being fair to his characters.
  • we are relatively unfamiliar with the cunning of the strong and the stupid. We tend to know too little of how the world works. those who do real work tend not to write, and writers who explore the minds of such men approach from an intellectual stance that distorts their vision.
  • I should  seek to apply what I know about political power, finance, and management to my portrayal of Lorenzo de Medici. Imagine how he feels about what he does, or does not do.NOTE: I was in the middle of writing The Pope’s Conspiracy.
  • never be satisfied with (the way you are presenting) any of your characters, even when they have come alive for you. unless your characters keep growing through (their response to) the events of the book, your novel can go nowhere that can surprise you.
  • if the character does not grow, there is no place to go but into the plot
  • the creative act of allowing (demanding?) your characters to grow is the real excitement of writing. Your characters become as complex as real people. But what if they don’t grow, and you don’t bring out the beauty you initially perceived.
  • if you get a good novel going, you have a small universe functioning, living in relation to its own scheme of cause and effect. Planning too carefully makes it almost impossible for one of your characters to go through a dramatic shift of heart.
  • don’t go into your protagonist’s thoughts until you have something to say about his inner life that is more interesting than the reader’s suppositions.  
  • protagonists are always moving between choices, while the author monitors those decisions.
  • there are points in the course of fashioning a character where you recognize that you don’t know enough about the person you are trying to create. At such times, I take it for granted that my unconscious knows more than I do.
  • any person studied in depth will prove fascinating.  
  • In analyzing novels, consider a major character, and describe where he was at the beginning of the story, where he ended up, and how he got there.

******

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