Guest Blog Post, Kendall Pack: Character in Documents

Kendall PackI’m weak when it comes to graphs, receipts, emails, and notes. I think they have more to say than we allow them to. We write in summary and scene, we develop stories through the passage of time, we want to move along to the next idea. But I want to stop and make note of the milestones in the story, the documents that define the characters and their relationships.

Rather than summarize a character’s previous relationships or drag readers through a long series of scenes about them, we have the opportunity to create the pivotal moments of those relationships through the documentation we present. Documentation adds a layer of effect in its ability to transform meaning as we understand more about the story and the characters involved. Plus it makes for some decidedly unliterary writing, a nice break from all the imagery and symbolism expected of us (though documents themselves become symbolic of their cause).

In a recent story, rather than write “Daniel’s addicted to fantasy” I wrote:

You and the Stranger both like Roleplay

Say hi!

Stranger: Hello

You: hi

Stranger: asl

You: 24 m TX

Stranger has disconnected

Start a new conversation?

You and the Stranger both like Roleplay

Say hi!

Stranger: Hi

You: hi

Stranger: M or F?

You: M

Stranger has disconnected

Start a new conversation?

I do this, I believe, because I want to understand manifestation over malady. If a character is a righteous man, a priest maybe, how does he react in any given situation? Don’t tell me, just put him in a crackhouse with a pipe in hand and write. That is what fascinates me.

As a writer of short fiction, it can be enticing to summarize, summarize, summarize. But the benefits of documenting behavior far outweigh the costs in page length. Besides, our short stories get lost with too much plot, too many strings left unfollowed, too many questions unanswered or useless to the reader. We want to understand man, so we create a man. We want him to fish, so he’s a fisherman. We want to understand poverty, so he’s a homeless fisherman. We want to rent drug addiction for 2000 words, so we put cocaine in his nostrils. We think our life is too real, so we make him fly or know the future or raise the dead. But all this is too much for a writer to develop in the short story. The story must be the exploration of a single fault or characteristic with hints towards others instead of enticing threads leading nowhere because we’ve overstayed our welcome, gone far past our page length.

I’m in the middle of exploring directionlessness in the mid-twentysomething. This came about while watching a terrible indie romantic comedy. I asked the question, “What happens to the quirky sidekick five years later when they’ve lost touch?” Rather than answer, “He becomes a private investigator on a whim,” I answer:

Congratulations, JOHN G.

You have been accepted by the Plymouth Career Institute to begin your course of study in Private Investigation. You can receive a certificate of completion in as little as 6 months. By joining our Institute, you will automatically receive access to any of our online resources, including job placement, online testing, resume building, and other services.

Our graduates include some of the top professionals working in Private Investigation today. By receiving your certificate from our accredited program, you will be able to work among other professionals in your chosen field.

What do our graduates have to say about the program?

“After graduating from PCI, I am now working in my chosen field and finding success.”

–Scott H.

“The professional world always scared me, but with my certificate from PCI, I feel ready to take hold of my career.”

–Janet W.

“With a family to raise, I needed to be a competitive candidate for employment. PCI prepared me for success.”

–Derek F.

We are excited to welcome you into the PCI family, JOHN G., and we know that you’ll find success in Private Investigations through our program.

Sincerely,

Kyle Hiller

President

Plymouth Career Institute

I think it says more about a character to see their keepsakes in detail. Too often in fiction we have to ask, “Why is the main character acting this way?” By documenting them rather than summarizing them, we gain insight into that question. The last letter a character wrote to his mother before she died may reveal much about a character, so the epistolary style maintains its efficacy. But what about a receipt following a bad day at work? If we say the character is an alcoholic, then he must be such as long as we can be trusted. But if we show the receipt from the liquor store with the exact amount of the character’s Christmas bonus spent on alcohol (and only the cheapest kind), we show much more.

For those who think documentation is a terrible way to write, I won’t argue with you. I get as many (if not more) critiques as I do compliments. But the point of all this isn’t to say there’s one great way to write and we should all do it. The purpose is that characters need to be in clearer focus. We can’t stand back with a wide-angle lens and try to capture all the little details that make up our protagonists then zoom in for a telephoto close-up on each fragment, exploring each until it is concluded. For me, at least, the job of the writer is to unpack one idea, one quirk, one trait, and let everything orbit that. All moments should be a reference back to that character, looking at how the character is affected by a given set of circumstances, then another.

I perform improvisational comedy with a group in Logan, Utah. We like to think we’re pretty funny. A huge boost for us was the introduction of the comedy manual, Truth in Comedy. One of the most important points in the book is that we should never say, “no.” We should never argue that a character “wouldn’t do that.” The great thing about improv is that any character will do anything. Often that’s what holds us back in our writing. We think that our character just wouldn’t buy all that alcohol or go to a bordello or be seen in a church service, but fiction should serve as a documentation of disruption. A character changes over the course of the story and the best way to note that change is through a series of circumstances, both normal and out of the ordinary, for the character to respond to.

Whether we utilize documentation or toss it aside for summary and scene, we need focus in short fiction to better explore the depths of character over the widths.

Kendall Pack

Kendall Pack is an adjunct instructor for the Maricopa County Community Colleges District and a graduate of Utah State University. He resides in Mesa, AZ with his wife, Emily, a jazz musician whose abilities make him more jealous than he cares to admit. They both teach classes in improvisational comedy and perform with local troupes. Kendall's work has appeared in numerous publications.

Latest posts by Kendall Pack (see all)

7 thoughts on “Guest Blog Post, Kendall Pack: Character in Documents

  • November 13, 2013 at 4:41 pm
    Permalink

    Experimental forms like including a letter or a receipt is definitely an interesting way to demonstrate character; a nice way of showing versus telling. I can see where it would be difficult to do, however, since it seems like it might run a risk of disrupting story flow or appearing generally out of place. However, experimenting and trying new and unique ways to demonstrate character or show a series of events is one way we learn to improve as writers. No new ground is ever reached by remaining in the same place.

    Reply
    • November 15, 2013 at 7:47 am
      Permalink

      As I read this blog, I was reminded of J.D. Salinger’s short story “For Esmé—With Love and Squalor.” I find that when I have my characters write letters, then my path as a writer is better focused. I think I will use Kendall’s idea and try looking closely at receipts, and other documents as well.

      Reply
  • November 16, 2013 at 3:50 pm
    Permalink

    I love this idea. Experimental forms are always intriguing. I always feel I know a character better when I am shown bits of their life instead of told how they are. I need to try this soon!

    Reply
  • December 1, 2013 at 2:19 pm
    Permalink

    What a great thought, ” the documents that define the characters and their relationships.” It is a great way to think of characters. I always enjoy reading letters within a story because many times it is an insight to how they are feeling without having to use the story to express it. It is more emotionally connecting for the reader, to read the thoughts of the character instead of being told about the character.

    Reply

Leave a Reply