Today we are pleased to feature author Sherril Jaffe as our Authors Talk series contributor. Sherril discusses her opinions on art and its relationship to character. In particular, she explains the multifaceted purpose of art and how it is interested in the truth, which is currently under assault.
She also discusses the nature of the short story as an art form, referring to her piece in Issue 18, “During the Republican Convention.” She reveals that short stories are powerful because they can break all the rules, and she emphasizes that “a short story should crack something open in us.”
There’s nothing like the first day of class. Coffee, notebooks, and laptops are strewn around the table. The awkwardness of either small talk or silence permeates the room. As the seats fill, the energy is palpable, and the student body seems to carry with it a collective question. What are you about to make us do?
I teach short fiction, often in workshops settings, and though I vary my lesson plans considerably, there is one outline I return to no matter the age or skill level because it is fundamental to fiction writing. This lesson is on characterization, the only lesson I have that is, if not fixed, consistent.
When getting to know a new class, I ask for names, where students are from, how they like to spend free time, their favorite book or movie, and what led them to my class. Sometimes I throw in silly questions, such as how they’d spend a million dollars in three days or who they’d interview first if they had a talk show and could have anyone living or dead on as a guest. In other words, I cover the who, what, when, where, and why to get to know them.
To introduce students to characterization is to introduce them, in part, to all aspects of short-form storytelling. For this reason, I follow introductions by asking my students to answer the first four intro questions for a fictional character as well—preferably a brand-new character. If the more far-reaching question was posed, I ask them to answer that, too.
There is rarely a lot of struggle with this exercise. Characterization is a natural thing. We have so many personal experiences and interactions to draw from that we can often come up with a character by asking ourselves a few simple questions. In fact, if you’re reading this, try it. It’ll only take a few minutes.
Place of origin:
Favorite book or movie:
Think of characterization in a similar manner to how we get to know people. When we first meet a person, we only have appearance to go by, and it’s easy to deduce a thing or two from body language. In conversation, more information is gathered. The more we see a person and interact, the more data we have at hand to create a portrait in our minds.
Examining fabricated characters at this point, after only a few questions, it would seem they are mere acquaintances. We need to know more, so here are a few more questions:
What does this character want more than anything?
What’s in the way?
Does the character have a favorite color? Favorite food? A quirky habit?
Depending on the length of the workshop, we continue:
Would you date your character?
Would you be friends?
After adding to our list of questions and answers, a character begins to take shape, and at this early point in the workshop, I tell the class it’s time to share. When we go around the room, the magic begins to take shape. Suddenly, the number of people in the room has doubled. A fresh energy takes over as these quirky new people (usually people) are introduced.
Characters inevitably reflect aspects of either ourselves, people we know, characters from our dreams, and/or fictional characters we’ve been inspired by. We’re processing information day by day, so whether we’re conscious of it or not, all information shapes the way we think and perceive the world as artists. This is never more evident than in spontaneous creative efforts.
Because characters are often a collage of previous interactions, questions about human behavior, dreams, hopes, worries, and joys, they may even lead us to corners of our mind that are strange or uncomfortable. “How did I come up with this disturbing person?” a student might ask. Sometimes a disclaimer will be made: “Just so you know, my writing is not usually so dark.” Or, “I don’t like this person at all. He’s nothing like me.”
Characters, when made up on the spot, are not a reflection of us so much as a reflection of what’s been on our mind, what we know, and what we’d like to know. And in every case, they reflect passions and fears.
That’s not to say that if a student writes a serial killer character, that student is a serial killer. What it does mean is that if we write a serial killer character, that character will likely have some humanizing trait that we share, or reflect a fear we have about the world.
Writing is a way to reframe reality by exploring our emotions through characterization and action, through pure creative output, which, ideally, distills all the information we have and carries with us into potent little worlds that seem both unfamiliar and not.
For the writing-intensive portion of class, I challenge my students to explore their characters by writing a scene in which their protagonists almost get what they so desperately want. This writing assignment is about plot through characterization. It is the heart of the story. It is also important to set a limit on the time they have to write, so I’ll often give them 20 minutes. Knowing a timer is ticking, we tend to find ways to work more words onto the page.
As we conclude, I challenge my students (and anyone reading this) to live like writers, to observe the world like writers, to take notes and take stock. Feel fully that thick, humid breeze or hear the birdsong during morning walks—hear what is always there but you never pay attention to.
Carry a notebook. When you come up with a beautiful line, a new insight, a new observation, or just pure guttural emotion, write it down as soon as you can. Explore it on the page. And through all your observing and listening, keep your new character in the back of your mind.
As you live, this character solidifies. And as you continue to write, I suggest creating a few more and traveling with them, too, examining the world through multiple sets of eyes, and writing when so moved to do so. In this way, characters become vehicles by which to study the world. They can return in different scenarios or deliver a single message and move on.
The more I write, the more likely it is I’ll see a character return, only with each story she becomes stronger, more defined. Sometimes characters from different stories end up meeting in a narrative some months or years down the line. Sometimes, they fizzle out. But when we know our characters, really know them, our writing feels less like work and more like opportunity, a journey.
Creative writers know that physical description is among the most essential tools for establishing a character. How a person walks and talks; the clothing they wear; their hairstyle; how they chew and fidget and fuss, or sit stoically; the way they smile, frown, or stare blankly. These can provide terrific insights into our characters. However, merely listing the gestures often isn’t enough.
In workshop stories, I often see exchanges like this one (which I invented):
“I’m really happy you could meet me today,” he said. He gave her a small smile.
She looked up at him. “I love this restaurant,” she answered.
In this brief moment, we have two gestures – a “small smile” and a “look.” That’s a fine place to begin, but as written, these are simply stage directions. It’s as if the writer is merely puppeteering the characters, giving us a visual. The actions aren’t telling us anything about the characters, about the situation, about the emotional register of this moment. Is this guy actually happy? Is she happy? Or are they sad? Worried? Are they flirting? Are they ex-spouses who haven’t spoken in months, with a history of conflict between them? Is there resentment, love, nervous excitement? What are these gestures telling us?
Students often express hesitance about “slowing down” the action of the story in order to give backstory about the characters. They say they don’t want to bog down the piece with paragraphs of explication about who these people are and what brought them to this moment.
My answer is this: You don’t have to slow down the action. Weave the backstory into the action. Make it part of the scene. Connect the gestures to the characters’ backstory. Every gesture should reveal something: the character’s personality, psychology, desires, conflicts. Make the gestures work for you.
Here’s a passage from Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar:
Mr. Willard eyed me kindly. Then he cleared his throat and brushed a few last crumbs from his lap. I could tell he was going to say something serious, because he was very shy, and I’d heard him clear his throat in that same way before giving an important economics lecture.
Notice that Mr. Willard doesn’t simply “eye” the narrator. That might be misconstrued as creepy. Instead, he eyes her “kindly.” That’s helpful to the reader; it gives us something about the mood, the tone. Next, he clears his throat and brushes crumbs from his lap. Is he nervous? Is he about to say something? People tend to clear their throats when they want to say something. Sure enough, Plath makes it clear with the next sentence.
But most importantly, she adds another line that connects Mr. Willard’s throat-clearing to the characters’ shared history. We learn that he is shy (therefore, they know each other). We learn that he was a teacher, specifically an economics teacher, and she must have been his student. The gestures aren’t only stage direction; they forward the plot and deepen our understanding of the characters. And they haven’t slowed down the scene.
Sometimes simply choosing a compelling verb can do wonders for establishing character. Here’s an example from James Joyce’s Ulysses:
Then, suddenly overclouding all his features, he scowled in a hoarsened rasping voice as he hewed again vigorously at the loaf:
‘For old Mary Ann
She doesn’t care a damn
But hising up her petticoats…’
He crammed his mouth with a fry and munched and droned.
Notice how much work Joyce’s verbs are doing. “Overclouding all his features” makes me think this guy is in a bad mood. And then he “scowled” and “hewed . . . vigorously the loaf.” He’s eating, but he’s not just eating: he’s eating violently, piggishly. He sings a dirty little ditty, and then he “crammed his mouth with a fry.” There’s aggression in that verb. He’s literally stuffing his face.
From those six words, I know quite a bit about what kind of dude this is. And I’d rather eat over here, thank you.
Flannery O’Connor is among the best at giving gestures with meaning. She often uses an “as if” structure, and it’s a technique you can easily apply to your own writing. Quite simply, she describes a gesture or expression, but then she adds one – or two, even three – similes that start with “as if,” similes that develop the character and the conflict.
From The Violent Bear It Away:
Rayber continued to speak, his voice detached, as if he had no particular interest in the matter, and his were merely the voice of truth, as impersonal as air.
As a writer I would be tempted to quit after “his voice detached,” which gives us something important. But O’Connor keeps pushing it. In what way is his voice detached? The first clause tells us Rayber is talking as if he doesn’t care about the topic. Then the second part really elevates the simile: he has “no particular interest” because his “voice of truth” is absolute. He has no need to argue passionately.
And finally, still not satisfied, O’Connor pushes it once more: “as impersonal as air.”
To me, this last clause makes the whole gesture. In his own mind, Rayber’s logic is like an invisible, ubiquitous, and necessary force. No person can live without air; it is all around us at all times. And now the reader truly sees the full extent of the character’s ego.
The most important habit a writer can develop is to read like a writer. So the next time you’re reading, pay special attention to the ways the author uses gesture and detail to build character, to bring us closer to their conflicts. And then, as always, don’t hesitate to rush to the keyboard (or pen and paper) and use their techniques in your own writing.
The Nine Strengths: What a Story-Writer Possesses that He or She May Not Realize as Even Greater Strengths in Novel-Writing
You got to know that you know what you know.
“The Company Proficiency Test Average”
Beginning fiction-writers usually start with the short story–for the obvious reason that at least on the surface of it, shorter seems easier. But most story-writers also aspire eventually to write novels, and the conventional wisdom is that writing short stories is the apprentice work for writing novels. A stupid way that it’s often phrased is that writing short stories is for children, while writing novels is for grown-ups. However, the occasion of trying to write a novel turns out to be so intimidating for even accomplished story-writers that they can forget to use their most highly developed tools and most valuable habits of creative thinking. Something about all those pages, all those characters, and all that narrative time to be covered can make a would-be novelist panic, forget what he knows, and make unfortunate decisions he’d never make in writing a story.
This was the case with yours truly. I’d published five story collections and a novella before I managed to write a publishable novel. And it wasn’t for lack of trying. In the old computers asleep in my attic two complete novel-manuscripts have found their final resting places. The good news is that recently I’ve written a couple of novels, one of them in three months, the other in six months. Like everything else in writing, this productive phase was mostly just a matter of luck, but I also believe that I’ve finally come into possession of things I knew perfectly well forty years ago. I had the knowledge and the tools all along, but the monster that a novel appeared to be when I was trying to write one scared me out of using my strengths. Instead I tried to rely on my weaknesses–big thinking, abstractions, philosophizing, tricky plot moves, high drama, far-fetched characters, etc. What follows, out of my experience, is a brief discussion of some story-writing tools that I now understand to be even more well-suited for novel-writing than they are for story-writing:
1. A veteran story-writer learns when to leave off, i.e. when to tease, to engage the reader’s imagination by way of omission, to motivate the reader to keep going–in the story or in his or her imagination–in spite of frustration. This applies especially to story endings, but it also applies to sections of stories. Or even to sentences in the middle of a paragraph. E.g., the teasing withholding of how Curt Lemon died in Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” makes a reader understand the deep significance of that death to the members of Lemon’s platoon.
2. A first principle for story-writers–often so much an assumption that the writer him- or herself is no longer conscious of it–is that it is crucial not to be boring. “Leaving out the parts that most people skip” (as Tony Hillerman phrased it) is pretty natural for a short-story writer, but a beginning novelist will often foolishly feel compelled to fill in a lot of blank pages. The novel occasion can persuade one that one must throw everything into the narrative rather than judiciously leaving many things out.
3. A story-writer often discovers both the pleasure and the narrative effectiveness of withholding something of narrative importance–of simply not overtly revealing a basic fact. E.g., the narrative of J.D. Salinger’s “Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes” refuses to say straight out that the woman in bed with the gray-haired man is the wife of the poor fellow who calls the gray-haired man to ask if he knows where his wife is. Everything in the text points to that being the case, but the absence of a factual assertion infuses the story with ominous possibility and tension. John Irving employs a similar strategy with the death of a beloved child character in The World According to Garp.
4. Because short stories are such a specialized and highly refined literary genre, their practitioners assume that their readers are adults who have little patience for the obvious. Thus, story-writers take pleasure in challenging their readers. People who aren’t serious and skilled readers are not inclined to read contemporary short stories. Those who do read them are literary gourmets. George Saunders, Tobias Wolff, T.C. Boyle, Amy Hempel, and Alice Munro expect their readers to bring background, imagination, a deeply ironic sensibility, and linguistic alertness to the reading occasion. But the high-end readers a story-writer wants are the exactly same readers he wants for the novel he might write if he is lucky.
5. Because the main characters of short stories are almost always “outsiders,” story-writers learn to trust their own strangeness, quirks & kinks, improper thoughts, obsessions, etc. as “the good stuff” of a narrative. This is not traditionally the case with novelists who are most often concerned with mainstream or regular citizens. (In The Lonely Voice, Frank O’Connor argues that “the short story more than any other genre involves a protagonist who is an outsider and operates on the periphery of society.”) Contemporary novels, however, are more and more inclined to “involve” oddball protagonists. Story-writers rely on the oddball protagonist who lives within them, but all too often they think that weirdo can’t possibly help them write a novel.
6. You do not become a short story-writer unless you possess a natural inclination to narrow the scope, to rely on a very small picture to bring authority to a big picture–to use mostly detailed accounts of scenes as the stuff of narrative. In fact I’m certain that the little-picture method of composition is the path story-writers take to discover whatever truth their work has to offer. Story-writers become synecdoche specialists. However, when they attempt the longer form, they can lose faith in this sophisticated and long-cultivated talent. My experience has taught me what now seems obvious–that the impulse to focus minutely is of as much value in making novels as it is in story-making.
7. Story-writers become geniuses of narrative transitions–or the writing of transitionless narratives–stories that use white space to represent time-gaps instead of conventional phrasing like “A week later,” or “In the days that followed.” Dead space, or lifeless language, in novels is just as deadly as it is in stories, but the beginning novelist may not think so. By the way, my all-time favorite transitionless moments in fiction occurs in Flannery O’Connor’s “Parker’s Back:
…Sara Ruth agreed to take a ride in his truck. Parker parked it on a deserted road and suggested to her that they lie down together in the back of it.
“Not until after we’re married,” she said – just like that.
“Oh that ain’t necessary,” Parker said and as he reached for her, she thrust him away with such force that the door of the truck came off and he found himself flat on his back on the ground. He made up his mind then and there to have nothing further to do with her.
They were married in the County Ordinary’s office because Sarah Ruth thought churches were idolatrous.
8. After Hemingway, “show, don’t tell,” became the story-writer’s mantra. Contemporary story-writers (most extravagantly and brilliantly, Harold Brodkey), however, have shown the way toward both showing and telling. The show-don’t-tell template, though, never leaves the story-writers’ thinking, whereas it often doesn’t show up at all in the efforts of a beginning novelist. And story-writers making early attempts at novel-writing–because they don’t believe it applies to making narratives ten or fifteen times longer than a short story–are all too often inclined to switch off that useful little interior mantra that never stops whispering “show, don’t tell.” They explicate too much of what they should dramatize. I advocate both telling and showing, but I think I do a better job of telling because my habit is to err on the side of showing.
9. The dynamic nature of the interior lives of individual human beings is the bread and butter of fiction-writing. The interior life is what fiction brings to art that the other forms either can’t manage at all or else have to try to accomplish in unnatural ways–e.g. voice-over in movies. Both story-writers and novelists understand this perfectly well. What a story-writer brings to the novel-writing occasion is a refined sense of interior-life management. Which is to say that the story-writer is less inclined than the apprentice novelist to indulge a protagonist in pages and pages of soul searching and mental noodling. Naïve novelists can be wildly indulgent when they open up their characters’ thoughts and feelings, whereas story-writers bring speed, agility, and tact to their rendering of their characters’ thoughts and feelings. Novel readers may want more pages, but they also want narratives that intensely engage them from beginning to end. Which is to say that just because they’re reading a novel they’re no more tolerant of literary fooling around than a story reader is. They want what we all want–the dream that is so compelling we don’t want to wake up.
One of the first (of many) rejections of my novel Revenge of the Teacher’s Pet was from an editor who wrote, “I fear that not even Nabokov’s literary skills could make Mr. Portwit into a likable character.” The character he referred to was Dale Portwit, one of the protagonists of my novel. Mr. Portwit is a 50-year-old middle-school teacher who is, to put it kindly, self-serving, obnoxious, and stubborn. One of his quirks, for example, is insisting that everyone refer to him as “Mr. Portwit” instead of “Dale” because he believes “first-name usage is a privilege, not a right.”
When my second novel, The Girl Who Ate Kalamazoo, was released, it received some fine praise in a few local newspapers and literary blogs. But the Publisher’s Weekly review was the one I had been waiting eagerly to read. They called my book “relentlessly inventive.” I was thrilled. However, the PW review went on to assert that my characters were “irredeemably unlikable,” which made it difficult to care about the “bizarre goings-on.”
Suddenly all the positive comments I had received didn’t matter: What stuck in my craw was that phrase – “irredeemably unlikable.” I pondered it: Are my characters really that unlikable? In what way? What makes a character likable, anyway? Is it essential to readers that they “like” the protagonists of the books they read? What does it even mean to “like” a character? The concept felt foreign to me.
In 7th grade, I read To Build a Fire by Jack London. It was life-changing. I loved the story so much that I even read it aloud for a class presentation. To Build a Fire is the story of a man (known only as “the man”) who is trekking in the Arctic on his way to another research outpost. The temperature is so cold, however, that all of the “old-timers” have warned him not to venture out alone. He ignores their advice, believing himself to be a capable enough outdoorsman to make it easily. Spoiler alert: the man makes a few crucial mistakes and ends up freezing to death in the snowy wasteland. His supersized ego, his belief that his intelligence and rational thinking are more powerful than nature, ultimately leads to his downfall.
In retrospect, I realize that To Build a Fire was a template for the type of story I loved. Nothing touchy-feely or overly sentimental, yet packing a powerful emotional punch. Something that pushes us to question our role on Earth, the very essence of human existence. No feeling of closeness or affection for the main character; “the man” is not someone I idolized or felt a kinship with or “liked” in any specific fashion. But certainly I was invested in him. Certainly I enjoyed living briefly in his skin. My 8th grade was spent blazing through Stephen King’s novels (and Peter Straub and Dean Koontz – I liked horror). By high school, I had moved on to more so-called “literary” authors: Kafka, Poe, John Kennedy Toole, Dostoevsky, Camus.
The opening passage of The Stranger encapsulates the personality of the narrator, Muersault: “Mother died today; or maybe yesterday.” This is only the beginning of Mersault’s journey of detachment through the novel. He ends up confronting and killing a man on a public beach, apparently for no reason. When Muersault is brought to trial, he offers no defense whatsoever for his actions. In other words, a loveable guy!
Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby, Twain’s Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court, Wright’s Native Son, Nabokov’s Lolita, Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Frank Norris’s McTeague – the hall of my literary heroes, when I step back and catalogue it, is a rogue’s gallery of unlikable characters. I doubt that most people, myself included, would want to spend an afternoon with any of these folks if they were made of flesh and blood. So what does this say about me, as a person? Am I a miscreant, a misanthrope, a misfit?
The honest and boring answer is that I’m none of these things. I don’t like to use the word “average,” but I’m a pretty average guy, at least on the surface. But maybe it’s because I’m a fairly average person that I’m drawn to these unsavory characters. Fiction allows me to walk in the shoes of people who are nothing like me; to observe from a safe distance as characters explore the dark, the absurd, the tragic, and the comically misguided aspects of the self. I can safely live inside the mind of an oddball, a criminal, a buffoon, and then retreat into my own drab routine. The truth is that I read and write stories, in part, in order to live things – people, places, philosophies, beliefs, fears, desires – that I don’t get to experience during my daily grind.
So if my characters are “irredeemably unlikable,” if they are grotesque or “weird,” I can be OK with that – as long as they aren’t predictable or flat. Above all, they must be capable of redemption. Their likability may be “irredeemable,” but I hope their souls aren’t. I’m not interested in perfect characters. I’m not looking for drinking buddies or racquetball partners. I’m not interested in someone like me. Lord knows, I get enough of myself seven days a week.
I don’t seek repellant characters. I don’t set out to create monsters. But I do seek difficult, flawed characters that will push me out of my comfort zone. Three-dimensional people, warts and all; people that are good and bad, ugly and beautiful, sinful and heroic; characters in need of grace.
Don’t misunderstand: there’s nothing wrong with likable characters. I love a charming, personable narrator as much as the next person. I love Scout and Bilbo Baggins and all those adorable and valiant rabbits from Watership Down. Readers seek camaraderie and friendship in the novels they love; or a feeling of connection to experiences and personalities that are familiar.
But as I continue to write, I’ll remind myself that there’s no way to predict what readers want. It’s impossible, and it’s a losing game. The amazing thing about storytelling is that it’s a two-way street; the reader brings their own life to every text they pick up, and they actively help create the characters on the page. All I can do is keep seeing the world the way I see it, trying to push myself and write characters that are living, breathing people, and raise the unanswerable questions about why we’re here.
While this might seem like a statement, it is really a question disguised as an observation. It seems to me that one of the most destructive trends in recent “literary fiction” successes has been the devaluation of style in favor of plot and character. While ideally, all these things should work together, popular literature has always favored plot and character over style, and now it appears that even “literary” works fear too much development of style as a clear sign of a limit to the potential audience for the work, the kind of thinking that was previously more limited to genre writing, best seller attempts, and the innumerable serial novels.
The backlash to this exists in “innovative” fiction and some small press releases, but the gap between the two has been increasing. In poetry, there is an equivalent polarization between experimental and traditional although the reasons seem to have much less to do with the potential popularity of the work.
Fortunately, there are always writers more interested in the most unique and complete experience of the writing regardless of popularity trends, which are usually not really trends at all but disguised returns to more direct explanation in the fiction. “Show us, don’t tell us,” often becomes give us the experience and then tell us what it should mean.
Popular fiction has always been good at stealing the thunder from literary art by adapting its successes to more mundane purposes. One of the latest victims of this is flash fiction, which has in many quarters been increasingly less experimental and wide-ranging in its structures, approaches and particularly its style. Some publishers of flash fiction are now drawing a stricter line between the prose poem and flash fiction. Theoretically interesting perhaps, but isn’t that defeating one of the reasons the form developed?
I began writing shorter prose works first as a poet trying on foreign hats, finding so much more of interest in the form in translated works from countries where the distinction between poetry and fiction was not so clearly drawn, places like Russia, for example, where poetry is actually popular and sometimes sells well. I felt a freshness that caught and held my attention more fully in the form, and one of the reasons was that I could come to it with fewer preconceptions of what it should be.
As I worked in shorter prose forms, I found it veering into essay, autobiography and satire as well as mixing fiction and poetry, and the range of possibilities excited me. There are rhythms and voices that function better in a confined space. There are different kinds of condensation and pacing. There is a different kind of tension created by knowing the experience will end sooner.
As I explored the range of possibilities, I found several of the resulting works rejected by a poetry magazine for being “fiction” and the same work rejected by a fiction magazine for being “poetry” without either of them having actually considered the work beyond their assumptions of its genre. I started sending the work without labeling it or designating which department it should go to and had pieces accepted by both fiction and poetry editors assuming it was meant for them, and even labeled with just as much certainty as “essay,” an assertion I had not considered, but which, once it had been pointed out to me, seemed equally valid.
Now that the idea of fiction completing itself in a much shorter space has been more widely accepted, the attempts to restrain it to more definable dimensions are returning, and the reactions against this are also occurring, making the questions such work raises once again more polarized. Is this healthy disagreement, or merely two equally restricting forms of boxing up creativity?
Many literary magazines and online sites claim to want “experimental” and “hybrid” work, but is this really what they want and publish, or have too many of them narrowed the definitions, and has the label “experimental” become merely an excuse for focusing on a single dimension of the work, just as popular fiction does with a different single dimension?