I have just finished writing and scheduling on Medium an extended essay on characterisation (and a common if flawed overreliance on character sheets), due out next Friday and to be announced through my Twitter account. But in the course of writing this I had a tangential thought about characters that cabe be more appropriately expanded here and now.
The largest portion of my other essay focuses on how characterisation emerges organically through the interactions between different characters and the world. When I think about those characters from my reading with whom I have formed the strongest connection, this is always the case. There are no exceptions. Static characters do nothing for me as a reader—and, at the risk of projecting my own experiences, I think this is not specific to me.
For example, what especially, and most immediately, occurs to me is the character of the governess from Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, to which my thoughts often return after I read it about two years ago. But also the central characters of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, Ágota Kristóf’s The Notebook and Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time—three novels that have helped define my engagement with fiction.
It has occurred to me just how much good characterisation depends, not on having a specific, abstracted character, but in getting the right interactions between characters. This point might seem trite, but it is noticeably a problem with so much fiction I do not like, and so I think it is a point worth making. Indeed, when I remember stories that have failed to connect—We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver or J: A Novel by Howard Jacobson—this particular deficit has been a more substantive issue than anything related to the content or style.
There are books by reactionaries—Yukio Mishima’s The Sea of Fertility tetralogy—and books with subpar prose—Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo—that I have nonetheless, however critically, appreciated. But even in these there are characters who, in interacting with one another, shape one another. In contrast, Shriver and Jacobson’s characters feel stale, static, boring, dead. And it is not because they are flawed in conception (there is nothing inherently wrong with their characters), but because in their interactions they have no encounters with others that reforge and refashions them—for worst or better. Things happen, their circumstances change, perhaps at the very end there is some forced sense that they will have to change too, but they remain, somehow and disappointingly, not truly different, just circumstantially so.
Contrast that with James’s governess. She has within her the seed of much of what happens, but it is only through her encounters with a specific set of people, mediated in a specific and contingent way, that she evolves through the story—and this evolution is itself the very basis of the story, its strange subjective qualities, its haunting ambiguities. It is my view that this is paramount to most good narrative writing (allowing for the possibility of some experimental exceptions). We are social creatures operating in an always socially charged world. When we write without that in mind, neither our stories nor the people who operate in them can possibly connect, because they have no relationship to their worlds, their fellows, and therefore to their readers.