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A Real Character

Posted Oct 22 2008 4:18pm

I've read with gratification of several recent studies showing that, contrary to stereotype, fiction readers have better social skills and more friends than fiction non-readers. "Their years of research - summed up in the current issue of New Scientist magazine - has shown readers of narrative fiction scored higher on tests of empathy and social acumen than those who read non-fiction texts," says a representative article in the Globe and Mail. "And follow-up research showed that reading fiction may help fine-tune these skills: People assigned to read a New Yorker short story did better on social reasoning tests than those who read an essay from the same magazine." Fiction, as it turns out, expands empathy (and thereby social skills), because empathy is the central means by which fiction works. And as in fiction, so in memoir; a memoir works (if it works at all) by engaging your sympathies with the protagonist so throughly that you experience what they do.

You don't have to take my word for it. You can pick up any primer on writing fiction and it will tell you the same. Your characters can be as flat as a tv-screen but they must be sympathetic or the whole thing will fail. Better is the classic well-rounded three-dimensional believable character--the one who makes you cry when she dies or get into a blistering rage when her two-timing boyfriend dumps her.

There are entire books in the fiction-writing departments of major chain bookstores that are nothing but collections of character traits. Others that are collections of checklists like the quizes in women's magazines to figure out what kind of person a character is, how they eat and what their favourite subject was in school and whether they are the kind of person who would wear a tan trench or a yellow rain slicker or forget her raincoat again. Entire books about how to name a character. If you don't think character is a very big deal even to fiction writers who do potboilers and plot-driven thriller novels, you are mistaken. Every fiction writer is obsessed with character. Janet Frame said, 'I suppose the fact is that to be interested in writing novels, you have to have a passion for reading people and their behaviour and their lives."

And I suppose, if you write a personal blog, you have a passion for yourself and the lives of the people close to you, for figuring out these perplexing characters who populate the story of your own life. Why would my mother say such a thing? Who will my son grow up to be? What do I want to do when I grow up?

Rule 1 for personal blog-writing, as in fiction writing: Have interesting, well-rounded, believable and sympathetic characters. Not angels, not villains. Somewhere in between. That includes you.

These people are already real so you won't need to agonize over a list of potential character traits while you try to determine if your daughter should be the kind of person who prefers horses or fairies or construction sets. This is all given to you. But that doesn't mean you have no work to do: because these people are real to you, you may fail to convey them in sufficient detail to your readers. Philip Lopate in his essay "The Personal Essay and the First-Person Character" argues that you need to make yourself into a character that a reader might want to get to know: "You must be able to pick yourself apart."

"The first step is to acquire some distance from yourself. If you are panicked by any examination of your flaws, you will not get very far in the writing of personal essays. You need to be able to see yourself from the ceiling, know you you are coming across in social situations, and accurately assess when you charm and when you seem pushy, mousy or ridiculous. You must begin to take inventory of yourself so that you can present that self to the reader as a specific, legible character."

Not that I have seen, in my own blog-reading experience, any evidence that a truly realistic warts-and-all portrayal will increase readership. Readers seem to appreciate a slightly-imperfect rumpled heroine with a few interesting quirks. You can work with this (by minimizing your own flaws) or against it (by refusing to minimize them), but the one thing you must do is create yourself as a character. (The infamous Blogger's Persona.)

Since your characters are already created, and assuming that you are able to be objective enough about yourself and your loved ones to portray them as real people instead of angels or types, how do you portray characters?

Through actions, primarily. Thoughts, feelings and words are interesting and necessary but do not convey nearly as much. A character who speaks for a page about the importance of his family and how much he loves his children can be undermined (intentionally, in fiction) by a decision to stay late at work when he clearly doesn't have to. A character who ruminates endlessly about her longing for a real loving relationship will not be believed if she never leaves her bedroom. And frankly if you never get outside of the words and mental state of a character, they will remain flat; we learn who characters are in our everyday lives by watching them. We measure people's words and intentions against their actions.

Snow Crash is a science fiction novel about mafia-run pizza delivery joints and working conditions in near-future government offices, among other things. Y.T. (which stands for Yours Truly) is one of my favourite adolescent heroines ever, and this scene might tell you why. She has just been arrested for violating the boundaries of a burb-clave (you'll just have to read it).

"Y.T. is taken downstairs into the basement. ...

"'Better take her uniform--all that gear,' the second MetaCop suggests, not unlewdly. ...

"Y.T. shrugs, trying to think of something unnerving and wacky. At this point, she is supposed to squeal and shrink, wriggle and whine, swoon and beg. They are threatening to take her clothes. How awful. But she does not get upset because she knows that they are expecting her to.

"A Kourier has to establish space on the pavement. Predictable law-abiding behaviour lulls drivers. They mentally assign you to a little box in the lane, assume you will stay there, can't handle it when you leave that little box.

"Y.T. is not fond of boxes. Y.T. establishes her space on the pavement by zagging mightily from lane to lane, establishing a precedent of scary randomness. ...

"She unzips her coverall all the way down below her navel. Underneath is naught but billowing pale flesh."

There is a balance here between what she is thinking and what she is doing. Her thoughts alone would not establish her character; it would be open to question and doubt. She says she's tough; what's the proof? Her actions alone would not provide the context; we wouldn't know why she is unzipping her coverall. Put them together and you know what you need to: Y.T. is someone who refers to herself in the third person, a persona in her own mind. (Not to mention her choice of acronym--what do you suspect about her once you know that she thinks of herself as "Yours Truly"?) She thinks of herself as tough and wants to prove it to other people. She does so by acting boldly (a trait that carries through the novel).

Your style of blog-writing may not seem much like a novel to you. On the one hand, you might want to consider it; novels are terrifically effective ways of drawing people into a story. On the other, even if it's not, I strongly suspect that personal blogs "work" as narratives primarily on the strength of the Blogger's Persona, what in fiction would be called the protagonist, or the memoir's narrator. I suspect this is true even moreso of blogs that have more of a pillow-book or email/epistolary style than those that are memoirish; because the pillow-book or epistolary style does not allow for a conventional narrative arc (i.e. plot), it is even more important to draw readers in through well-drawn, believable, fully-rounded characters. Starting with you.

You might guess from this that I've finally finished putting together my (thirty-two pages of handwritten) study notes. You'd be right. So, up next: Sister C. After that I'm guessing I'll come back to character for another post before I start digging into reader expectations, narrative arcs and plot and, just because I know most of you are not as taken with writing as I am, the joys of explaining kinesiology to an almost-five-year-old.

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