you know my methods, watson

I recently discovered Jo Eberhardt's blog The Happy Logophile, and this post particularly caught my attention: "Crafting Characters – Where Did I Come From?."

My reactions were too complex to fit into a comment, since I both agreed and disagreed, so I decided to respond here.

I agree completely that this is a ridiculous outline for a story:

  • Bob grew up with loving parents. He had 3 siblings – all sisters, and all older than him. He was always his mother’s “little boy” and was spoiled by her and his sisters for most of his childhood. He had a great relationship with his father, and they spent a lot of time fishing and throwing a football around.
  • It was really hard for Bob to leave his family home and go off to college, but he really wanted to be a lawyer. He spent every break with his parents, and one or another of his sisters would often visit as well.
  • When Bob graduated, he went to work at a law firm, and was incredibly successful.
  • Bob decided to become a serial killer, and started hunting down and killing prostitutes.

There are two problems with this. One is that, as it stands, it's a really stupid idea. The other is that it is, in essence, "Richard Cory."

Nevertheless, in every writing class I was ever in, somebody wrote "Richard Cory." Well, they didn't call it that, but that's what it was. I remember the feeling of sitting in the class listening to each person reading their latest story, trying to figure out if this was the "Richard Cory" for this semester. I realize that everybody starts by imitating, but imitating a style or structure is different from writing an obvious rip-off of a very famous poem and song.

Rant over.

On the other hand, I don't pre-plan or make notes about any of my characters. I don't advise against it (everybody has to find the methods that work for them), but it's not the only way to work.

When I first wrote Randi, I just wrote (basically), "A guy walks into a bar talking to himself," and then I started to think that it would be more interesting if he was talking to somebody, somebody that nobody else could see. When I first wrote Daphne, I just thought it would be nice if some of my characters had a pet. I have no idea why she lives her life as a dog. I imagine we'll find out at some point. As I said somewhere, if you ever pressed her for an answer she'd probably do something unpleasant on your leg.

And, most significantly, starling. She has murdered a lot of people, and I have never given an explanation. There is no indication that she was abused in any way growing up (which is pretty much a cliche at this point), and I hope I have made it clear that her tendency toward uncontrollable violence is nothing to do with the fact that she is a woman – that's even more of a cliche. My best explanation is that, as Kurt Vonnegut put it in Breakfast of Champions, there was some sort of imbalance of chemicals in her brain.

Shakespeare famously gave no explanation of why Iago was such a shit. Did Shakespeare himself know the explanation? I wonder. I detailed Orson Welles' thoughts about Iago in this post.

Not that I'm against explanations for behavior, but they don't always have to be revealed, any more than we always know why people act as they do in life. Also, if we rely on some explanation from a character's childhood to explain some unusual actions taken later in life, what about all the other children who suffered something similar but didn't end up murdering prostitutes or whatever other horrendous crime we're describing?

Events have causes, certainly, but those causes are usually very complex, and one of the worst things you can do in fiction is oversimplify things which are not at all simple. Stieg Larsson had some definite weaknesses as a novelist, but one mistake he didn't make in The Girl with the Dragon Tatttoo was to give a pat answer for why Lisbeth Salander is the way she is. More is revealed in the other books (from what I gather from the movies, and I'm certainly not going to read the books to find out for sure), but it's not necessary for the enjoyment of the character.

As I wrote in response to an earlier post on Jo's blog, "Characters reveal themselves slowly, and some aspects they never reveal. A major character in my second novel didn’t reveal her sexuality until the last page. It’s not something she would talk about under most circumstances, and she wasn’t in a relationship at that time. I had an idea of her preference, but didn’t know for sure until it was revealed in the story. I have two characters who were abused growing up, and the details haven’t come out because they don’t talk about it..."

This way of working is only possible when you're a "pantser," of course (one who writes by the seat of his or her pants). When I introduce characters, I usually have no idea whether they'll be major characters or not. The ones that work, that turn out to have a lot of interesting and useful qualities, they stick around. The others fade away. When Ron was first introduced, I knew she'd be back, but I had no idea she'd end up as important as she is. As I wrote about before, Popeye was originally supposed to be a minor character in the comic strip which was eventually renamed after him.

If you're going to plan ahead, with predetermined Major and Minor characters, I'm sure you would deal with this question differently. Which is the point. Different people work differently, and Jo's methods work for her and mine for me, and neither inherently superior to the other. As my father used to say, there is only one rule for writing: Write well.

And I think we can all agree that, whatever processes we use, they are almost certainly less fun than Sonje Jones' process, as she describes here and here.

Oh, and speaking of one project seducing a writer away from another, I have been feeling that, once The Mystery of the Quiet People is done (and new parts begin here), it's time to put the mystery stories aside for now and go back to my actual work-in-progress, my third novel. It's been resting for about four years, and I wouldn't exactly say it's patting the bed and murmuring sweet nothings, but I think this is a good time to give it some concentrated attention.

I have a specific reason for thinking this, not unrelated to this post, which is that I figured out something today. In my first draft, I think I concentrated too much on tying up loose ends from the other novels, explaining things, giving backstory.

I think a better approach is to Tell a Good Story. To hell with explanations, unless they make that story better.

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21 Responses to you know my methods, watson

  1. Pingback: Crafting Characters – Writing What You Almost Know | The Happy Logophile

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