Category Archives: characterization

5

Man haters?

I love Junot Diaz. I think he is an amazing and imaginative writer and I like to read everything of his that I can get my hands on, so it is no surprise that I read the interview he gave to NPR this week. And what really caught my attention was his characterization of men through the eyes of women. Diaz says

But look, bro, are you telling me that if I get all the women of the United States and gather them all together and then say, ‘Do you highly recommend American men?’ that you’re going to get, like, a sterling recommendation? That these women are going to be like, ‘Oh, yes, American men are fantastic! These dudes have done so well by us.’ I think that every culture, if you got all the women of that culture together and said, ‘Grade your men,’ I don’t think any country — even a place like Denmark, which has this famous sort of gender equality — would give their men anything higher than F as a collective. And that’s a reality.

If you’re familiar with any of Diaz’s work, you’ll be able to see a parallel between the above quote and the characters in his stories—basically, his male characters are always jerks because that’s what he believes women see. Author Craig Nova comes to a similar conclusion about the characterization of men in fiction, except he laments it. Nova complains that male characters are rarely the good guys anymore, and are more often characterized as dead-beats and dogs. But in his own life, Nova can think of plenty of great male role models.

And as I think about Nova’s words, I am hard pressed to find a completely stand up, great guy in any of my recent reading. But the world isn’t full of men who are just jerks, so why aren’t our fictional men more diverse? How did we get here? Why do you think these two men portray their gender so differently in their fiction? And which do you think is more truthful of men in real life?

5

This past weekend I was fortunate enough to be in Portland, Oregon for the Willamette Writers conference.  I love writers conferences—not only do I welcome an opportunity to meet new people, I enjoy hearing pitches (and, some might say, hearing myself talk).  In any event, I met an interesting assortment of writers, some accomplished, some aspiring, and I have my fingers crossed that my brief sojourn in the Pacific Northwest will net me a new client or three.

This trip was a particular pleasure because it gave me the long-awaited opportunity to meet two of my clients—people I have represented for the better part of a decade and yet, due to circumstance of geography and timing, never met. I liked them tremendously from afar and corresponded with them often, but meeting them in person was a pure and absolute delight.  I occupied much of the long plane ride back counting my blessings.  Few things are as humbling or inspiring as the chance to represent brilliant writers, people whose works should be shouted from the rooftops.  Evangelizing on behalf of my clients is the one sort of proselytizing I can get behind.

I also used my travel time—uncomfortably extended by virtue of being twice bumped from flights (curse you, United Airlines!)—to read Hilary Mantel’s sequel to Wolf Hall, Bringing Up the Bodies.  In it, something interesting takes place, quite the opposite of what so often happens in fiction (or, in the case of me and my authors, real life) in which the reader’s feeling for the protagonists increase as we spend time in their company.  Granted access to a character’s heart and mind, plunged into his choices, flawed as they may be, we may cultivate a deep and abiding sympathy for a figment of our own (and the author’s) imagination.  This experience is no less profound for being 1) imaginary and 2) familiar. Surely the sense of identification that grows between reader and character is one of the things that gives novels such power.  In Mantel’s book, which tells the story of Thomas Cromwell, trusted adviser to Henry VIII and facilitator of his master’s serial marriages, Cromwell becomes less likeable and more problematic with every page. The shift is subtle, discomfiting and completely by design.  By the time I reached this passage:

“He needs guilty men. So he has found men who are guilty. Though perhaps not guilty as charged.”

I realized that my companion of some 400 pages is intelligent, observant, and pretty much amoral.  Mantel’s ability to make her readers complicit in Cromwell’s choices, his pragmatism and his insight into human behavior,  in his damned and damning relationship with his monarch–whom he serves with complete obedience but few illusions– is remarkable.  This Thomas Cromwell does not emerge from the tradition of unreliable narrators of the sort who-initially- seem-like-nice-folks-but-turn-out-to-be-axe-murderers. Cromwell is ultimately a killer, but he implicates the reader in his crimes.

I wonder if you can think of other characters who become less, rather than more sympathetic in the course of a story (and not just because the author fell down on the job). None are leaping to mind, but I suspect it’s because I am still, at least partially, tarrying with the Tudors.

 

1

You Are What You Read

I’m something of a science nerd, so I love it when science and literacy come together. Fortunately for me, I get just that in this Jezebel article about readers emulating their favorite characters. The study reveals that readers can shift their thoughts and actions to match their favorite literary character and attempt to live vicariously through a character by taking on what we think would be his or her thoughts, actions and emotions.

I know that there have been plenty of times when I have stopped to think, “What would so-and-so do in this situation?” and this article really made me think back and reflect on my habits and reading. I love to re-read Gone with the Wind, and I feel protective of Scarlett as I imagine what life might have been like for her. Now I wonder if I’m more flirtatious or take on more of a ruthless attitude towards the world as I read and think about Miss O’Hara.

What do you think? Have you ever lived vicariously through a book character? Do you think you emulate your favorite characters?

20

Entirely Coincidental?

Not long ago, I was reading a novel when I encountered someone I knew. Not on the train, or at the next table, or passing by the park bench where I sometimes attempt to read while my children are playing.  In the novel.

 There, despite a change of name and a few identifying features, was a person I knew quite well, rendered in mostly accurate but less than flattering detail. I had been tipped off by a mutual friend that this was the case, but it was eerie—and faintly thrilling—to find so familiar a figure pinned (if not unforgivingly than at least uncomfortably) to the page.   Here, the standard fiction disclaimer that “any resemblance to persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental” was patently untrue, and I expect that the book’s guest star was none too pleased with his portrayal. Since I don’t know the author well enough to ask her, I thought I’d pose the question here: To what degree do you incorporate recognizable versions of real people in your own fiction, and have you run into some difficult situations as a result? Where and how do you draw the lines between fair game and off-limits?

5

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman who Looks an Awful Lot Like James Joyce

It was a frequent source of frustration to me that when it was time to read aloud in English classes, teachers tended to want to dole out the male parts to the boys and the female parts to the girls.  In freshman English class, I had a bit of a tiff with my teacher, who thought I ought to read Juliet, but I frankly wasn’t interested.  Mercutio’s the only one who comes off well in that whole ridiculous affair, as far as I’m concerned, and Juliet is far too pathetic for me to want to give her voice.  He told me that if I could make a compelling case, I could read the male part.  I cited that quite useful bit of information that since all the parts were played by men in the beginning, it was no less authentic with regard to the characters’ genders than the world premiere.  He caved, and I didn’t have to do the silly swoony balcony scene.  Ever since, despite no interest at all in acting or performing of any kind, I’ve been on the lookout for good female characters, and I find I’m often left wanting.  If I were an actress, I think I’d be kind of pissed.  The guys get all the good roles, and the ladies get to be people that matter primarily in relation to them: wives, mothers, daughters, mistresses.  Forget that.  Fortunately, I think that in an age where so much of publishing is made up of women, from publishers to editors to agents to authors to readers, even the books that are not setting out to make a point about gender can have some pretty great female protagonists.  And it sometimes looks like television, at least, is starting to make similar changes.

So I was delighted when Michael sent me this LA Times piece on Daniela Comani’s gallery exhibit which takes major canonical fiction with gendered titles and reverses things.  I hate Of Mice and Men, sorry Steinbeck fans, but would I love Of Mice and Women?  Well, probably not.  Still, it’s an interesting idea to think about how things would change.  Monsieur Bovary and Lord Chatterley’s Lover would probably not be so controversial, would they?  Unless, of course, the genders of the lovers stayed fixed as the originals, which would add a whole new layer—it would be interesting to contemplate which issues overlapped in the possible versions and which were made radically different.

This makes me wonder, as an author, how much thought do you give to your character’s gender?  Do you ever consider flipping?  Do you always stick to what you yourself know or do you prefer to write from the opposite perspective?  And have you ever tried to write something gender blind and then assign a gender later?  In theory, it shouldn’t matter, but in practice, how much of the characterization would shift depending on the direction?

6

YA character advice

by Stacey

I am a big fan of the PNWA (Pacific Northwest Writer’s Association) and their annual conference, which I attended a few years back. Their website, newsletter, and blog are full of really informative advice for unpublished writers, as well as often inspirational stories of authors getting published. This recent piece from their website by book doctor Jason Black talks about a very important distinction in paranormal YA fiction between a character’s success in the story coming from ordinary human qualities versus some type of paranormal ability. Black claims Harry Potter worked so well on an emotional level that resonated so deeply with readers because many of his most important moments came from noble human qualities, like self-sacrifice, rather than his other wordly abilities. He poses the question if you are writing a YA novel, does your protagonist need to possess these paranormal qualities, or could he/she succeed without them? Black argues that having a character’s success come from a supernatural ability can send a discouraging message to readers because it makes it less inspiring for ordinary kids. An example he uses is James Patterson’s Maximum Ride series, where the characters would fail without their powers. This series has not had the kind of impact or success that Harry Potter has. He concludes, and I agree, that without his powers, Harry Potter would still be a hero. This is an important distinction to consider when drafting your character sketches and plot points.

It’s worth thinking about what he has to say, even if you choose not to follow his advice. Seeing your work from a different or new perspective is always a good way of gauging its success. For those of you writing paranormal YA or thinking about it, take a read and let us know what you think.

5

Gender Talk

by Stephanie
Lauren brought this link to my attention this morning, and I had to share with you.  The people at OverthinkingIt.com created a fantastic flowchart representing the one- and two-dimensional female characters that repeatedly appear in contemporary fiction.  First of all, I never met a flowchart I didn’t like.  But I really enjoyed this one because it puts a tongue-in-cheek spin on something that manages to appear over and over in literature.  And as the accompanying article points out, while there certainly are male stereotypes out there, there seem to be far more female characters whose development gives in to the stereotypes.  Which makes me wonder if it is, for some reason, more challenging to construct a female character not entrenched in these stereotypes. What’s the deal with that?
20

The unsympathetic protagonist

by Jessica

I just finished reading Ian McEwan’s Solar, which is smart, spare and unlike most McEwan novels, funny. At its center, however, is a pompous, self-absorbed, appetitive Nobel Prize winning physicist, whose faults are many and endearing qualities few. That he is painted as such a unredeemably selfish guy, a serial philanderer (five wives, countless affairs), flagrant plagiarist, and a monstrous—even criminal—liar, means that readers are not encouraged to develop much of a rapport with this great man of science. Instead, his weaknesses and flaws are anatomized with devastating accuracy. His self-justifications, moral elisions, and robust self-esteem are completely recognizable. That a man who is a poster child for all seven of the deadly sins does not come across as a caricature of Vice in a morality play is impressive. Yet much as I admired McEwan’s mordant wit and obvious flair for satire, Solar points up the problem of the unsympathetic protagonist. Though I don’t require my main characters to be likeable—the prickly, the badly-behaved and the wicked are usually more interesting than their more blameless counterparts—when the point of view rests entirely on the limited perceptions of the Unsympathetic Protagonist, it takes a skilled writer to craft a satisfying, engaging, emotionally resonant novel. The thought of spending so much time in the company of so unpleasant a person (even when said person is imaginary) can be off-putting.

This is a conundrum that agents and editors encounter most every day. An agent or editor’s inability to connect with or “root for” a main character is one of the most frequently cited reasons that he or she will pass on a submission, so be advised that placing a thoroughly awful person at the center of your narrative will likely make your job even tougher (though mostly awful can work). Even a critical darling like McEwan seems to have trouble managing his creation—most reviews were lukewarm at best, and while McEwan’s thieving glutton was not the novel’s only problem, most critics cited his odious personality as a considerable hurdle, so keep an eye on your own Frankenstein’s monster.

This is not to say that fiction should be peopled by the virtuous; there are plenty of wonderful, awful characters that carry a novel. Becky Sharp from Vanity Fair, Tom Ripley from The Talented Mr. Ripley, Max in Where the Wild Things Are. Fans of Lolita point to Humbert Humbert, or Bret Easton Ellis’ titular American Psycho, though these two fellows leave me cold. What do you think? Is an unsympathetic heroine a turn off? Who are some antiheroes worth getting to know?

6

The emotional life of a character

by Stacey

With a strong interest in psychology combined with a more obvious interest in books, I thought there were some interesting pearls of advice in this piece. It suggests using a well-known psychological concept, “The Five Stages of Grief”, to create a character’s response to anything they might be going through in a meaningful, believable way. He coins the stages for the purposes of character development “The Five Stages of Misfortune”, a clever way of spinning this to apply to fiction. I read so many submissions where I find the characters don’t handle their emotional life in a satisfying or realistic way, and it definitely impacts the overall success of a story. Like Jason Black, I’m not convinced that each of these stages of misfortune needs to be followed in every case, since not all misfortunes are created equal and you don’t want an overly dramatic reaction to a relatively minor problem, as his example of stubbing a toe illustrates. But I do think it’s important to keep reminding yourself as you are writing that all your characters need to be fleshed out in big and small ways depending on what they are going through in their emotional life. Using these guidelines as a reference is a good tool for that.