Inhabiting your characters

Wednesday, August 20, 2014
Lee Kofman

headshot of Lee Kofman
Lee Kofman

Some time ago I was approached by a writer asking me to mentor her. She was writing a novel set in seventeenth century Spain. I read the synopsis. The story – a young woman has to choose between her sexual desire and becoming a nun (this being the most viable pathway for a woman’s independence at that time) – interested me. The narrative had some original twists. I read several chapters and was impressed by the poetry of the prose. Still, the book wasn’t working.

The problem was the protagonist. She left me cold. Her actions, thoughts and feelings were predictable and generic. She’d become ‘angry’ when someone questioned her monastic vocation or ‘blush with excitement’ upon seeing her love-object. She ‘delighted’ at her sister’s ‘lovely’ singing. She thought it was ‘wrong’ to persecute people in the name of God. I could continue, but surely you already see my point.

When the writer and I met to discuss the novel, I asked her how she conjured up her protagonist. Did she model her on someone she knew? On a mix of several people, perhaps? Was the character her, or at least contain some aspects of her personality? Or was she the result of some unconscious impulses difficult to explain? The writer said it was none of these. She did much research about the situation of women from the upper class, to which her protagonist belonged, in Spain at that time, and tried to make her character seem authentic. The writer admitted that although she did ‘know’ her character – the clothes she wore, the number of her siblings, the prayers she recited – she didn’t actually ‘feel’ her. The problem with that manuscript was something that F. Scott Fitzgerald pinpointed when he said that if a writer begins with an individual, he may end up with a type. But if he begins with a type – as happened to the aforementioned novelist – he’ll end up with nothing.

I also have a history of beginning with types. One of the fatal flaws of a novel about Russian migrants in Australia which I failed to write and which I mentioned in some of my previous posts, was that I was writing case studies instead of characters. My character sketches often looked like this: Slavik is a New Russian, a recent migrant, and therefore his way of thinking is not representative of the previous generations of migrants…

I wanted each character to ‘represent’, to stand for something, which isn’t a bad thing to happen as an end result, but a terrible thing to drive the initial writing. Another problem that I shared with the novelist above was that I tried to build each of my characters around one central internal conflict, just as writing manuals usually suggest: Marina, the singer from the Russian restaurant, drinks and f-cks all the time, because she has no certainty in her life… Lora has a good career in academy, but she also has this deep wound – the loss of her mother and her consequent fear of true love that leads her to a succession of unsuitable relationships… Misha is continuously tortured by his vision of his death (and his current illnesses). Such sketches can be sound starting points. Yet none of us goes through life following diligently The One Central Conflict as if it was Ariadne’s thread. I wish things worked so simply, that there was one central thread to tie together all of my problems. The same with Lora – why would readers believe that she gets into unsuitable relationships just because of the loss of her mother? There must be some other factors at play here too – maybe poor body image, impatience, unrealistic ideas about love and whatnot – as they would be in real life.

Another common piece of advice issued to writers is that to make characters more specific they should bestow upon them some idiosyncrasies. In my notes for my failed novel I, too, dutifully recorded such intentions: Must ensure all my characters have some curious interests. Sonya collects objects with images of elephants. Slavik is obsessed with Hollywood action movies. Tamara is obsessed with Jesus, but also with Jews.

The problem here is not with emphasising the unusual aspects of our characters, which is something that all good writers do. Of course we need to be writing about what is most important about our characters, and less obvious, and vivid and unique. The problem here is not with the advice itself, but with the writing approach implicit in such recommendations. Such an approach risks to break the complex dreaming of a character into distinct and standard components, to make it into a recipe to be carefully followed:

  • List the character’s demographic characteristics and family history
  • Identify her major desire
  • Ensure the desire is sufficiently conflicted
  • Sprinkle her with some spicy idiosyncrasies
  • Bake her for 30 minutes in a moderately hot oven until she is ready for consumption.

Possibly it is due to the popularity of such instructions that readers have to endure so many hard drinking and divorced yet basically decent detectives who play balalaikas and do yoga in 38 degree heat.

Of course, we do need our characters to have internal conflicts and idiosyncrasies. What I propose here, though, is that getting to know our characters in such ways is necessary but not sufficient. Many very different people can fit under the wide umbrellas of demographics, quirky habits and desires. Take, for example, yourself and your siblings, if you have any. Surely you could have been similarly summarised by some socioeconomic facts, appearance likenesses and even by the wounds of your shared upbringing. And yet you differ in so many interesting ways.

The real challenge for writers, in my view, is to manage to ‘inhabit’ the people we create. The best writers literally get under the skin of their characters, imbibing their wounds, the messiness of their daily confusions, associations and impulses, the rhythms of their external and internal language. This visceral grasp of character is the essence of character writing, since ‘knowing’ alone runs the risk of objectifying the character, placing it at a distance for our cool examination, which can be interesting for the writer but won’t move the readers. Yet how do we go about such a seemingly difficult task of inhabiting? Alfred Kazin, the American literary critic, said something helpful in his interview with Ramona Koval: It’s what people think that makes them interesting, and also explains them. Not so much their background, not so much their genetic, inherited differences as the peculiar pinpointed qualities of thought and feeling…

Kazin’s ‘peculiar pinpointed qualities’, I believe, are more than idiosyncrasies. I think Kazin refers here to our ongoing inner chatter, those constant low- and high-minded battles with ourselves and others that take place in our heads. These qualities must include also our mental responses to daily events. Such responses, when well described, carry within them all of our specifics – memories, beliefs, experiences, desires, disappointments, anxieties – and yes, demographic circumstances too. After all, if you and I looked at the same river in the same light at the same moment, I’m certain we’d see it differently, based on our personal ideas about, and instinctual responses to, what a river means. Perhaps you once almost drowned in a river. Perhaps I am an urban princess and find rivers boring. Maybe we are both stunned by its beauty, but you’re good at noticing what is distinct about this particular river, whereas in my mind any river’s charm is forever bound with that Waterhouse’s painting of Lady of Shalott calmly sailing upon the river towards her death. It seems to me that to understand and describe how our character would respond to a river or an overly complicated dishwasher, the particular thought associations and memories such mundane situations may evoke – in short to inhabit a character – is the most crucial element in creating fully alive, and therefore compelling, characters.

I didn’t manage to inhabit the characters of that novel I was trying to write. Instead, I busied myself with creating case studies until the juices of the novel ran out and my interest in it dried up. Recently, though, I have been toying with the idea of going back to see what I can salvage from that tediousness, which characters I can try to turn into individuals, as Fitzgerald suggests.

About Lee Kofman

Lee Kofman is an Israeli-Australian author of three fiction books (in Hebrew). Her short works in English have been widely published in Australia, the UK, Scotland, Canada and the US. Her first book in English, the memoir ‘The Dangerous Bride’ is due to appear in October 2014 through MUP. More information is available at Lee’s website.