Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Less Characterization, Please?

“Literary novels are mainly about character; commercial novels are primarily concerned with plot.”

That’s one of those oft-repeated generalizations that drives me a little daffy. Not only are there often hidden value-judgments lurking therein (literary = good, commercial = less good; character-oriented = noble, plot-oriented = base), but I don’t think it’s true in the first place. If there is anything I believe distinguishes a literary novel from others, it is attention to language, not character.

But, as often happens on this blog, I’m getting sidetracked. My point is that for many years I accepted the idea that more character depth was an inherent good. You could have too much description, too much action, too much dialogue, too much exposition, but you couldn’t have too much characterization. (And, in some people’s view, you can’t have too much conflict or tension—but I’ll blather about that at some future date.)

Eventually I realized there is indeed such a thing as too much characterization—even though no one is every likely to mention that in a critique. When is characterization going too deep? With minor characters, making them too vivid and complex can seem to promise the reader that they will play an important ongoing role, leaving a “hole” in the story when they don’t reappear.

In one of my novels, I have an interesting young man named Xochipilli (pronounced ‘Showkapeelee’) who is the reincarnation of the Aztec god of the same name. (If you care, Xochipilli was the “Lord of the Flowers”, the god of MesoAmerican psychedelic plants.) He dominates one chapter and then only appears peripherally in the rest of the book. The top-ranked complaint I received about the book was that Xochipilli didn’t play a bigger role; people found him too memorable for what he does in the story as a whole.

With major characters, including protagonists, adding depth and breadth that doesn’t touch on the story can be distracting. Everyone has bathroom habits. Does describing them really help understand your character? For a certain type of character, sure. For others, it’s just weird.

I sometimes see flashbacks to the protagonist’s childhood, or phone interactions with parents, stuck obtrusively and irrelevantly into stories. The logic seems to be that everyone has a childhood, and pretty much everybody has parents, so we need to march those facts onto the stage. Well, pretty much everybody has head colds, too, but that doesn’t mean they belong in every novel.

I love some books for their characterization, but that doesn’t mean they would have been better books if I had known the characters even better. Just like description, or anything else, there’s a right amount.

But I bet we’ll never see a review that complains about ‘too much characterization.’


Usman said...

In my WIP, the MC has a love interest, but I have so far neither explained him or his motivations for falling in love with the MC.
the only reason so far is that the MC is pretty though she is a prostitute.

So the male MC seems to be a rather flat character, as per the definition below.

I'm hoping you can expand on the theory of flat vs round a bit more.

Alis said...

Argghhh! Isn't that platitude re plot vs. characterisation so true?!! My aspiration is to write books with both plot (because I dislike books with none) and well-drawn characters.
OK, I said it was an aspiration....

Tim Stretton said...

This is an excellent insight, David. You don't want your readers too involved with walk-on characters.

Dickens is great at giving a richly textured protagonist (often first-person), a couple of nuanced subsidiary characters and a whole horde of beautifully crafted 'Funny Hat' characters. What the reader needs from Miss Havisham, say, is not a subtle exploration of her despair, but a clearly-delineated personality who fills a role in the narrative. In Miss Havisham's case, the reader's imagination will do most of the work.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Usman--

Well, if your MC is interesting to the reader, we ought to be able to see why he is increasingly involved with her.

The great thing about having love emerge in a novel is that you have opportunities to let different facets of everyone's personalities show themselves--thereby letting characters become round before the reader's eyes. Usually in getting to know someone intimately you have the opportunity to show not just enrapturement but strength, vulnerability, fear, courage, cruelty, compassion. If you set up the scenes so these things manifest, you may not need to do any explaining at all.

WHat do the rest of you think?

David Isaak said...

Hi, Alis--

Actually, it's something I think you do rather well--and do in a different historical period to boot! Particularly in the construction story of Testament, your characters and the plot intertwine so that every step ends up feeling inevitable.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Tim--

Good example--and also a good point about readers being able to imagine. Except when explicit--as in processing clues in detective stories--I don't think anyone talks enough about how important it is to give the reader something to do.

Readers respond well to hints. (In bad manuscripts I've seen, one of the big problems is that the writer unintentionally hints at something they didn't mean for the reader to infer!)

Troubadour said...

Nice thread David. As publisher (Kunati Books -- P.S. thanks for the nice link on your sidebar!), we look for a nice balance of both character development and plot. Even the most commercial of novels is still about the character in my opinion. The plot is only meaningful if it impacts on characters we care about (and who hopefully grow). The good news is that of the thousands of submissions we receive, even the most commercial of prospects focuses on characters well. So, I agree with your comment that it's more about the language (and style). Personally, I don't buy in to labels. But there can be no doubt as a reader -- or as publisher -- I lose interest quickly if there's not a nice balance of character thread and development with plot thread and movement. As an author I write thrillers such as The Last Troubadour (historical thriller) and MADicine (satirical thriller) -- highly commercial -- but with a very strong focus on interesting characters who are either flawed and growing, or memorable and stubbornly resistant to the changes assailing their worlds. It's no fun without strong characters! I look forward to reading Shock and Awe. Best, Derek Armstrong, Publisher Kunati Books, author The Last Troubadour, The Game, MADicine.

Cheryl Kaye Tardif... said...

Characterization is what MAKES a novel for me. I want to know the main character(s) inside and out--their history (only what's relevant to the plot), their strengths and their flaws.

As an author myself, I believe that allowing characters to 'tell' the story is the best way to allow the plot to move forward. At the end, I love a story that makes me yearn to know more about the characters and their lives.

Great blog post, David! :)

P.S. I'd be honored if you'd consider adding me to your blogroll.

Cheryl Kaye Tardif's blog

Oh, and I have a question for you...what do you think of too much narrative versus dialogue? Maybe you could blog about that next. :)

~Cheryl Kaye Tardif, author of Whale Song

Alis said...

David, thank you very much for your compliments on Testament. Much appreciated from a fellow-author!

Usman said...

Hi David,

Thanks for the response to my question and a reply that makes sense.
That is the way I've been thinking to let the scenes manifest the male MC. I'll be reading this series of posts again, I know.

Donald Gallinger said...

David Isaac's blog regarding "character development" vs. "plot," is very well taken. For many reviewers, serious literature translates to character driven stories while commerical fiction depends almost entirely upon action. A successful blending of the two is nearly incomprehensible, a defiance of literary conceptual frameworks. When my novel was first being shopped around to publishers, the predominant response was, "We don't know how to market this. It reads like commercial fiction but the characters seem too well developed." Fortunately, I was able to find a publisher who embraced genre bending novels.
I hope that someday more publishers will adapt themselves to the idea that interesting people can live action based lives. I've heard that even in real life such people do exist.

Donald Gallinger, author of THE MASTER PLANETS

Jake Jesson said...

That's an interesting comment regarding characterization, David. I know I've always been disappointed when fascinating characters show up in stories, then fail to take center stage. Never occurred to me that the solution might just be to take the character off the stage altogether.

(Of course, if said characters are more fascinating than the main characters themselves, then you may have other problems.)

David Isaak said...

Hi, Derek--

Glad to meet you. Kunati seems to have done a marvelous job so far.

I agree that the best stories are a blend; we only care about the story if we care about the people involved. But it took me a long time to realize that, as in Goldilocks & the Three Bears, that the amount of characterization needed to be "just right" rather than "as much as possible."

I guess this would be obvious to anyone who thought about it a little. Anybody but me, that is...

David Isaak said...

Hi, Cheryl--

You're over on the sidebar now. And thanks for responding to the post on your own blog.

As to dialogue versus narrative, I think that depends very much on the kind of story you're telling.

Certainly good dialogue is a joy to read. On the other hand, I've seen novels that, in an attempt to be 'cinematic' are nothing but dialogue and action. Those feel a little two-dimensional to me (which, of course, is what movies are!)

Lawrence Block put is nicely when he said that novels with too much dialogue were like trying to make a meal of popcorn--easy to eat, but eventually your jaws were tired and you still didn't feel quite satisfied.

I think exposition in narrative gets a bad rap. Check out my posts on the sidebar (under "Looking for These?")

David Isaak said...

Hi, Donald--

Nice to make your acquaintance.

Actually, I had a publisher tell my agent that my ensemble cast of realized characters might be okay for a literary novel but had no place in thrillers or suspense. Guess the guy had never read, to pick just one example, Dennis Lehane.

David Isaak said...

Hey, Jakester--

I guess characters are like anything else--sometimes you might have to delete one for the sake of the story. And frequently the one who has to go is the most vibrant of the flat characters...

Oh, well. If it was easy, they wouldn't pay us the big bucks, right?