Getting to Know You

When I write fiction, I have no idea where the story will end. Something sparks my imagination ⏤ an overheard conversation or an image glimpsed from a train window. Maybe I can sense already the character I want to portray. I might have a general direction of where that character will go. Or not.

By the time I’m ready to edit my fiction, most of the moving parts will have revealed themselves. I have a setting, some plot points, and a cast of thousands. It’s time to decide whether I want my story to be plot-driven or character-driven.

A plot-driven novel compels the reader to turn the page because she needs to know what happens next. A character makes a decision that causes a cascade of effects. Consequences follow in rapid order. The question in the reader’s mind is: did the character make the right choice?

The character-driven novel centers on why a character makes certain decisions. What fear or desire is driving their action (or inaction)? Their internal struggle may be more important than any obstacle that the outside world throws at them.

I want my novel-in-progress Peace Court to raise both questions in my reader’s mind. The world is changing rapidly in 1950s Shanghai. Choices must be made and some of them could be deadly. Yet I am intrinsically more interested in what makes people tick. So I also want my novel to be character-driven. That is to say, each character needs to be complex, rich in contradictions, and utterly human. Now, how do I do that?

What difference does character make?

Before I undertake the massive task of overhauling an 85,000 word manuscript to improve each character, I should first ask myself: what’s in it for me? Or, put another way, if I focus on making my plot the most riveting, rip-roaring ride ever, can I ignore the character defects?

I’m afraid the answer is no. A reader will notice if you place her in a room full of cardboard cutouts. She’ll close the book if it turns out your cutouts are nothing more than cliches. A few years ago, there was much yuck-yucking about why some male authors are so spectacularly bad at writing female characters.

Sometimes you come across a passage where you wonder if the writer has ever met a woman at all, or is merely using the female character he is writing as a masturbatory fantasy.

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett, All cleavage and clunkiness – why can’t male authors write women? in The Guardian, 6 Apr 2018

Writing the Other is a challenge that all writers face, unless they’re willing to remain inside the confines of their own cultural ghetto. To write outside the narrow margins of your own lived experience is an exercise of imagination and an act of humility. To do anything less is just plain bad writing.

NK Jemisin
N.K. Jemisin. By Laura Hanifin

Fifty years ago in science fiction, if you got the math or physics wrong, your name was mud. Nobody gave a damn about race or gender or any of these other identities. Everyone was a white guy, and if you wrote a woman, she was a white guy with tits.

N. K. Jemisin as quoted by Lila Shapiro, “Who Gave You the Right to Tell That Story?” in Vulture, 30 Oct 2019

Stalkers and sketchers

Listen to this gorgeous bit of characterization.

Cleverness has a special piquancy when it blooms out of the fraying sleeve of failure.

Marilynne Robinson, “Jack and Della” in The New Yorker, 20 July 2020
Marilynne Robinson
Marilynne Robinson.
Image source: Wikimedia

Robinson is describing Jack Boughton, once the apple of his father’s eye and now an ex-convict. He’s falling in love with Della, a Black schoolteacher, at a time and a place when their relationship is illegal. How could Robinson know what a 1950s drifter in Missouri thinks?

It helps that Robinson is returning to the familiar territory of Gilead, where her knowledge is oceanic. “Jack and Della” is an excerpt of her forthcoming novel Jack. She wrote this fourth novel simply because his voice was in my head.

Caoilinn Hughes also listens for voices. Her second novel, The Wild Laughter, is set in Northern Ireland, though written a decade after she left the auld sod for New Zealand. To capture her main character’s voice, she had to lean in.

For me, writing is an act of listening and following. Occasionally, stalking. Occasionally following with your hands over your ears, for fear of what you’ll hear.

Caoilinn Hughes, “Notes on Craft” in Granta, 19 June 2020

David Mitchell has his characters introduce themselves to him. Each one must write him a Dear David letter before Mitchell will start work on the novel itself. Online, an author can choose from tons of character templates, samples and how-to guides. I use the Scrivener template, tweaked to accommodate the fact that I’m writing a set of interlocking novels. As my thinking evolves, my character sketches expand into mini-sagas. One of them ⏤ for Jin the cook ⏤ became a short story.

The Politics of Peace Court

The purpose of all this stalking and sketching is to uncover a character’s back story. Which life events brought Jin and her daughter Li to a housing complex called Peace Court? What challenges and issues did they bring along? If I understand Jin and Li, if I listen with attention to their voices, they will tell me their stories. As Hughes would say, I follow their movements rather than charting a course for them.

But sometimes an author is too close to her manuscript. It takes someone like my perspicacious friend Tori to see something in Li’s character development that I could not. Tori said, Li is becoming politically aware.

Eureka! Suddenly, I could see Li’s character arc undulate before my eyes. In fact, I could see how the fates of all my characters depend on their level of political savvy. In one day, I was able to re-conceptualize all of their character arcs. It took me another to re-jigger my plot line.

This is not to say that all characters must have a political arc. In fact, some of my characters remain steadfastly apolitical. But they must pay a price to do so. Shanghai 1950s is when the Chinese Communist Party first asserts its control. It chooses to crush all forms of deviance, whether that’s pro-Western thinking or wearing lipstick. No aberration is too small to overlook. The most minor violation is punished with maximum force. Peace Court is about what happens when the State brings its power to bear on a group of individuals.

Will the addition of a political arc render my characters richer and more complex? Will my readers invest deeply in their fates? I sure hope so.