Home      About Dan      News      Books      Forum      Art      Writing Well

<back to index
January 2011

Writing Well

Installment Thirteen:

Finding Your Characters

Almost every book about writing (at least those produced by actual writers) talks early and earnestly about the art of "creating characters" -- a concept I prefer to think of as "finding your characters" --  but, under either heading, I've put off the discussion until now. The primary reason for my hesitancy is that I honestly don't believe that anyone can teach anyone else how to find (or create) living, breathing, memorable characters for his or her fiction. It's more than an art; it's alchemy.

One of the tests of my hypothesis is the sad fact that many of the professional writers telling others how to create characters have never offered us a truly memorable character in their own stories and novels. I don't know whether I belong in that group or not, but I do know that while I hope my observations below aren't tentative, they will be asterisked with the depends-on-alchemy clause mentioned above.

1)Are Memorable Characters Necessary for a Good Novel?

I'll answer that with a decisive "Yes and no."

Our critic friend James Wood, in his How Fiction Works (that I've recommended as required reading for beginning writers serious about their c) admits that there are many wonderful writers who've created brilliantly written, long-lasting works, from which no single character emerges as especially memorable in detail, much less as immortal in the sense the greatest literary characters are.

Does that mean -- for those of us still laboring to improve our work -- that we don't have to worry about creating solid, three-dimensional, provocative, interesting, and enduring characters? Not at all. It simply means that those characters that seem as if they might live forever -- David Copperfield, Huckleberry Finn, Homer's Achilles and Odysseus, Henry James's Isabel Archer, Holden Caulfield, Atticus Finch, Hamlet, Falstaff, Cleopatra, Iago (and any of a dozen more men and women from the works of Shakespeare), Don Quixote, Jay Gatsby, Anna Karenina, Jane Eyre, etc. -- belong to a small and exclusive literary club. Even doing our best over decades of publication, we may never create a single character who comes close to deserving membership in such a pantheon.

But that doesn't mean that our characters can't and shouldn't be the absolute best and most believable we can make them, useful not only to their pedestrian purpose of moving the tale along but memorable and valuable in their own right. And some of those novelists who produced beautiful work for decades but who were considered unable to create an immortal character -- say Vladimir Nabokov whose delicate and beautiful stories and novels were not primarily oriented toward specific characterization -- often suddenly surprise us with a Lolita and a Humbert Humbert. (As an author, be assured that your character has passed the reality test when his or her name moves into the culture to describe an entire category of person -- whether that name is Yossarian, Mr. Micawber, Emma Bovary, or Lolita.)

But how to find or create these characters?

2) Finding your character

If you've taken anything away from these essays of mine on Writing Well, I hope it is a serious consideration of my insistence that all writers are readers and that it is through our close reading -- and especially through our intense and continued analysis of that close reading to a degree that non-writer readers rarely have to do -- that we teach ourselves how to write well.

In dealing with many of our writing challenges, we have the choice of using deductive reasoning  ("begins with the general and ends with the specific") or inductive reasoning ("begins with the specific and ends with the general") -- or sometimes both -- but in trying to understand what might bring your character truly alive, I would suggestive that we follow the inductive path.

That is, look at the list of specific "immortal characters" that I cited above. It's obviously an arbitrary list and you might disagree with some of the choices for many reasons. But create your own list of characters whom you've found absolutely persuasive (in terms of being remembered as real human beings in your memory), emotionally moving, and filled with the complexity of the real people you know. What common elements do you find in those most powerful of characters?

James Wood has the unusual but liberating insight --

"I think that novels tend to fail not when the characters are not vivid or deep enough, but when the novel in question has failed to teach us how to adapt to its conventions, has failed to manage a specific hunger for its own characters, its own reality level."

As a working professional writer who's wrestled for many years with the central question of a character's importance in the larger context of the story or novel, I find this statement profound.

In a real sense, this turns the traditional view of characters and how writers should "create them" on its head. With this realization we see that characters don't come into existence to serve the purpose of the novel; rather, the entire novel exists to create and then serve the reader's hunger and interest in one or more of its characters.

In the spirit of inductive analysis, let's take one character from one author -- an author not usually thought in terms of creating especially memorable characters -- and study the steps by which he created what may be an immortal human character.

1Henry James is an author whom James Wood puts in the second-tier of character-creators . . . that is, authors who aren't naturally rich in the "negative capability" necessary to create such living characters. Wood puts this into context ---

"I think there is a basic distinction to be made between novelists like Tolstoy or Trollope or Balzac or Dickens, or dramatists like Shakespeare, who are rich in 'negative capability,' who seem, unselfconsciously to create galleries of various people who are nothing like them, and those writers either less interested in, or perhaps less naturally gifted at this faculty, who nevertheless have a great deal of interest in the self -- James, Flaubert, Lawrence, Woolf perhaps, Muslil, Bellow, Houellebecq, Philip Roth."

Thus Gustave Flaubert created one of the most memorable women characters in the history of literature but could say afterwards -- "Madame Bovary, c'est moi!" ("Madame Bovary is me.") Actually, Flaubert said --""Madame Bovary, c'est moi, d'apres moi!" -- ("Madame Bovary is myself -- drawn from life!") This even though Flaubert also admitted, even while he was writing the masterpiece, that Emma Bovary bored him almost to death and wasn't a person he'd want to spend any time with.

But we're interested in ourselves.

Every writer puts himself or herself into their fiction. For many, especially in genre fiction, that "himself" or "herself" is pure heroic fantasy, as divorced from reality as a comic book character. For the serious novelist, that investment in self in one or more characters -- especially in a novel -- is a constant source of fuel and inspiration. It's no wonder then that their different central and viewpoint characters tend to be about the same age as the author. Thus the somewhat disconcerting sense for the reader when an author such as John Updike or Philip Roth -- whose interests were in the sexual side of things -- has a male character in his 70's as libidinous and seduction-hungry as his characters of decades before (say Updike's young Rabbit Angstrom or Roth's young Zuckerman or the constantly masturbating Alexander Portnoy from Portnoy's Complaint or Roth's on-the-make young Rutger's graduate Neil Klugman from the novella Goodbye, Columbus).

4With the late John Updike, the adultery, backseat-seductions, and wife swapping escapades between young-marrieds that was fascinating to readers in his bestselling 1968 Couples took on a strangely creepy tone when the characters grew into their mid- to late-70's.

The writer I'm interested in for this discussion, however, is Henry James.

James did put himself into most of his characters -- even the 5-year-old little girl Maisie in What Maisie Knew -- but he also had another strong-willed "real person" that he used over and over as the starting point for his more memorable female characters.

Henry James had a young cousin, Minny (Mary) Temple who died from tuberculosis in 1870 at the age of 24. As a young man, Henry was fascinated with Minny -- how clever she was, how outspoken, how witty, how willing to defy the conventions for young women in that era, how brave in the face of her impending death -- and she was interesting enough also to attract the more romantic interest of Henry's older brother William and their friend Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr..

In his notebooks and letters, Henry James admitted -- rather shockingly (to me at least)  -- that his dear cousin Minny Temple became much more interesting and useful to him once she was dead. (In truth, Henry James applied this rather ghoulish approach to most of his friends and family. And I admit that many of us do.) When such distinctive people, all important to him, were safely dead, Henry James felt free to use them as a sort of sculptor's armature or maquette, to build complex characters around them.

Not once but time and time again.2

So we readers see Minny Temple -- aged, matured, grown more sophisticated, and brought to Europe -- again and again in James's best fiction. Early efforts include the naïve, outspoken, and doomed female-American eponymous character in Daisy Miller -- an almost simple-minded novel by Henry James's later standards (and thus, of course, one of his few bestsellers in both England and America). But the ultimate use of Minny was to be as Isabel Archer in James's early masterpiece The Portrait of a Lady.

James also put elements of himself into the wonderful and enigmatic Isabel Archer -- especially his author's x-ray-like perception and ability to closely observe people and places -- but he also parceled out many elements of himself into the male supporting characters, most visibly in Isabel's slowly dying male cousin Ralph Touchett, who has lived his whole life in England and who becomes Isabel Archer's secret champion.

When the real Henry James was a young man escaping home and parents and first free to explore Europe, not long before the his cousin Minny Temple became too ill to travel, Minnie's greatest wish (she wrote to Henry) was for him to escort her to Rome. James was already in Rome on his parents' money and it would have been easy to host Minny for a month or more there, but he avoided the request because she would have been a burden for him. He was enjoying his freedom too much. Some (including Henry's friend and Minny's admirer Oliver Wendell Holmes) later said that Minny "turned her face to the wall" and died after losing that last chance to see Italy with Henry. But in The Portrait of a Lady, James -- idealizing and romanticizing himself as the dying Ralph Touchett (thus transferring Minny's tuberculosis to himself) -- had his Henry James/Ralph Touchett character aid, support, and attempt to rescue the impossibly older and more sophisticated Minny-Temple-as-Isabel-Archer.

Art, it seems, makes up for a lot of sins of life. Or tries to. Or at least allows us a template for rationalizations of our weaknesses -- and even the actual evil we've done -- and gives us the perfect opportunity to transmute those weakenesses, failings, and evils into something praiseworthy.

The Portrait of a Lady was little help to Minny Temple, however, who, by the time it was published, was long mouldering in the grave without ever having seen the Europe and Italy she so very much wanted to visit with her cousin Henry.

More to the point, we have to realize that our readers' interest in our characters -- if we can generate such interest at all -- will be in direct proportion to our own authorial interest in (and love of) the characters we "create." Henry James's love of his dead cousin Minny, however tardily expressed or drawn sharper and more immediate by her demise, illuminates Isabel Archer as if a bright traveling halogen spot were trained on her, making her literally stand out from the constant dark interiors, backgrounds, and moods of the novel.

James Wood again (bold mine) --
"In the same way, it often seems that James's characters are not especially convincing, as independently vivid authorial creations. But what makes them vivid is the force of James's interest in them, his manner of pressing into their clay with his examining fingers; they are sites of human energy; they vibrate with James's anxious concern for them."

Whenever I read college-level attempts at fiction -- or amateur fiction from adults of all ages for that matter -- what I notice first and foremost in almost all attempts at stories or novels is the deadness of the characters. James Wood notes how university and graduate-course-level writers love to introduce their secondary characters, often their parents, via descriptions of static photographs. Characters described from photos (or as if they were) do not achieve the status of becoming sites of human energy -- as in the books we love written by true writers -- but are mere place-holders and hasty cartoons.

This amateur fiction fails with characters due to the same deadness that enervates so much of genre or so-called bestseller fiction. Both the amateur writer and the hasty-careless genre- or "bestseller" writer is putting cartoon or cardboard characters through their paces -- subordinating them totally to the plot, allowing character nuance and even his or her own love of the characters to be lost under the overwhelming roar of the driving turbine of the story to be told. The result is depressingly familiar; compared to the interaction of interesting and interested-in characters from the best of fiction we've read, these once-described and then put-into-the-paces amateur characters are as dead and clumsy as clumsily carved marionettes.

However enjoyable the rollercoaster plot has been when we finish such a bestseller ride, unbelt outselves, and step out of the vehicle, the events along the way occurred to non-people whom -- we discover -- we never really cared about one way or the other.

"Action is character," said F. Scott Fitzgerald, but the quotation -- so helpful in training young screenwriters -- is often misunderstood by would-be novelists. Thinking is action. A character making up his or her mind in an ethical situation, even if no decisive action is yet taken, is action. Emotions -- when rising convincingly out of the nimbus-cloud of attributes, opinions, prejudices, experiences, memories, and human relationships from which any real person draws emotions -- are pure action.

3) Huckleberry Finn:

We might ponder a minute on why the character of Huck Finn -- a semi-literate adolescent from a backwater Missouri town in pre-Civil War America -- may be one of the strongests characters ever to emerge from American literature.

Is it his appearance? We can all summon up a stock image of Huckleberry. (Hannibal, Missouri has such Tom'n'Huck cartoons on root beer stands, motels, and chicken-'licken restaurants.)  But I should have argued before this how relatively unimportant physical description -- the first thing that books on how-to-write tell us to go for when creating a fictional character -- really is. A few sentence strokes can define the physical aspects of a character which might require a long and complex novel to unfold for the reader.

I would suggest (and you may find the suggestion obvious) that the power of Huckleberry Finn as a character lies in -- a) the uniqueness of his vernacular narrative voice  b) the incredibly human ethical decisions he's forced to make throughout the book, culminating in him deciding "to go to hell" rather then turn in Jim and c) Huck's visual, sensual, moral, and lyrical powers of observation.6

Finally -- and connected to everything we said about Henry James's best characters -- Mark Twain deeply loved his character of Huckleberry Finn.

It's interesting to note that Mark Twain -- Samuel Clemens -- set aside his work on Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (no The in the title for purposes of separating it from the boy's book, Tom Sawyer) for several years, and even when he picked up the manuscript again and began working constantly, it took Twain a while to find the right voice for Huck. (To see early versions of the manuscript with the formal narrative tone Twain had been using for years -- and had used in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer -- in lieu of Huck's final and definitive narrative voice is a shock. In some ways it disconcerts us in the same way that seeing earlier ds of the most memorable lines of Jefferson's Declaration of Independence bother us. Huckleberry Finn's narrative voice, like the precise wording of our nation's prime document, seems to have been fixed long before any mere human picked up a pen to write them down.)

Twain's initial opening in Huckleberry's first-person voice was -- "You will not know about me . . ."

No, that wasn't right.

Then Twain wrote --"You do not know about me unless . . ."


Eventually the opening sentence became -- ""You don't know about me, without you have read a book by the name of 'The Adventures of Tom Sawyer'; but that ain't no matter."

And the Huckleberry Finn we know and love and respect was born. No physical description of the narrator yet. No long explanation of who Huck is and where he came from.

Just the inimitable voice.

When I taught descriptive writing to my 6th graders and other students, I always started with Huck's voice in a passage I memorized as a "dramatic reading contest" when I was nine years old. The rhythm and cadence of Huck's narrative is in my marrow.

7In Chapter 5, Huck has returned to his dark room at the Widow Douglas's after being out fooling around in the night with Tom Sawyer only to find his pap sitting in the dark. The novel now ceases to be a book for children and becomes not only serious fiction for adults but what Ernest Hemingway confidently pointed to as the beginning of real American literature:

"I had shut the door to. Then I turned around, and there he was. I used to be scared of him all the time, he tanned me so much. I reckoned I was scared now, too; but in a minute I see I was mistaken -- that is, after the first jolt, as you might say, when my breath sort of hitched, he being so unexpected; but right away after I see warn't scared of him worth bothering about.

"He was most fifty, and he looked it. His hair was long, and tangled and greasy, and hung down, and you could see his eyes shining through like he was behind vines. It was all black, no gray; so was his long, mixed up whiskers. There warn't no color in his face, where his face showed; it was white; not like another man's white, but a white to make a body sick, a white to make a body's flesh crawl -- a tree-toad white, a fish-belly white. As for his clothes -- just rags, that was all. He had one ankle resting on t'other knee; the boot on that foot was busted, and two of his toes stuck through, and he worked them now and then. His hat was laying on the floor -- and old black slouch with the top caved in, like a lid."

The students (3rd grade, 4th grade, 6th grade -- I've taught many levels) and I study that two-paragraph piece of description in Huck's voice for quite a while. We study the use of semi-colons and double-dashes that give it its near-perfect conversational tone. We study the deliberate use of repetition -- "it was white; not like another man's white, but a white to make a body sick . . ." etc -- that brings it very close to poetry or the repetition of words used by Shakespeare. We study the vernacular -- the "warn'ts" and "busteds" and "to make a body sick" and even "laying" instead of "lying" -- and then, as an exercise, we translate Huck's description into standard-usage English.

And we see how flat and lacking in energy and personality our translations are.

It's Huck's unique voice we listen to and love. Huck's voice, in which all of his moral equations are worked out in front of us, is Huckleberry Finn.

Then I'd invite the kids to help me find passages in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn that sing with the pure poetry of Huck's gifted abilities to perceive -- to hear, to smell, to see, to think about what he's sensing.3

Invariably, we'd find that the most beautiful passages dealt with describing the river when it was just Huck and Jim on the raft, before their little Eden was spoiled by people on shore. The kids loved, as I did, the time when Huck woke up at night and didn't know what time of the pre-dawn morning it was, but knew that it "smelt late."

And in Chapter 19 there are passages of pure sensual pleasure about the river -- before the Duke and Dauphin con men get onto the and spoil it all -- and the kids always found this passage. I never told them that this paragraph brought tears to my eyes the first time I read it when I was about eight and again when I re-read it in college:

"Sometimes we'd have that whole river all to ourselves for the longest time. Yonder was the banks and the islands, across the water and maybe a spark -- which was a candle in a cabin window; and sometimes on the water you could see a spark or two -- on a or a scow, you know; and maybe you could hear a fiddle or a song coming over from one of them cs. It's lovely to live on a . We had the sky up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss about whether they was made or only just happened. Jim he allowed they was made, but I allowed they happened; I judged it would have took too long to make so many. Jim said the moon could 'a' laid them; well, that looked kind of reasonable, so I didn't say nothing against it, because I've seen a frog lay most as many, so of course it could be done. We used to watch the stars that fell, too, and see them streak down. Jim allowed they'd got spoiled and was hove out of the nest.

"Once or twice of a night we would see a steamboat slipping along in the dark, and now and then she would belch a whole world of sparks up out of her chimbleys, and they would rain down in the river and look awful pretty; then she would turn a corner and her lights would wink out and her powwow shut off and leave the river still again; and by and by her waves would get to us, a long time after she was gone, and joggle the a bit, and after that you wouldn't hear nothing for you couldn't tell how long, except maybe frogs or something."

I'm wandering from discussing finding our characters, but I'm also remembering how, after reading Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to my elementary classes -- explaining carefully how the word "nigger" was used everywhere in Twain's childhood days, Huckleberry's day, and thus belonging in the novel, but how it had become a total obscenity in our day -- and after reading it, I would use the novel all year for examples of excellence in character-building, in descriptive writing, in dialogue -- even as an example of failure in plotting when Twain couldn't figure out how to end the book and dragged in Tom Sawyer near the end, dropping the near-masterpiece back into a mere children's book category.

I couldn't use Adventures of Huckleberry Finn today in any public-school elementary classroom. We've grown too sensitive. We're too progressive. We've come full circle to the Puritan-Victorian outrage in 1885 when Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was reviewed as "coarse" and "vulgar". Wikipedia gives us one such contemporary 1880's reception as printed in the Boston Transcript--

"The Concord (Mass.) Public Library committee has decided to exclude Mark Twain's latest book from the library. One member of the committee says that, while he does not wish to call it immoral, he thinks it contains but little humor, and that of a very coarse type. He regards it as the veriest trash. The library and the other members of the committee entertain similar views, characterizing it as rough, coarse, and inelegant, dealing with a series of experiences not elevating, the whole book being more suited to the slums than to intelligent, respectable people."

Mark Twain wrote to his editor -- "Apparently, the Concord library has condemned Huck as 'trash and only suitable for the slums.' This will sell us another five thousand copies for sure!"

Amusing, but -- as I say -- I couldn't use Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as a teaching tool for writing today as I did all through the 1970's and '80's. In this New Victorian Age of Political Correctness, it simply wouldn't be possible because of the use of the word "nigger". According to the American Library Association, Huckleberry Finn was the fifth most frequently challenged book in the United States during the 1990s.  I'm sure it must count as # 1 or #2 now.

I don't even want to check.

4) Negative Capability

In a minute I'm going to write about a curriculum for creating characters that I used with sixth graders, gifted elementary students, and others, but I don't want you adult writers to think that I'm talking down to you. Some professional writers I know actually do create something very close to this "character dossier" that I used in my elementary writing curriculum, but that's not the reason I share it here.

Rather, I was always surprised -- in the years I was both a teacher and published author and in the many years since -- what revelations there were for any writer in the discoveries and surprises that my regular sixth-graders experienced in their month of creating their "character dossiers." The important common element -- common to the kids in that class and with my own professional work as a novelist (and that of other writers I knew) -- was in the often difficult clash and struggle with Negative Capability.

We've discussed negative capability many times here in its original context, as John Keats wrote to his brother  -- "I had not a dispute but a disquisition, with Dilke on various subjects; several things dove-tailed in my mind, and at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously - I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason - Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half-knowledge. This pursued through volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration."

As writers, we recognize that Keats is talking about Shakespeare's absolutely unequaled ability to get fully -- uncannilly -- into the hearts, minds, motivations, and secrets of his characters without ever making moral judgments. His women -- from Cleopatra, Rosalind, Juliet, Beatrice, and Lady Macbeth down to Mistress Quickly -- are among the most realistic and three-dimensional portrayals of females in all of literature, much less drama. His villains -- Iago, Shylock, Richard III, Lady Macbeth, Don John the Bastard, Lear's daughters Goneril and Regan and nemesis Edmund, Measure for Measure's Angelo -- across 400 years, make our modern baddies like Darth Vader look like Boy Scouts. Shakespeare's fools -- either his foolish fools such as the pathetically dimwit Malvolio or his deeply wise fools such as Lear's Fool -- constituted a category of compelling characters unto themselves.

And as for Shakespeare's most complex characters, all including elements of hero, villain, and wise-fool -- such constructs as Hamlet, Cleopatra, Rosalind, and Falstaff -- they are simply beyond the abilities of any other writers to equal.

Where does the ability for negative capability come from and how can we mine our own more meager talents for it?

Perhaps the first step toward mastering negative capability is noticing when we're not using it. When I read young amateurs' attempts at a story -- ranging from sixth-graders (gifted or otherwise) to specially chosen (for their writing skills) college juniors and seniors -- the first thing that leaps out is that 98.92% of the fiction has the young writer using himself or herself as the total template for the main character. More often than not, the story is told from the first person p-o-v and the young writer's favorite pronoun is "I".

This makes sense, since from elementary school through MFA writing programs, the aspiring writer is constantly urged to "write about what you know." When it comes to human beings and their thoughts, these beginning writers know themselves . . . sort of. So reading college short stories, the writing instructor encounters endless variations on the young character who so very much resembles the young writing student as that character faces parents who don't appreciate the young person's sensitivity and special gifts, leavened only by an equally infinite set of stories of the student-character being dumped by a girlfriend or boyfriend (or sometimes by both.)

It's not only amateurs who add a slight fictional sheen to their own personalities (or what they hopefully perceive as their own personalities) and offer these only lightly disguised-self "characters" up in book after book. I mentioned that Henry James invested bits of himself in most of his major characters, whether 5-year-old Maisy or ingenue Daisy or the beauty Isabelle Archer, but those "bits" never were central to the character. Nor, unlike many writers such as John Updike or Saul Bellow or Charles Dickens, were any of these self-inspired characters imbued with the full force of Henry James's astounding abilities of noticing details or sensing nuance.

The seemingly passive but mentally active viewpoint character of Lambert Strether in James's The Ambassadors -- a novel that is a beautiful example of James's "Late Style" -- is as much a reflection of the real Henry James as that author allowed. But even there, Strether reflected James only to a point.  The fictional elements and composite amalgam of other people from James's life in Lambert Strether far outweighed any attempt at self-portrait.

This reticence to project oneself into characters is far less apparent in genre fiction. When once asked what James Bond looked like, Ian Fleming immediately answered -- "Hoagy Carmichael."

Hoagy Carmichael!!!??? James Bond? Why on earth would Fleming compare the horse-faced old composer-piano player-occasional bit-player-actor to his suave, sophisticated, lady-killer super-spy James Bond?

These photos might help solve the mystery:


Countless current hardboiled detectives (Spenser, Harry Bosch, Mike Hammer, etc.) resembled their creators both physically and in their favorite types of booze, music, politics, and choice in women. Ernest Hemingway's primary male characters often uncannily resembled the author -- or at least an idealized version of the author -- at different stages of his life.

Not much negative capability there. Nor need for it. But in more sophisticated and ambitious novels, there is often a demand for prime characters to be deeply and basically different than the writer. And in those cases, Negative Capability is called for.

5) Exercises in Negative Capability:

I didn't tell the sixth-graders that we were beginning a character dossier when I told them, as homework, to go through some magazines and find a photo of someone to bring in. I specified that the person not be wearing a spacesuit or a wizard's costume or knight's armor  -- nothing from movies -- and that it just be a "normal man or woman over the age of twenty-five." Since eleven-year-olds have some trouble estimating the ages of adults, to be safe on the "over 25" clause, many brought in photos of men and women with silver hair and of advanced age. This led to some fascinating repercussions later in the building of their character dossiers.

I was using my own writing curriculum, of course -- I'd always used it since seeing how pathetic various school district curricula for "creative writing" (also spelling, vocabulary building, etc.) were when I began teaching in 1970 -- and we rarely got around to creating characters before January or February. There was just too much else to do -- learning how to holistically assess their own (and others') writing samples, studying good opening sentences and paragraphs, learning what writing style was and analyzing (and emulating) the style of many writers from Edgar Allan Poe to Jean Shepherd to Richard Ford to Harlan Ellison to Ernest Hemingway, and so forth.

So when I told the kids that the photos of the adults they'd brought in were going to be for character dossiers, I allowed one class to be a Character Swap Meet where they could trade their image for somone else's if both sides agreed. They were going to know more about that person, I told them, than they knew about their parents or any other person on earth -- including themselves -- so I wanted them to be comfortable with their character. (The Swap Meets were, invariably, 40 minutes of near-frenzied negotiations.)

The sixth-graders were excited when I gave them a brand new manilla folder, sometimes in colors, to keep in their desks or tote trays. (Sixth-graders still have the capacity to get excited about small things.)

The first "character worksheet" -- building the characters was mostly homework and mostly done on the side as we continued our regular writing program and we discussed details of the dossiers only once or twice a week in the coming month -- looked rather like a job application. Age of the character? Birth date? Gender? Religion? (Oops . . . you can't have that question in any job application, I admitted to the kids, but you can have it on a character dossier sheet.) Current address? Place of birth? Type of current employment? Social security number?

Chaos. How many digits are there in a social-security number? And what is a social-security number? Sixth graders don't know such things. I dealt with such queries as all brilliant teachers would -- "Ask your parents."

One of the first decisions the student had to make parallels one of the first decisions any novelist has to make -- should I place this character (and thus this fiction) in a purely fictional city or in a real place? And if in a real place, do I choose one I know well or one that I'll have to do research on, up to and including finding city street maps of the place? (I taught before the Internet age, which was an important factor in upcoming research the kids would do for their character dossier.)

As most of our writing classes continued to focus on writing, the character dossier grew thicker and thicker. A simple question such as -- "List three of your character's favorite songs or pieces of music" led to long evening consultations with parents or grandparents (more than one 11-year-old was crushed to learn that his or her character, born in the 1940's, couldn't have Madonna as their favorite singer.)

Some of the questions, such as -- "List two of your character's former pets and tell how they died . . ." led to pages of writing. (Luckily, by now, the kids had read and studied the fragment "Abu" from Harlan Ellison's "Deathbird" in writing class and were chomping at the bit to write an essay about the death of pets. If the other kids didn't sob -- as they'd all  sobbed at "Abu" -- they'd often go back and rewrite their piece.)

Within a month, each kid's (except for the few inevitable slackers) character dossier was several inches thick. There were other photographs of the character's family members, each with his or her own mini-bio, and diagrams of neighborhoods, floorplans of the character's home, history timelines of major events in that character's life. (The older the character, the harder the work, of course.)

One thing that was being avoided here was the outcome of some national research I'd watched in the early 1980's. In that research project, they'd taken aside thousands of 7th- and 11th-grade students nationwide and asked them to do two side-by-side timelines -- one of world events they expected to occur over the next 35 years or so, the other of personal events they expected to occur to them in that same time period.

The results, from both 7th and 11th graders, were shockingly consistent:

World Event, 1990 -- a major nuclear war between Russia and the United States
Personal Event, 1990 -- I graduate from high school and go to a good college

World Event, 1995 -- a major plague wipes out 80% of the population
Personal Event, 1995 -- I get a good job and marry my high-school sweetheart

You get the picture. The "parallel timelines" of world events and the students' projected future lives weren't parallel at all. In the vast majority of instances, both the middle-schoolers and high-school juniors saw almost zero tie-in between what would be happening "in the world" (and to it) and in their own lives.

Weeks into my sixth-graders' character dossiers, the kids had come to understand that their "normal people's" lives had been deeply and inescapably intertwined with world and national events -- the Great Depression or World War II or Korea or Vietnam or the assassination of JFK or the wild and rocking '60's or the awful hair styles of the '80's. Almost none of their characters escaped being affected somehow. And the kids were amazed to see how deeply world events, having nothing to do with the wants or plans of the character, could, would, and had shaped that character's life despite all good intentions. (i.e. she marries exactly the high-school sweetheart she'd had in mind, but he's killed at Iwo Jima in the war before the couple could create a real life or have children.)

Finally, after six weeks or more of filling the now fattened character dossiers, it was the students who were begging me to allow them to put their characters into a piece of fiction. When I judged that everyone who was taking the assignment seriously -- and by this time there would be few if any holdouts -- actually did know more about their fictional character than about any living person, including themselves, I allowed a writing exercise in which they could insert their character. I specified that their laboriously constructed character didn't have to be the main character in the story -- the role could be as small as they wanted. A mere walk-on cameo if they preferred.

The results were always profound.

Boys who thought that all writing was in emulation of Stephen King and who wrote to drive up the bloody body count, almost always couldn't find it in their hearts to slaughter their character. It had taken too much damned work to create him!

And thus these eleven-year-olds resonated to the same near-parental sense of all real writers who've taken care to create their fictional characters. Perhaps the character does have to die eventually -- but the writer doesn't have to like it. And, like Charles Dickens with Little Nell, you can keep postponing the inevitable for as long as you can.

More to the point, every vignette or short story in which the character from the student's character dossier appeared had a three-dimensional zone surrounding that character like a bright halo of light. It's true that it made the other hastily created characters in the tale look and feel all the more flat and two-dimensional, but the kids now knew how to fix that -- some of the verisimilitude of their characters from the dossiers could and did rub off on other characters: hints, resonances, shared histories, mutual experiences, contrasts, places set in time.

Most to the point, by spring of their school year with me, most of the sixth-graders had learned -- intuitively, on their own, as a function of these character exercises combined with all the other writing instruction -- that the early near-total dependence on plotting and action in a story is actually less important (or at least less emotionally moving to them) than creating and sustaining the continuous vivid dream of a fictional character's life.

This is a transition that I haven't found made very successfully in college writing and MFA writing programs.

Once, when doing some language-arts consulting in a different state, I went over the character-dossier approach -- one element of the writing program among scores of such elements -- and a teacher in the audience attacked me almost aggressively. By having the students build adult characters, she cried, wasn't I stealing from the students the most important things available to them -- their childhood? Their own point of view of being a child?

No, I answered, I wasn't stealing that. If the students wanted to write from a kid's point of view in a writing sample or short story, there was never any penalty for doing so. But I pointed out to this teacher (and others who asked) exactly what I'd explained to my kids when I'd had them bring in a grown-up's picture rather than a kid's -- that childhood is one of the most wonderful things any writer can write about, but only when that writer is no longer a child.

As Henry James wrote about his friend Robert Louis Stevenson -- "He wrote about childhood the way a child would if a child could."

But children -- perhaps up close to that arbitrary age of 25 that I put on finding a picture of their characters -- really can't write about their own childhood. They have no context to bring to it as a Mark Twain or Robert Louis Stevenson did. As a teacher, I explained to the other teachers in my workshops (but not to the kids), I wasn't sure that trying to make kids self-conscious about their own childhoods (as opposed to sensitive to the lives of a fictional adult) might not be a sin. Or at least teacher malpractice. Kids need to live their lives fully, not reflect on them.

But by putting so much time and energy into creating a fictional adult so very separate from themseves, my sixth-grade students had experienced what James Wood said earlier about the characters of Henry James --" . . .what makes them vivid is the force of James's interest in them, his manner of pressing into their clay with his examining fingers; they are sites of human energy; they vibrate with James's anxious concern for them."

In other words, by creating their bulging character dossiers and then releasing that character ever so cautiously into their fictions, the students had deliberately -- and almost always enthusiastically -- tasted the discipline of Negative Capability. And, as they say of riding a bicycle, once you've mastered it, you never really forget how it's done.

6) Olfactory Observations

Amateur writers seem to believe that the best way to introduce a character is through a long physical description. James Wood explains in How Fiction Works that these descriptions are usually very static -- often literally a description of a snapshot of the person -- and such amateur physical descriptions produce the odd paradox that the longer and more detailed they are, the less we seem to know of the character.

In working with adult writers on the verge of publication, I like to remind them not only of how great writers such as Charles Dickens or Saul Bellow often summed up interesting characters in a single oddity (of appearance or behavior) or  even a single repeated statement ("I shall never leave Mr. Micawber!"), but moved into other senses besides sight.

One of the more interesting ways to deal with characters is through the sense of smell.

I sometimes mention a teacher whose job and classroom I once inherited when that teacher became an assistant principal. We'll call him Carl and if I were describing him as a character in a novel I might begin with his jowls or constant frowns or his attempt to be intimidating to his students -- Carl was a part-time cop and wore his uniform to school at least once a week -- but that would miss the most immediate common denominator of all our sense-memories of Carl.

It was the cheap cologne he doused himself with.

Carl's cologne arrived two minutes before he did and lingered for hours more. I'd watch teachers come in to use the phone in the secretary's office outside the principal's office and they'd lift the receiver, grimace at Carl's cologne still clinging there, and put it down without using the phone. Everyone became used to using a kleenex and disinfectant spray the secretary left on her desk before using that phone. Carl could be gone from the school for a week and his scent still lingered.

It's not fair to remember Carl primarily through his cheap-cologne scent, but one does. It's much the same phenomenon as young children remembering much older relatives (who died while the child was young) primarily through scent -- soap and a certain perfume that smelled of lavender for Grandma, tobacco and a sort of clean-leather smell for Grandpa.

In genre fiction, this use of smell description usually means that the good characters smell good and that the bad characters smell bad.

I've read the crime novelist James Lee Burke since his first novels and while enjoying certain aspects of the novels, especially the Dave Robicheaux crime novels set in Louisiana, I've recognized from the beginning when Burke's frequently flowery prose moves beyond the florid and turns absolutely purple. I've also noted his heavy reliance on smells.

In the earlier novels, the bad guys always reeked of testosterone. Since (even though I've been in locker rooms) I'm not sure what testosterone smells like, separated from sweat and all by itself, I was a little bemused by this common trait among big tough bad guys in Burke's fiction. In one of his bestsellers, there were twelve mentions of different bad guys reeking of testosterone. (In recent novels, I've noticed, the testosterone alone has been down-played a bit, although smells are absolutely necessary in Burkean fiction, even if just to separate the good guys from the bad guys.)

Burke loves to describe the good and bad scents of coastal Louisiana -- usually the scents being good or bad in tandem with good or bad moral situations occurring in his plots -- but it's the olfactory description of people that represent such genre shortcuts to character-building.

In Burke's The Glass Rainbow, his 2010 "Dave Robicheaux" bestseller, we run into the first such smell-description on page 4 where Burke introduces a black inmate -- "Elmore Latiolais was sweating heavily, his body wrapped in an odor that was like mildew and soapy water that had dried on his clothes."

Latiolais will turn out to be a slightly more sympathetic than evil character, a small-time crook who bemoans his sister's murder and who then promptly becomes a murder victim himself when a vicious and corrupt white prison guard (a "gunbull" in Burke's parlance) kills him at the bequest of the even-more-evil bad-guy masterminds. I was surprised that this evil gunbull, a certain Jimmy Darl Thigpin (did I mention before this that names are a wonderful way to telegraph the quality of a character even before the character arrives?), hadn't been described by his smell. But Burke does have the sneering Thigpen sum up the prisoner Elmore Latiolais by saying to Dave Robicheaux, "He could steal the stink off shit and not get the smell on his hands."

There's much talk of shit and the smell of shit -- dog shit in bad characters' front yards, descriptions of human shit, memories of smelling shit, much talk about shit -- in any James Lee Burke novel.

On page 6 of The Glass Rainbow we meet the first real center-stage villain (there are a score of unsavory characters in any Burke novel, ranging from the mildly disgusting to the international war criminal level of villainy and the reader's primary job is to pick out which of the seemingly endless parade of bad guys is THE bad guy), a black drug dealer named Herman Stanga. All of page 7 is comprised of long paragraphs describing Herman Stanga's disgusting physical appearance and even-more disgusting criminal background and personal habits. He lives in a mansion in a white neighborhood but, in the last sentence of page 7, we learn -- "Herman's Dobermans dug holes in the flower beds and downloaded piles of dog shit on every square inch of dirt they could squat on."

We now know Herman's a bad guy.

In case we missed that description of character via dog shit, Burke has Dave Robicheaux say to Herman on page 9 -- " 'Your home is a study of contradictions. Your yard is carpeted with dog shit, and your house is being eaten to the foundation by termites. But your pool area is snipped right out of Southern Living. I don't get it.' "

On page 13 we meet the first obvious psychopath of the novel, a bestselling white writer named Robert Weingart who is also an ex-con and a probable murderer. Burke usually uses physical descriptions of his many psychopaths -- almost always centered on their unblinking, emotionless, sometimes pupil-free eyes -- combined with intense observation of their preshadowing (and always unlikable) behavior. "His handshake was boneless, unthreatening, cool and dry to the touch. There was a white shine on his teeth. He picked up a peeled crawfish and put it in his mouth, his cheekbones working slowly, his gaze never leaving my face. He touched at his lips with a paper napkin, his expression as benign as the weather was temperate, a bit like a man thinking of a private joke."

The good people in Burke's novels, who often eat a lot, are described as having "strong white teeth." Weingart and the other rich baddies have "a white shine" on their teeth. Phonies, phonies.

On page 28, when villain Herman Stranga wants to insult Dave Robicheaux's obligatory sidekick -- a massive and frequently crazy-acting ex-PI named Clete Purcel -- Herman says to Clete -- "I can smell weed on your clothes and cooze on your skin." Since good guys don't smell bad in James Lee Burke novels, a minute later Clete beats Herman Stranga almost to death for the insult.

By page 97, deputy sheriff Dave Robicheaux has cause to pick Herman Stranga up and drive him back to New Iberia. We rate Herman through Robicheaux's first-person narration -- "I didn't like sitting next to him or talking to him or even acknowledging his presence. He smelled of hair cream and the decayed food in his teeth and the deodorant he used to overlay the sweat in his armpits."

It's interesting to note that even though Dave's loved ones and friends such as Clete Purcel eat in huge Falstaffian amounts -- gulping down half a dozen po'-boy sandwiches and washing them down with booze -- one never smells decayed food from their teeth.

Later, we meet a stock walk-on villain tough guy from Florida -- no real connection to the plot -- who tries to brace the unbraceable Clete sidekick: "The man from Florida stepped closer to Clete, into his shadow, his face turned up into Clete's. His right foot was pulled behind his left and set at a slight angle, the instinctive posture of someone who was trained in at least one of the martial arts. An odor like male musk or stale antiperspirant rose from his armpits."

Presuming the good guys in these tales also use antipersperant, perhaps it's the unsuccessful application of deodorant that separates the villains from the heroes in such fiction. And is "male musk" the same as the once-ubiquitous "smell of testosterone?"

No matter.

If I'm citing what I consider to be shallow use of olfactory observation in genre fiction, does that mean that the sense of smell doesn't work well in good writing?

Quite the contrary.

In serious fiction, in the hands of a serious writer, close observation of the power of the sense of smell can give us new perspectives on ourselves and the human condition. It can enlighten us some even as it unnerves or even embarrasses us.

In Saul Bellow's Mr. Sammler's Planet -- a novel I've confessed to loving -- the closest thing to a "hero" in the book (other than our viewpoint character, the elderly and elegant and half-blind former Polish intellectual Artur Sammler) is Mr. Sammler's rich, middle-aged, and dying nephew, Elya Gruner. Elya is a gruff doctor himself, hospitalized now and totally aware that death is very near indeed, and over the decades he has refused to accept Mr. Sammler's many attempts at thanks for Elya having saved Sammler's and his daughter's lives after the Holocaust.

We like the dying Elya for all the reasons the subtle Mr. Sammler does, and we want to like Elya's grown children as well. But liking them is harder.

Elya's son is named Wallace and the first description of him (as he and Mr. Sammler cross paths  in the hospital waiting room) goes on for a long page of dense and lovely prose, but it begins thusly:

"As usual, even in the midst of conversation, Wallace with round black eyes was dreaming away. Profundly dreaming. He also had a very white color. In his late twenties he was still a little brother with the curls, the lips of a small boy. A bit careless perhaps in his toilet habits, also like a small boy, he often transmitted to Sammler in warm weather (perhaps Sammler's nose was hypersensitive) a slightly unclean odor from the rear. The merest hint of fecal carelessness. This did not offend his great-uncle. It was simply observed, by a peculiarly delicate recording system. Actually, Sammler rather sympathized with the young man . . ."

"The merest hint of fecal carelessness." Jesus. It sounds like the beginning of some terrible modern TV commercial, if they could find a product to market that fights such hygienic carelessness. (I'm aware that it probably exists, but please don't tell me about it.)

But while this "slightly unclean odor . . . from the rear" doesn't put off or offend Mr. Sammler, it does the reader. We're wary of great-nephew Wallace. Not in the way we're shoved by the James Lee Burke to detest drug dealer Herman Stranga for the stink of decaying food caught in his teeth, but on a much more human level which we've all experienced in one way or the other. Young, dreamy Wallace is not going to be some leering villain, we understand at once, but still could end up hurting someone we care for in the novel . . . simply because he's too careless, too unaware of his own recklessness. (And, indeed, he does end up hurting someone in a careless way.)

Someone else hurting Elya in the novel is his grown and promiscuous (but still selfishly immature) daughter Angela, Mr. Sammler's great-niece. We meet her somewhat earlier in the novel and the off-putting descriptions here do not focus primarily on scent, do offer extreme-close-up intimations that prejudice strongly against Angela --

"Without restraint, in direct terms, Angela described events to her uncle. Coming into his room, taking off the coat, the head scarf, shaking free the hair with dyed streaks like raccoon fur, smelling of Arabian musk, an odor which clung afterward to the poor fabrics, seat cushions, to the coverlet, even to the curtains, as stubborn as walnut stain on one's fingers, she sat down in white textured stockings -- bas de poule as the French called them. Cheeks bursting with color, eyes dark sexual blue, a white vital heat in the flesh of the throat, she carried a great statement to males, the powerful message of gender."

And at the end of the long paragraph of description of Angela(which includes Bellovian connections to both Mae West and Senator Dirksen), the passage concludes with this --

"He was the old hermit. When she became hearty with him and laughed, she turned out to have a big mouth, a large tongue. Inside the elegant woman he saw a coarse one. The lips were red, the tongue was often pale. That tongue, a woman's tongue -- evidently it played an astonishing part in her free, luxurious life."

This final passage is offputting to all readers, but may be especially interesting to writers studying Saul Bellow because it signals a drawing-back in the author's sexual explicitness when it comes to the promiscuous and self-centered Angela. In the many earlier drafts of this passage, it wasn't just Angela's tongue that was "often pale." In the style of the late sixties in which this novel is set, Angela wore a white lipstick that, along with the paleness of her tongue, "reminded Sammler of semen." That was a rhetorical bridge too far for Bellow and in the final draft he cut the allusion to oral sex back to the red lips and large, white tongue -- "a woman's tongue" -- to transmit to us the same message of Angela's willingness to perform fellatio on her many partners without the explitic semen image.

John Updike was another modern master of using subtle sensory hints to help create (or at least leave an indelible impression of) his characters. In his breakthrough 1968 bestseller Couples, Updike has his male adulterous character, in preparation to performing cunnilingus on his lover Georgene, "picture[d] a kitten learning to drink milk from a saucer." In another scene, the male character -- Piet Hanema -- drinks the breast milk from a new lover, Foxy, also married to another man and who's just had a child. Updike describes Piet's analysis of the taste of the milk. Certainly this experience has been shared by millions of lovers over time, but I'm not sure it ever appeared in mainstream fiction until Updike's Couples.

Updike himself wrote essays, in later years, describing the disappearance of the romantic and sentimental in depictions of sexual scenes over past decades -- he still considered himself one of the romantics (which he was) -- to Erica Jong's "zipless fuck" and other more modern female novelists summarizing fellatio by saying "First, you have to get past the slight taste of urine." This was too clinical for Updike, although his descriptions of fellatio in Rabbit, Run (1960) may have been the first in mainstream, serious fiction. (Or so said my only instructor of writing, Professor Bert Stern, in 1968 when I chose Updike as my "favorite writer." Bert frowned, scratched his wild beard for a while, and finally said, in front of the class -- "Well, Updike did get the first blow job into non-porn popular fiction." (I was embarrassed.)

But while John Updike drew a line re: disturbing sexual and biological explicitness that is crossed seemingly unthinkingly by current novelists such as Jonathan Franzen, it was also the "romantic" Updike who reminded us in fiction that part of the intimacy of a young couple starting out in a small apartment is getting to know, intimately, the smell of the loved-one's bowel movements.

[Note: here I was going to take the use of olfactory and other senses into a discussion of Jonathan Franzen's 2010 novel Freedom -- the most "romantic" scene of which has a young man squeezing through clumps of his own shit to find a wedding ring he'd accidentally swallowed while his newest bimbo-over is banging at the bathroom door to get in -- but Franzen's contempt and active dislike (hatred would not be too strong a word) for all of his characters in his fantasy chronicling of the greed of the Reagan-Bush years depressed me too much to continue analyzing it. I don't believe I've ever read a novel, not even Franzen's first bestseller, Corrections, where an author held his creations in such absolute sneering contempt. Jonathan Franzen is a capable novelist, but -- as with such lesser writers as Alice Walker (and for less reason), he dislikes and looks down on everyone in his novels. Perhaps analyzing this contempt for one's own creations is an essay for another day . . . but probably not.]

7) What's in a Name?

You know you've joined the immortal writers when the name of one of your characters moves into the general language and culture to sum up a cluster of character traits. If someone says "He's a real Scrooge," almost everyone in the English-speaking world (and many beyond it) immediately understand the constellation of greed, bitterness, and lack of compassion that's being summoned. (But they might also recognize the remaining possibility of redemption there.)

5"Lolita" has a somewhat softer sound than "Ebenezer Scrooge" and summons quite different associations. The sound of the nymphet character's name that Humbert Humbert begins his tale-within-the-tale in the novel Lolita with the following invocation --

"Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta."

Few characters have been introduced with such faux-poetic fanfare, but then few poets have sacrificed so much for someone so young as has the madman-murderer Humbert Humbert. But while we agree that the name is perfect for the child-nymphet character, where does the name "Lolita" come from? It's Spanish for "sorrow" but this wasn't the prime source for Nabokov (and our character Lolita is more shallow than sorrowful, although her short life does comprise a sort of banal tragedy.)

"Lolita" is the nymphet's mother's nicknames -- one of the nicknames -- for her daughter Dolores Haze. The first step of the nickname, Humbert tells us several times, was "Dolly" which, in less imaginative hands, might have been the character's name and novel's title. But "Dolly" receives its own diminutive from the hag-witch mother Mrs. Haze, and "Lolita" is born.8

Why was the name Dolores important to Vladimir Nabokov?

Nabokov's primary love was lepidoptery and we learn from the Lepidoperists' News, 1952, that it was between Telluride and Dolores, Colorado, that the author made one of the most important butterfly "captures" of his career. The Annotated Lolita shows us all the play with "Dolores" that Nabokov carries out in Lolita and other novels, but perhaps lost in the murderous madness of the moment is Humbert Humbert's final confrontation with Lolita's seducer and abductor, Clare Quilty -- " . . . do you recall a little girl called Delores Haze, Dolly Haze? Dolly called Dolores, Colo.?"

So from the name of the site of a lepidopterist's triumph comes our universally understood name for nymphets -- Lolita.


If you can't write your story or novel until you're certain of your character's name, you're not alone. I have that problem (quirk? strength?) as well. But more to the point, so did many truly wonderful writers.

In his 1990 biography Dickens, Peter Ackroyd describes some of Charles Dickens's successive approximations toward the name of his eponymous character for Martin Chuzzlewit:

He still needed a name. On a sheet of paper he transcribed all the titles of his previous novels, and then wrote Martin chuzzlewig, then Martin chubblewig, then dhuzzletoe, and chuzzlebog. Then on another sheet he wrote down a whole range of surnames: Martin was clearly right, but now he put after it chuzzlewig, Sweezleden, chuzzletoe, Sweezlebach, Sweezlewag. Then he decides on Chuzzlewig, writes out a longer title, only to change his mind and on another sheet put Martin Chuzzlewit. He had found it. For names were very important to Dickens. When he started a new periodical, he told Forster that "I shall never be able to do anything for the work until it has a fixed name", and it is the same with his characters also. They did not exist for him until he had given them a name and it is that which, like a spell, brings forth their appearance and behaviour in the world. Whenever he saw or heard an odd name he would remember it and then later note it down. He kept lists of them -- one such was in fact compiled from a Privy Council Education Liste -- and he had a copy of Bopwditch's Surnames. Perhaps that is why there are such odd and perhaps no concidental clusters of names in areas which he knew; Fanny Dorritt is on a gravestone beside Rochester Cathedral, and at the small church at Chalk are Guppy, Twist, and Flight on three adjacent tombstones. In the church register at Chatham are Jasper, Sowerby and Weller while in the register of St. Andrew's, Holbron, Marley and Varden. He devoted so much care and attention to the name because within it, when eventually it emerged, he saw the lineaments of the character who possessed it; when he brooded over his lists he was selecting and defining all the qualities he needed. The name, then, works as an almost objective pressure on the novelist's imagination.

At this point, it might be important to remember that Dickens's heavy lifting -- in terms of naming  -- wasn't quite finished for this particular novel once he'd settled on Martin Chuzzlewit. The central comic character for the book isn't Martin, but, rather, a certain Pecksniff.

Here another aspect of creating one's characters came into play. Pecksniff is a silly enough name for any central comic character, but it's Pecksniff's profession that subliminally suggested to the reader that the figure represented the vainglory and commercialism of the age. Rebuilding the House of Commons seven years after the fire, designing and constructing a myriad of new railway stations, and the general expansion of London itself had put architects and builders in the public eye. Dickens's own brother-in-law, Henry Austin, had - the year before Dickens began work on Martin Chuzzlewit -- published a pamphlet entitled Thoughts on the Abuses of the Present System of Competition in Architecture.

So when he needed a bumbler who was also a bit of a vainglorious dolt in love with sheer commercialism, Dickens found Pecksniff the architect.

I've mentioned before that it's trendy for writers to complain that their characters come so alive -- gain such autonomy -- that they surprise the author to the point of refusing to do what he or she demands of the character. I've said this myself, although down deep I don't believe it. On some level, I think, it's a way of praising one's ability of creating characters so real that they come alive on the page and begin acting on their own motivations. It sounds good, but in the end I don't think it's true.

Dickens's son, Charles,  did -- or at least he was swept up in the earlier stages of this common conceit. "I have often and often heard him complain," Charles Dickens, Jr. said after the death of his father, "that he could not get the people of his imagination to do what he wanted, and that they would insist on working out their histories in their way and not his. I can very well remember his describing their flocking round the table in the quiet hours of a summer morning . . . each one of them claiming and demanding instant personal attention." This was the same son who also said that " . . . the children of his brain were much more real to him at times than we were."

Charles Collins -- writer Wilkie Collins's brother and the illustrator much used by Dickens --  has recorded Dickens saying -- "I can distinctly see with my own eyes any scene which I am describing as I see you now; and indeed on one occasion when I had shadowed a certain course for one of my characters to pursure, the character took possession of me and made me do exactly the contrary to what I had originally intended." He went on with Charles Collins to say that when he, Dickens, became the observer in such moments, he heard every word of what his characters were saying and simply took it all down as if in dictation. (Dickens started his literary life, after teaching himself shorthand, as a reporter in a series of courts at Doctors Commons -- a Consistory Court, a Court of the Arches, the Prerogative Court, the Delegates Court, and the Admiralty Court were there -- and soon established himself as an independent shorthand reporter.)

Most novelists have experienced, in one way or the other, this sense of possession when one's creative powers are working in high gear and most have described precisely this sense of simply writing down what one hears as an observer as the characters he or she has created speak and act.

But Dickens never fully convinced himself of this conceit of the autonomous characters having a life of their own. He told one friend that he never dreamed of his characters precisely because he knew that they were not real. For Dickens -- as with all of literature's finest novelists -- this made the mystery of the imagination even deeper, since the alternative world they create frequently become more real to them than the real world in which the author lives and act.

But I know I've strayed from the importance and techniques of naming one's characters.

In one of Henry James, Jr.'s, many notebooks -- this one a red one from around 1893 -- there's a series of random names he'd jotted down from noticing in newspaper articles or obituaries: -- "Beague -- Vena (Xtian name) -- Doreen (ditto) -- Passmore -- Trafford -- Norval -- Lancelot -- Vyner -- Bygrave -- Husson -- Domville."

Come across years later, that last name must have sounded like the bells ringing for the dead to James. Although he later said he could not remember why he'd chosen "Domville", it had become the title character's name in his disastrous 1895 play Guy Domville. I've written elsewhere in this series of how James had been too nervous to attend his own play --  he'd gone to a mediocre (but highly successful) Oscar Wilde play that evening and returned just for the curtain calls. Although the theater was packed with James's famous and aristocratic friends, someone had also sold (or given) tickets to regular people -- perhaps even street toughs sent there by enemies of the principle actor and producer of the play, George Alexander -- and these common folk had loudly jeered and sneered their way through the second half of the play. Alexander's last and most important line, meant to convey a sort of triumphant renunciation and sense of loss as his Guy Domville character renounces his title and possible marriage and life and return to a monastery, had been -- "I'm the last, my lord, of the Domvilles." Someone from the cheap seats in the gallery shouted -- "It's a damned good thing you are!" and the curtain had come down to more catcalls and shouts of abuse from above while those in the dress circle applauded enthusiastically.

Upon arriving backstage, James thought that the commotion in the theater -- the commoners jeering, James's friends trying to shout them down with bravos and applause -- was pure, wild, unrestrained applause and he heard the cry "Author! Author!" from his friends in the audience.  Alexander, looking strangely confused in his last fancy costume of the evening (Alexander had chosen James's play largely because of all the costume changes for him and the fact that he could show off what he considered his handsome calf muscles in the tights and stockings), was standing there in the footlights gesturing Henry James onstage.

So this most sensitive of sensitive men walked onstage to be jeered and laughed at by those playgoers who were not his close friends and associates. Many biographers suggest that he never really recoved from the bone-deep embarrassment Guy Domville.

And, encountered by him many years later, here in his old notebook, penned above the list of possible character names, was the note, from an anecdote picked up in Venice, for a possible short story:

Situation of that once-upon-a-time member of an old Venetian family (I forget which) who had become a monk, & who was taken almost forcibly out of his convent & brought back into the world in order to keep the family from becoming extinct . . . --- it was absolutely necessary for him to marry.

But, years later, staring at the list of possible character names, ending in the fatal one that had led to the shipwreck of his play, Henry James, Jr., could not, for the life of him, remember where he had seen or heard the name Domville.

Some practical writers will advise the beginning writer -- since you will be typing your main character's name so many times -- just to keep it short. Thus "James Bond" -- knowing that the last name will be the one typed so frequently -- is a near-perfect character's name.

A writer once told me that when writing Casino Royale, the first Bond tale, in Jamaica, Ian Fleming was briefly stuck for a name for his spy hero but, as Fleming held the first piece of typing paper up before inserting it in the typewriter, he saw the watermark BOND in the paper and decided it was good.

It's a good story but, alas, (as is true of most of the good stories we writers tell you), it wasn't true. Absolute rubbish.

Fleming once told reporters that he wanted the "most common sounding name one could have" for his British spy hero -- note I interpret "common" as short and easy to type -- and on the passionate birdwatcher Fleming's bookshelf above the desk where he wrote at his home in Jamaica was Birds of the West Indies by the well-known ornitholigist James Bond (also a resident of Jamaica).

After Casino Royale was published and there was interest in further volumes, Fleming contacted the real James Bond and asked the bird-expert if he minded if his name were used in more spy novels. "Fine with it," was the real Bond's reply. (Pierce Brosnan as spy-Bond in "Die Another Day" is seen perusing a copy of Birds of the West Indies when he arrives in Cuba and when he meets the Bond-girl of the film, Jinx (played by Halle Berry), Bond introduces himself as an ornithologist.

In 1964, Fleming gave Bond a first edition copy of You Only Live Twice signed "To the real James Bond, from the thief of his identity."

I've had the pleasure of signing similar books with thanks to real people -- none of whom I've known but whom my wife had known -- whose names I'd borrowed, including two of my favorite characters: Robert Luczak in Song of Kali and Dar Minor in Darwin's Blade.

8) In Conclusion:

In conclusion, there is no conclusion (from me, at least) on how to find or create worthwhile characters.

The greatest truth I can reveal to you -- i.e. You will know you have the right character when you find him or her -- means very little and celebrates a recognition probably shared by the poorest writer creating the flimsiest character imaginable.

I've had fun maundering and meandering around the issue of finding one's characters, but the only real revelation to emerge from all this fun is this paraphrased quote by critic James Wood, shared early on --

"What makes characters vivid is the force of your -- the author's --  interest in them, your manner of pressing into their clay with your examining fingers; they are sites of human energy; they vibrate with your anxious concern for them."

For if you don't passionately love your characters -- even the bad ones who shouldn't deserve even their mother's love -- and if you don't vibrate with anxious concern for them in every sentence in which you bring them into existence, why should anyone else give the slightest damn about them?

(Webmaster's Note: Between installments of WRITING WELL, visitors to this web site interested in discussing writing issues can talk to each other and to me on the new ON WRITING WELL strand in the Dan Simmons Forum. While I will answer questions there from time to time, my hope is that these Writing Well installments might serve – at least partially – as a template for discussion so that we can move more slowly toward the usual huge questions of “How do I write a masterpiece and where can I get it published?”)

 >>click here to go to the Forum and On Writing Well thread


Home     Books     Curtis on Publishing     Previews     Bio     Bibliography     Snapshots      Reader's Forum     Art