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The mystery of character

I’ve been thinking about characterization today, and how often our protagonist just does not engage emotionally–no matter how hard we try!

Writing classes go on at length about characterization, and much of it is helpful, but doesn’t sink  the put. For example, we’re told to create a hero the reader can root for; to make clear the stakes for the hero; to make him/her fiercely desire or fear the thing at stake. The list of advice goes on endlessly. I was recently coached to lay bare my hero’s emotions. Let it all hang out. Don’t hold back.

But today I’m feeling stubborn. I’m gonna hold back, so there. I’m going to hang out this proposition:

Suppose the missing ingredient to make characters “work” is not how much we show or tell, but what is withheld?

Explaining away

I recently finished reading the acclaimed literary book, Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch. It’s a 19th century sailing adventure, but saying that doesn’t do justice to this fabulous story of survival and the wonder of life.

Much has been written about the major character (MC) young Jaffy. But I think the real reason

people loved him was that it was his voice telling a fabulous tale. It was an eloquent voice–the author’s, we realize–but still integrated with young Jaffy. But the MC didn’t distinguish himself as a character. I loved him generically. And let me be clear, the story still worked incredibly well. But not because of who Jaffy was. I would say the reason the story sank the put was because what happened was so interesting and because of the writing style and profound thematic insights.

One of the primary characters rang especially true for me, though. And that was Jaffy’s best friend, Tim. This puzzled me. We don’t learn much about Tim. No backstory. We see his family, and Jaffy is in love with Tim’s sister who has some appearances. But Tim can be hurtful and at times manipulative. These little acts of spite are never explained away.

In our rush to complete the picture of our MC, we may be telling and showing too much. I make no distinction between implied psychology of showing and direct telling in the narrative. I’m saying that characters with everything hanging out many times don’t seem realistic to us. I believe this is because as human beings (readers, if you will) we suspect we don’t really know people very well. Nor do we know ourselves with deep insight.

You may be different. You may be sure of your friends, your adored neighbors and yourself. Then again, you may acknowledge that we never see truly deeply into people. The action, the comment, the tendency that doesn’t fit is swept aside with pop psychology answers, or simply ignored by us in the rush to cognitive consistency.

This is why, despite wounding back stories and burning desires hooked by story problems, we are still failing to get the person on the page. We are explaining it all away. Giving the power of character up by presenting a too-tidy package.

Are you as tired as I am of the generic protagonist who is very much like you or me? She has a big fault, of course, but it is justified by back story. We think this makes the character empathetic. I guess it does to some extent. But what good is generic admiration if we don’t believe in her?


Therefore, let us present a few mysteries about our MC. Maybe, as with Tim, it is just a frequent tendency to exhibit small cruelties. We may conclude these are due to jealousy, though Jaffy and Tim become fast friends to the death. (The way Carol Birch does this is very early in the story and brilliantly restrained. Tim is sent to fetch the very young Jaffy to bring him to the big boss who will offer Jaffy a job. To secure Jaffy’s interest, the boss instructs Tim to buy Jaffy a big, goopy, sweet. Tim impassively watches Jaffy consume this rare treat.)

So, let us create discordance, the squeaky wheel, the part that doesn’t fit. (Of course it must fit, cosmically, but we never, never discuss it or show it unless it is as subtle as one boy getting ice cream and the other studiously not reacting.)

Aspiring writers might wish to take a light hand with this at first. It would be bold of us to try to create a protagonist like the Hugh Laurie character in TV’s House. I haven’t followed the series for some time, but at first House’s self-destructive behavior just was. We were left to imagine why, and House became an iconic, deeply believable character.

With these few examples, I’m seeing a lesson, but one still dimly perceived: That in presenting  character, we may do well to spice the earnest showing and telling with flashes of mystery. The mystery that is your spouse, your son, everyone’s favorite high school teacher, etc. The mystery that is yourself.

I am still trying to articulate this insight, and I may deny ever having written this blog, so right now all I’m suggesting is that you let your subconscious mind consider the mystery of character. Is there a way to use this in your MC? Or in another character who is flatter than you wish they were?

I hope I don’t get kicked out of writing teacher’s school for this one.


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