This book illuminates how technique serves “story logic,” the particular way fiction makes meaning. Writers raid the cupboard of theory looking for what works, and generic rules don’t account for the rich variety of strategies they employ. For writers who are past the beginner stage, Brady offers a closer look at craft fundamentals, including plot, characterization, patterns of imagery, and style. The lively, lucid discussion draws on vivid examples from classic and contemporary fiction, ranging from George Eliot and William Faulkner to Haruki Murakami and Toni Morrison, and exercises provide opportunities to apply key concepts to practice. Because it supplies the analytical tools needed to read as a writer, this text will enrich the reader’s approach to any work of fiction, energizing discussion in a workshop or craft course.
Catherine gives an overview of the book:
Captured in Motion: Dynamic Characterization
With the air of an Old World pater familias, my husband’s father, Ernest fully inhabited his own authority until his death at age ninety-two. When other people were perplexingly irrational, he wasn’t alarmed but wryly, scathingly amused. If he raised an eyebrow, you would of course correct the error of your ways. He was a creature of habit because habit was orderly, and keeping a steady course had enabled him to rebuild his life in the United States after he and his wife, Ilse, fled Nazi Germany in 1938. He smoked exactly five cigarettes a day and had just one scotch before dinner, and dinner always began with a soup course because he liked soup and Ilse doted on him. When we were newlyweds, my husband and I took a trip with Ernest and Ilse. Since Ernest never hurried for any reason, we didn’t head to the airport until very late, and by the time we got there, we had only about twenty minutes before our flight was scheduled to depart. If we ran to the gate, we might make it, but Ernest stopped to survey the long line at the ticket counter and said, casually, “I have to buy the tickets.”
I’m telling you this story so that we can start simple as we consider what may be the most challenging aspect of fiction writing. Characterization depends not just on craft but on complexities of human psychology that a reader may understand differently than the writer, yet its fundamental components can be stated in simple terms. The first principle of characterization is singularity—the details that enable a reader to feel she knows an individual, which novelist Marilynne Robinson calls “the best privilege fiction can afford, the illusion of ghostly proximity to other human souls.”1 Mutual pleasure is at issue here too: I want you to enjoy Ernest as much as I did. And it’s worth noting that we’ll relish the idiosyncrasies of villains as readily as we delight in the traits of heroes. The second key principle is potent contradiction, because when a reader has to try to reconcile inconsistencies that matter, character is revealed, not just described. Fiction halts at the doorway to explanation, deliberately granting only a partial glimpse. If I’ve arranged the particulars of this family anecdote just right, the partial glimpse should evoke a richer experience because of what it doesn’t resolve: How could someone so rational not grasp that he’d run out of time? Given his life experience, how could Ernest blithely trust that luck would go his way? Why wouldn’t a man whose wife ironed his boxer shorts every week expect that the plane would wait for him? (And yes, we did make that plane.)
Fictional characters are convincing not because they are “life-like” but because the reader’s engagement with them is. Compelling characters both confirm our understanding of experience, invoked as we measure their motives and behavior against our own, and refine it by confronting us with what we can’t or don’t dare articulate, by claiming our sympathy despite our reluctance, by posing possibilities we didn’t imagine but will believe. Characters are “real” when they can involve readers in this mimetic play. Whether a writer’s frame of reference is realistic or surreal matters less than the power to persuade readers of a privileged glimpse into the inner life of character that tantalizes us with what remains uncertain and cloaked. We know the character, and yet we don’t—not completely.
Literary scholar Robert Alter calls this “the purposefully troubling representation of character.” 2 Looked at from the writer’s perspective, the project is more speculative: we attempt to confront what most puzzles us in human nature rather than conceive of story as a proof for our convictions. Echoing Chekhov’s insistence that the writer formulate a question, Grace Paley cheerily proposes this as first principle: “If, before you sit down with paper and pencil . . . it all comes suddenly clear and you find yourself mumbling, Of course, he’s a sadist and she’s a masochist, and you think you have the answer -- drop the subject.”3 A writer works best from his “ununderstanding” of human relationships: “he simply never gets over it . . . like an idealist who marries the same woman over and over again.”4 Your aim is not to get a certain take on your character’s motives but to be transfixed by complexities that exhaust the explanations at hand in your cultural moment, whether they are psychological or sociological or religious. Critics have spent centuries analyzing Hamlet because he richly rewards psychoanalytic, Marxist, and structuralist interpretations (and could probably accommodate any new –isms handily) but also possesses some residual mystery that compels another attempt and another. His motives will always be ambiguous, his character never entirely “of a piece.”
When you struggle to create completely consistent characters, you risk being enslaved by a deterministic, reductionist psychology, and you’re likely to produce flat characters who neither convince nor trouble a reader. Because it’s so hard to tell the difference between raising too many questions and raising the right questions about character, the workshop can foster a consensual notion of plausibility that demands an answer for every question. As a consequence, you may settle for a character who “makes sense” -- accommodates the prejudices of your peer group -- rather than risk creating a character whose nature simply seems inconsistent and muddied. Sometimes only a hair’s breadth separates a workshop debate mired in confusion about a character’s nature and motives and one in which even opposing arguments are grounded in the same precise evidence and a shared recognition of the stakes, with the latter being proof of success, not grounds for revision.
Catherine Brady is the author of three short story collections. The Mechanics of Falling was the recipient of the 2010 Northern California Book Award in Fiction. Curled in the Bed of Love was the winner of the 2002 Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction...