Sunday, January 27, 2008

In Living Colour

This extract from James Woods’ forthcoming book, grandly titled How Fiction Works, probably isn’t especially useful to budding writers who puzzle over how to make their characters seem, if not real, then at least vivid. But he’s especially good on why Dickens’s characters seem real even though they shouldn’t, provides some useful taxonomy, and vents the following pithy denunciation which chimes very loudly with some concerns of my own:

Again and again, in book clubs up and down the country, novels are denounced because some feeble reader ‘couldn’t find any characters to identify with’, or didn’t think any of the characters grow.’

Now I think book clubs - and anything else that encourages people to not only read books they might not otherwise read but also discuss them - are the most marvellous things. But there’s a definite danger, when not thinking deeply enough about your engagement with a novel, of falling into the procrustean mode of Hollywood script reports, and Woods nails it.

As far as I’m concerned, physical description is the least useful way of realising character (usefully, I can discard every novel that begins with the hero looking into a mirror and meditating on her appearance, saving much time for more engaging stuff). What characters say and what they do and how they react to other people are far more useful than physical appearance, and so are their qualities -- their virtues and vices and all the rest. If it’s shorthand you need to ‘get in’ a character, then forget hair and eye colour. Are they forthright or reticent? Optimistic or glum? Thoughtful or careless? And if you want to create two memorable characters in one stroke, then play two opposites against each other in a double act: Holmes v. Watson; Don Quixote v. Sancho Panza; Morecombe v. Wise. It isn’t rocket science; it’s alchemy.
Meanwhile, I have to dive back into the final polish of The Quiet War, not to mention the first draft of Outer Dark...


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mr. McAuley:

I was pleased to read your comments about the negative value of specific physical descriptions of characters in novels.

My writing style is to give very little, and often no, description of my characters. I always resent authors pushing a picture into my head rather than allowing me to create my own. So that is what I do for my readers, allow them to form their own images of the men and women they encounter.

You can read excerpts of my three novels at

Ed Krauss

January 29, 2008 1:21 am  

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