I never know if you guys are keeping up with Murderati, but I so loved Stephen Jay Schwartz’s post on character from a few days ago I wanted to continue the discussion here, from a slightly different angle.
What I want to talk about is his description of Henry, the moving man. In just a few paragraphs – tiny black marks on paper, or bits on a screen – Steve put a REAL PERSON into our heads. An unforgettable person.
That’s great writing. But I don’t think you can break it down into the words he used and what order he used them in. It’s not a technical skill so much as – well, as another Steve says in On Writing – it’s telepathy. Stephen was struck to his core by a unique human being and so moved by the experience that he used his own being to communicate that profound encounter to us - whole - so that we could have that encounter with Henry, too…
AND IT WORKED.
How awesome is that?
That is the real magic of writing.
And that doesn’t have a lot to do with details, really. It has to do with ESSENCE.
Note what SJS DIDN’T put into his characterization of Henry. He didn’t say what he was wearing (didn’t need to - we’ve all seen how men dress to move furniture). He didn’t say if he was married, with or without children, gay, straight. He didn’t give us his long and involved back story, what kind of cereal he likes, what team he roots for, what side of the bed he sleeps on, what his astrological sign is. There weren’t even any descriptions of killer tattoos.
I’ve seen character bio forms that have writers list all of those things and more, and they always make me uneasy. It’s too much information. A character comes through not because of a mountain of detail, but because of those one or two unmissable things that define him or her – in this case, Henry’s infinite patience and presence in a frustrating, mundane situation (and the contrast of that personal serenity in the body of a bruiser.).
Steve’s portrayal of Henry doesn’t have much to do with the words he used, either, with technical skill. Oh, we need technical skill all right, but mainly so that we don’t get in our own way while we’re writing. We learn all those things, the words, the pace, the grammar rules and how to break them, iambic pentameter (yes, we all use it if we’re writing in English…) – but that’s just a pianist’s scales, or a dancer’s barre work. We do those things so that we have a finely tuned instrument that is always ready on a moment’s notice to communicate the pure ESSENCE of a character (or love scene, or fight, whatever we’re needing to communicate in our story.)
I think I’m going on about this because – well, of course it’s what I do, but also I’ve been thinking about the essence of character because I went on a Reacher binge recently and caught up on a few of the older books I hadn’t read yet. And then I wanted more, and I started up rereading the ones I’ve already read.
As I have confessed here before, I’m not much of a series reader. I realize that part of it is that I am generally doubtful and cynical that any one author can continue to build depth and complexity in the same characters for more than three or four books. And that’s if they’re really good and really lucky. With a series, I am always bracing myself for ennui to set in. Now, I think TV can do series brilliantly – but TV has the incredible advantage of having ACTORS along with a whole staff of writers looking after character development. And actors are fanatically devoted to exploring their particular character, exclusively. That specialization and focus can, in the best of circumstances, carry TV characters much farther than authors are usually capable of carrying them. That’s by no means a slight on writers, it’s an acknowledgment of the art, craft, magic and specialization of actors.
But Lee Child’s Reacher is an exception, and so is Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch, and that has to do with unbelievably great plots, for sure, but I think it also has to do with character essence.
In any Reacher book you care to pick up, on the first few pages you are going to find this character who is almost always out on the open road, and preternaturally observant. Okay, sometimes you meet him right before a fight in which he is always outnumbered and always the last man standing, but the fight will be portrayed moment by moment so what we experience Reacher’s mental and psychological calculations at every second of the action. I don’t much think about what Reacher looks like – muscle seems to have very little to do with anything that happens. In fact, Reacher is huge, but is constantly dispatching bigger and stronger men because he’s fighting with his brain. It’s the Sherlockian powers of observation, whether in a fight or in the course of an investigation - that are compelling about the character.
There are a few other constant, essential things about Reacher that make him unique. He HATES a situation in which a big guy, whether an individual or corporation, is dominating or oppressing a weaker person or entity; he is driven to right that imbalance time and time again. He hates having any encumbrances – house, clothing, place, or even money. And he must have the companionship of an intelligent, unique woman to feel balanced and whole (he doesn’t say this, but it’s constantly played out).
Harry Bosch is another character I never get tired of. Harry was devised with a particular back story of being a tunnel rat in Vietnam, which – without being stated – gives a sense of why this man is damaged. And Harry is wounded, no doubt – while he is often heroic, you worry about him, wonder how he even gets through a day, sometimes. As an LAPD detective, Harry is constantly up against overwhelming forces – it’s not just about the case he’s working on, but the bureaucracy and sometimes malignance of the police department in general, or superiors in the department in particular. Sometimes the very family Harry is trying to help is working against him. Sometimes there’s a bigger, amorphous evil like racism. In fact, there’s always a sense of a greater evil that might finish Harry off for good. Harry is on some level aware of these larger forces and still he goes out there and does his job with a dogged determination that is both relentless and slightly – autistic, is the word that comes to mind.
Of course both Reacher and Harry are wounded knights, an archetype that has captured the popular imagination for hundreds of years, if not since the beginning of time.
Denise Mina’s prickly, scrappy Paddy Meehan is fascinating to me because of her in-your-face Scottishness. She’s a journalist too young to have any practical experience who ends up uncovering more than any of her male colleagues combined because of sheer cussedness. The lone woman up against a force of often hostile male colleagues has always done me (the brilliant BBC series Prime Suspect is one of the best examples I’ve ever seen) because it’s so true to my own experience. Paddy’s also like Tess Gerritsen’s Jane Rizzoli, who startled me as a female lead because she is so desperately unhappy, so NOT a Cinderella. In the book which was Jane’s introduction, The Surgeon, Jane DOESN’T get the guy – she nearly gets killed instead. She gets no respect on the job because she’s a woman and she gets no respect from her Italian family because she’s a woman. And experiencing her pain and outsiderness made me a devoted fan.
Margaret Maron, to me, captures the essence of the South in her Deborah Knott books. Margaret’s own laser perception masked by that “Who - little ol’ me?” Southern slyness oozes through in Deborah.
Cornelia Read’s Madeline Dare is a fascinating character to me because she lives in – or at least has lived in – a world that is completely alien to my experience, and yet I completely relate to her razor-sharp smarts, wicked tongue, and feminism. SJS’s Hayden Glass being driven by this demon of addiction is compelling to me in essence. Ken Bruen’s Jack Taylor’s essence to me is his wide-open heart and purity of soul.
Okay, you know what I want from you today. Who are YOUR favorite series characters and what is it about them – what is the essence - that draws you back, again and again?