Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Character or symbol

I'm just going to ask this, because -- natch-- I was reading a novel and thought, "This isn't a character. This is a construct." You ever have that experience? I don't know what the distinction really is, or how you make a real character, or how you know when you've "constructed" one rather than created one or discovered one. But I noticed this and thought I'd bring it up for review.

What it felt like had happened is that the writer started with an idea. "She's a gardening catalogue copywriter!" And what does that mean? It means that she describes things. That she is part of the whole commercial materialistic American machine. That she describes mundane tools with gilded language, that she uses language to sell, and sell out. That there's this motif of gardening/growing/life vs. glossy paper/lies/death. That there's a worthlessness and emptiness of her work, a prostitution.

And that's all true, and of course, I think that the art of characterizing might come from taking what we know of the character and inquiring and extrapolating: "What does it mean that she's...."

So when does this go wrong and create types rather than characters? When does this become "a catalogue copywriter" rather than "Sharon who writes catalogue copy" ? When does she become not a character but a way to satirize or symbolize commercialism or???

You know, this is really hard, creating people and stories.

Somehow this feels like what happens when we start conceiving a story with a premise or theme-- "I'm going to write about how modern college life is so commercialized and anomistic." It so often ends up so didactic and preachy, like the story is actually an allegory meant to prove this point. So the character above becomes just a way to prove some point about people?

How do you know when you've created a construct? I wonder if that's something readers can see but writers can't. (Also, I suspect this is something that lit-fic writers do deliberately sometimes-- to prove a point, or to prove that there is no point. :)

No brilliant thoughts, but have you experienced this in your reading? When do you sense this is a symbol, not a person, and what causes you to feel that?



green_knight said...

There is a whole genre of literary fiction that uses a different reading protocol from the one readers of other genres are used to. I read for story, and I want it to be about real people with believable motivations etc.
This means that when I come across a book that needs to be analysed rather than one I can immerse myself in, I bounce. Hard. It's not anybody's fault - it's just a question of violated expectations.

(Cyphers and cardboard characters that are created unintentionally are another matter.)

The main thing that puts me off a book is a lack of consequences, which is not just related to the character, but to plot and setting as well: if this, what would it mean? This breaks my sense of disbelief: the high-profile fugitive with distinguishing features who uses his middle name, makes no move to disguise himself *and does not get recognised,* etc etc.

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Susan Helene Gottfried said...

I think a lot of it comes down to depth of character. Yes, I've read constructs -- I recently read an entire book full of them. And go figure, I was disappointed by the experience.

These characters didn't exist off the page. They had no backstory that didn't relate to their construction. Nothing about them was a contradiction; the beautiful woman never woke up feeling bloated, she never had PMS (Either that or she had permanent PMS, she was so pleasant). She never broke a nail, her polish never chipped, her eyeliner was never crooked.

Worst of all, she never had moments of rebellion about being a beautiful model. Never wore sweats and a ponytail or wanted to scream at the mere thought of makeup, or laugh fondly at the way in which her nail polish chipped.

I had a professor in undergrad who said that what makes a character real is those contradictions. That's what makes them cross the line from construct into believable.

Leona said...

I'm the same way. I bounce out of the story and get frustrated. I find myself doing it when I write and I stop to think about why. Usually it ends up that I'm talking too much about what they are doing and not enough about how they are feeling or what's their motivation. Without that it feels like puppets on a string, not people living their respective lives.

PS I'm at 51168 Word's word count for NaNoWriMo :) I have all kinds of winner stuff on my NaNo page now and it feels great!

Edittorrent said...

I know, GK, it's sort of funny, actually, that "types" (which seem unsubtle in the extreme) have become such a feature of some litfic novels. Dickens did that, but somehow he also made us care about the poor orphan, etc. I'm thinking maybe that people-into-type transfer in this particular genre of litfic novels (male-written, arch tone, Manhattan-set, long sentences, improbable events) might actually be a deliberate comment on how no one can be real in the modern world.
That seems like kind of a trite and oft-used theme, but it is well-supported by "types" vs. characters.

Leona, I like the "puppet" reference. But how do we avoid that? It's really hard. I have to say, I think it helps enormously if we just want to tell these people's story rather than make a point with them. I find that whenever I "want to make a point" of some kind, I lose the character.

Anonymous said...

Hmm, i'm not really sure of the answer here either. You raised some alarm bells in my head about one of my stories. I have a protag who plays cards. He uses card terms in his everyday conversation, e.g when things turn to custard, he reminds himself he just has to play the hand he's been dealt. The intent was to give him a voice, not make him a construct.

But then he isn't just a card player. he is a guy who court martialled, but he escaped prison to find his family who had been murdered. And these are issues that haunt him to this day and affect how he approaches things.

I guess what i'm trying to say is that a guy that has had prior-to-story experiences, and an author that can subtly show this, makes a character, not a construct.

Maybe . . .

Edittorrent said...

John, that works for me-- I mean, lawyers speak legalistically, etc. So a cardplayer would use the terminology he's used to. I'd be wary of TOO Much, just because the reader could get annoyed, but as long as you're thinking, "How does Danny said this?" rather than "How does a generic cardplayer say this?", you'll probably have focused on him and not one aspect of him.

That's a good example of character coming through in dialogue.

Anonymous said...

Lack of logic for a character's behaviour makes me think of them as nothing more than a construct. think if the author's hand is obvious, moving a character from place to place like chess pieces because they need them there doing that action at that moment, they story looses all believability.

Anonymous said...


your reply twiged another question in me. If you are trying to show that, for example, your protag was beaten as a child for doing poorly at school (among other things) and thus now has a terrible fear of failure. How much is too much to show this, befor ethe reader says 'ok he had a shit childhood, i get i!!'


Jami Gold said...

Holy Cow! I get knocked down for a week by a stomach bug and I find that I missed a bazillion posts. Alicia, you've been on a roll. I loved your Sentence Fragments Redux and First Principles posts. I'm sorry I missed out on the comment parties. :)

Anyway, I did want to comment here because I'll admit that when I first started this writing thing, I was much too preachy in my writing and my MC came off as one of those puppets to serve a purpose. I think I was afraid to show the real her. I didn't want to alienate readers with showing her imperfections. But it made the story too preachy, the characters too cardboard, etc. I finally realized the truth: she's a former con-artist. Yes, she's reformed, but that doesn't mean she's not manipulative, or never lies, is completely faithful, etc. She consciously decides near the end of the story to lie and keep a HUGE secret, and in my first draft, I completely glossed over it.

So, I think characters or stories can be cardboard for two reasons: author laziness, or author timidity. I used to fall into the second category. :) The emotions of certain scenes can be deep and difficult to really dig into. I also think my character was trying to 'con' me by glossing over aspects of her attitude, but I've got her number now. :)

Jami G.

Edittorrent said...

John, I think you might hint at the memory in the beginning, and then reveal it fully later-- that is, show the effect (fear of failure), then when the reader is wondering, start revealing the cause.

But I think it comes off as Jami said, "preachy," when it's just stated out that he had a bad childhood. Show the effect. Make the reader want to know the cause.

Jami Gold said...


Alicia made a good point. Let the story reveal the backstory, not the author. :)

We've all heard the advice to limit backstory, especially in the first couple of chapters. My MC never directs speaks (or internal monologues) about her background unless someone else brings it up. And the other characters only bring it up for a story reason, not just because I wanted to stick an info dump in. :) But, boy, did I make these mistakes in my first draft... There's a reason I've been editing/revising for 14 months and 30+ drafts. LOL!

Jami G.

Leona said...


I know what you mean about being sick or away for a few days. That's always when a slew of posts come through.

But Alicia especially has been on a roll this month which has helped us poor NaNoWriMo's. The tools they give usually inspire an onslaught of words for me. It's almost as if the ideas in my head gel after I read the posts here, LOL

I'm trying hard not to do too much backstory or any exposition (sp?)even though it is a fantasy and it seems that fantasy genre is full of exposition when I think of the stories I've read. I don't have any of my fantasy books here with me to double check though :( that's okay, because we are going back to WA yeah!!! I'll have all my books and art stuff back.

Sorry for the side bar, we're finally announcing it though and I'm excited. My husband decided to go to school after we moved her to work (isn't that always the way). Now, we have to go back to WA where we are considered residents so the cost will be dramatically less.

See my character trait as written would be to go off an seemingly random tangents, but in this case its not as random as it appears.

In the NaNoWriMO story I'm writing, the main characters' home has burned, and che has to take her mother back to the home of her childhood, back to the castle. So my plot of returning home and how best to handle it is simmering in the back of my brain along with the plans I have to make to return home.

I'm writing in omniscient and I'm having trouble keeping the POVs in an order that I like :( Characters that I had wanted to have a stronger influence on the story barely speak. Characters that swam their way into my book without so much as a by your leave are trying to take over. My characters puppets? Not in this story. I'm the one being led around by the nose - er, fingertips.

Jami Gold said...

Hi Leona,

It's good to 'see' you again. (I feel like I was gone for forever. LOL!) How's your Nano word count? (I'm not doing it so don't ask me... :) ) I hope your move works out well, it sure seems like things have been up in the air for you lately.

Wow, omniscient? I wouldn't have a clue how to go about writing in that POV. :) Good Luck!

Jami G.

MrsMusic said...

For me, those flat characters are those who don't stand for a person, but for an IDEA. The symptoms are well known, and have already been said:
- a lack of depth: everything the character does and says comes down to this one idea s/he represents.
- a lack of contradictory elements or thoughts: yeah, it's all only this one idea.
- a lack of motivation for doing what the character actually does in the novel: you more sense the author's motivation to have the character do that to prove the idea.

This idea can be beauty, the absolute good, the absolut evil, but also a Weltanschauung, a philosophy of life, a certain conviction... anything.

Don't misunderstand me: in my eyes it's perfectly okay if a character has strong opinions, and I have nothing against visionary or role model characters. But they have to show that they have a relationship of their own to the idea they represent. This relationship can express itself in temporary revolt, as Susan Helene Gottfried suggested, or in deep devotion, or stem from the personal history of the character - anything, if it only shows me a specific bond of the character with the idea.

For example, if there is a priest just preaching the "right way" - yawn. If there is a young priest who is overly enthusiastic and ready to sacrifice himself - still yawn. But if this young priest had a little sister who died when she was still a child, and he - probably wrongly - thinks it's his fault, and if he has sworn never again to foresake a child - okay, here we have something! Even if the opinions he actually expresses are basically the same, he has crossed the threshold from cardboard character to fictional person.

Edittorrent said...

Mrs, yes, they're not a symbol, but someone who cares about whatever. That's going to make it feel more authentic, like this is a real person.


Leona said...

Jami g.

Things have been up in the air lately! but this move has been really good for us in a lot of ways, bringing us closer as a family and letting my son catch up on school that he missed while going through a "stage". They have a credit retrieval program and he has taken full advantage:)

Anyways, I'm an official winner! Purple bar and all that :) My word count is 54,361 and counting. I'm getting to the final countdown in my story. about 3 more chapters I think. I'm getting excited LOL

And Alicia, I've taken up the challenge; the rough draft WILL be finished, if I have to stay up all night Sunday! LOL