Characters are People

by F.

I got a book from the library called Dynamic Characters, by Nancy Kress. This book has been recommended by various folks and the author has published quite a few books. She won some sci-fi award or something, too.

The book sat on my coffee table. And sat. And sat. I skimmed it a few times but it just seemed… lame. I felt dirty reading it. Finally, I picked it up and read it. Took a while. It has all kinds of checklists and forms to fill out, with suggestions on how you can know your characters and their personalities. And of course all that work made me long for a shortcut because, well, I’m lazy.

I thought, why go to all this work when it has been done for you? E.M. Forster, for once, has a useful tip apropos of this: use real people, then tweak a few characteristics to avoid liable and slander laws. Why build a fake person when there are ready-made “characters” close at hand? Like your family. Or friends. Or a pet. Take the best book by your favorite author. I would speculate that much of the time, that book is either a roman-a-clef or based closely on the author’s life (e.g., In a Budding Grove). True stuff just… rings true. As alcoholic and anti-Semite Mel Gibson said, “I can spot a phony a mile away.” We all can.

Now, I’ve wandered a little bid off-track and would like to get back to my tirade about Dynamic Characters, which I will now do by asking you which is more likely: (a) that you can create a fully realistic character using checklists and forms from a book by a woman who published Crossfire and other risible science fiction novels, or (b) that you can base a character on a real person and then tweak a few things (as Andre Dubus III did for The House of Sand and Fog—watch the author interview on the DVD of the adaptation of you don’t believe me)?

I mean, can you think of a genre with less dynamic characters than science fiction? Science fiction is for people who have trouble interacting with the mailman and would rather fantasize about sex with wookies than actually go on a date. A power tool has more personality than the typical science fiction protagonist.

Disappointed with Dynamic Characters, I went on to Creating Unforgettable Characters by Linda Seger and felt no less illuminated. Seger, rich and successful though she be, seems like a flake—either frosted or bran, I can’t decide which. And as I was closing the last page of her book, I couldn’t suppress that nagging suspicion again: the way we think about fictional characters is exactly how we think about real people. That’s my laziness gene expressing itself, I suppose. But it’s true.

If you read many psychology papers, you see that many times the experimenters give the subjects a story or a written scenario and ask for their reaction. In other words, they assume that our imagination for “characters” uses the same psychological tools that we use everyday when we go to the 7-11 and buy Pop-Tarts and a 40 from the guy behind the register. On top of that—Do I need to add any more?—there is the Nature article which seems to give pretty good evidence that we think of characters like we think of people: many of the same brain modules are engaged in both cases.

If so, why the hell would a writer read a book on character psychology, particularly one that uses the Enneagram, which is about as accurate as the Ouija board? Character psychology is our psychology (wookies, ewoks, and Kzin exempted, of course). Why would it be any different? It wouldn’t. Which leads to another moral: perhaps the best “tools” or “checklists” to use to learn about a character would be a commonly accepted personality model such as the “5 factors,” rather than some pseudo-science such as the Enneagram or Freud.

This is not to say there are not dramaturgical techniques the writer must master. There are. But that is different that saying that characters are some how different than real people, or that we think about them differently, or that we should model them with any special tools created by some hack. A good character seems real. That’s the wonderful illusion created by the storyteller.