Monday, December 06, 2010

The Essence of Character

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…


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?

- Alex


Gayle Carline said...

Would I be declared an oddity if I said Horatio Hornblower? I love the way he commands his ship, makes decisions and stands by them, while internally he questions every move he makes.

Also, Easy Rawlins. Just because.

Hannah said...

I go back and forth with series reading. Sometimes I really enjoy it and other times I just want to read something else.

I would probably say Harry Potter is one of my faves with Sookie Stackhouse creeping up. Most of my series lie under speculative fiction. Although I do have soft spot for Alex Cross.

As a writer, I marvel at the ability to write several books with the same character. Definitely a challenge.

John Peacock said...


Don't take this as a snark (it's really not intended to be - more an aside about the boring intricacies of British television production) but not all great British drama was made by the BBC - Prime Suspect came from the late, lamented Granada television, based in Manchester (British commercial television - ITV - used to be a network of regional stations, long since centralised and debased), which also brought the world the adaptations of Brideshead Revisited and The Jewel In the Crown, and the Sherlock Holmes series that featured Jeremy Brett.

Another ITV station with a reputation for classic drama was Thames, especially under the great Verity Lambert, the founding producer of Doctor Who at the BBC, who moved to Thames and produced classic programmes such as The Naked Civil Servant, Rumpole of the Bailey and Widows.

Also, a lot of great stuff came from the alternative commercial station, Channel 4 - Queer As Folk, G.B.H. and Red Riding for example.

Totally irrelevant to the subject at hand, but I thought you might be interested, especially because, until relatively recently, the more interesting, gutsier, series were the ones that tended to come from the commercial stations. Most of the good stuff over the past few years seems to have been BBC, though, with some Channel 4.

(I'd nominate the character Gene Hunt from the recent - yes, BBC! - series Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes - especially given the final denoument.)

(Upstairs, Downstairs, a series that often gets attributed to the BBC, was also produced by an ITV company - another London station called London Weekend Television.)

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Gayle, I'm with you, both counts!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

John, not at all snarky - I'm glad to have the rundown - even though I meant "BBC" not as a production credit but in a "it was British, people" way so anyone over here interested would know where to look for it.

You have now got me jonesing for a British TV binge, btw.

Sarra Cannon said...

I hate to reach for the obvious, but the Harry Potter series to me is all about character. In each of the books, Rowling goes deeper into the characters of her world, letting us know what drives them and what they really care about. Snape has to be one of my all-time favorite fictional characters. Rowling had me guessing with each book whether he was the worst of wizards or secretly the best. When the final book was in my hands, I literally sobbed while reading it - and that's just not something I do very often. I loved those characters, down to the Weasley twins and even Harry's owl. I have no idea how she did it, but those characters became a part of my life like no other series had before.

And just to bring up an author from my teenage years - Christopher Pike for me was a master of character. With every book, he had me wanting to be the heroine. As a teenager, he made me feel like the teens in his books were just like me.

Robert Sloan said...

Commander Vimes, from Terry Pratchett's Diskworld. Death, same. Granny Weatherwax, same. Sacharissa Cripslock, same. Captain Carrot, same. Sergeant Angua, same. Maurice the cat, same. Greebo the cat, same. Nanny Ogg, same. Tiffany Aching, same. Lord Vetinari, same. Okay, can I sum this up as "the entire Diskworld cast" including the History Monks?

Terry Pratchett can characterize someone in a sentence. Then add a footnote that throws you off your chair laughing too loud. Then go from all that laughter to something dark and real - back to Vimes, who is one of the more frequent, well developed and dark characters. He's seen a lot of tragedy and he still shows up to read "Where's My Cow" to his little son every day at six o'clock no matter what, including kidnapped.

It's not all his quotables. It's that within them he boils down the essence of character. His characters are all parodies, loony stereotypes that turn suddenly real and human. They don't feel like stereotypes to themselves. Their bones ache. Vetinari still uses a cane several years after the incident he got shot in the leg. It all works out like Gilbert and Sullivan, but the tragic depths are there too. People carry on. Pretty much like life as we know it.

I think he's one of the greatest living authors of our time. People don't always take him seriously because he does comedy and sometimes YA without losing an ounce of quality. But it's harder to write comedy and satire with as much depth as tragedy, to have the darks in to make the laughs that much richer.

American comedy tends to be light and skirt along the edges of disaster. British comedy will go ahead and destroy the world at the top of it and then find humor in the worst situations. Pratchett manages that with insanely great skill and wonderful characterization.

These people are my friends. I know them. I come back to them time and again in rereads. I pick up new volumes excited because this one or that one's in it - and he's just gotten me oddly interested in a thirteen year old witch. Why? Because she's also the village midwife and that's what witching is. The fairy tales crack under the strain and you wind up with pure gold... with some good ornamentation on it too.

The young assassin glided over the rooftops in a way almost catlike, except that he didn't stop to water the chimney-tops... paraphrase of one of his best lines.

He characterizes in a telling detail or two and in how these people react to real things, death or losing your nerve speaking up to an annoying person and everything in between.

Dee White said...

This post really resonated with me. I was recently revising a YA manuscript and realised that although the structure is okay and the premise is fine, my character isn't quite there yet - and I think it's the elusive 'essence' that's missing.

I am now going back to my manuscript and getting to know her and she is becoming more real to me and I can see the difference in the novel as her essence is emerging.

Thanks for a great post.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

A tremendous tribute to a tremendous author, Robert. We are so lucky that our most loved authors can be our best teachers - all they know about writing is on the page of every book, tight there for us to learn from/

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Dee, it's great that you recognize that - a lot of authors I read (or, well, START to read!) don't ever go that extra distance. As human beings, we spend a lot of our time lazy and scattered. But characters must have a laser focus to seem real.

ssas said...

Reading about Reacher reminds me of Child's party at B-Con and the Jack Reacher contest. All these hunky guys... made me think of romance cons with cover models hanging about.

Tracy Sharp - Author of the Leah Ryan Series said...

Dennis Lehane's Patrick and Angie duo, hands down.