In last week's Purposeful Prose post, I discussed the ways in which people value representations that they can impress some kind of meaning upon. Creating a character that is a believable part of an author's world is difficult.
Creating a world is very difficult, but it's been done.
A lot of floating queries in writer's groups concern how authors create characters and why they made specific decisions, but I've seen little discourse on why those choices might work, and I often praise authors who advise with a thorough why.
I love Francine Prose's approach to advising writers because, throughout Reading Like a Writer. the reasonings paired with strong focused close reading offer method. Unfortunately, this was not the case in her chapter on characters.
Prose's close readings were still present, and the observations made were still very clear and focused. The objective of those close readings were determined because of the chapter title as opposed to stated with more of a reflection on why different options of conveying character can work in a more general sense.
There is a section of this chapter that takes an excerpt from George Eliot's Middlemarch. Specifically, she reflects on the ways that characters are introduced through their appearances as opposed to dialogue (Pride and Prejudice), how they think (Sense & Sensibility), or the circumstances that surround them (The Marquise of O). Her reading does explain why this method of introduction works for Eliot's style and narrative, but she chooses not to depart from that to explain why this could be an effective choice for a writer.
"Her hand and wrist were so finely formed that she could wear sleeves not less bare of style than those in which the Blessed Virgin appeared to Italian painters; and her profile as well as her stature and bearing seemed to gain the more dignity from her plain garments, which by the side of provincial fashion gave her the impressiveness of a fine quotation from the Bible,--or from one of our elder poets,--in a paragraph of today's newspaper" (Eliot, 1871).
This introduction immediately gives way to depth of character, and the reason why it works so well is that it isn't a physical description by itself. Every characteristic has individual character almost to the extent of personification. This entire length of this sentence covers only a characters hand and wrist. Had Eliot intricately described the detail of the hands and wrists down to the fingernails, this would not have said anything about the substance of this character.
Referring to the style of depictions of "the Blessed Virgin", a "quotation from the Bible...in a paragraph of today's newspaper", and the description of fashion as "provincial" also gives a sense of the culture that surrounds this character. This is an appropriate decision as it ties into the community and class-based themes of the novel.
By no means am I prioritizing my reading of Middlemarch over Prose's by any means. I purposefully picked a shorter section and, using a different reader-focused reading strategy, explained why this kind of character description works so well.
With the help of ghostwriter Harold Q. Masur, soprano Helen Traubel wrote The Metropolitan Opera Murders. Whether this book is a triumph of crime literature is debated, but it is known for its engaging depiction of the culture of the opera house and interesting characters.
"In his first season at the Met, Karl Ecker was building an enviable reputation...he had the great barrel chest of a true Heldtenor. An awareness of his considerable talents was reflected in his manner, a strange amalgam of geniality and arrogance. He could be warm and intimate at one moment, distant and cold in the next" (Traubel, 1951).
I will begin with a positive crime novel trait. Ecker is immediately made a suspect by being "enviable." His descriptors make him out to be terrifying and untrustworthy at the very least. Understood to be a talented Wagner tenor, the awareness that Ecker is said to have of "his considerable talents" appears to stretch beyond his music to his ability to make connections, make profitable connections, and make his connections profitable for him.
As in the Middlemarch excerpt, the character's introduction was partly rooted in physical appearance, but was paired with an evaluation of invisible characteristics [like his reputation] that are made visible through this description.
What makes so many of the available options for introducing, describing, and developing character interesting is what they are paired with. Any options can be used, but the options that are used should ideally have clear reason behind it. The reason doesn't necessarily have to be narrative-based. The factors that develop a character could only serve to round them out, to make them believable.
Prose's close readings are triumphs for the books, for the characters, and for the specific narratives that she is drawing from. However, I do think that this chapter fell short of its potential with the lack of broader implications.
Thank you so much to everyone who has given me feedback on Purposeful Prose thus far!
Despite my criticisms of the utility of this chapter, it was still a joy to read. I love the focused close readings that cement this text as a guide for readers. I still highly recommend this book to any writer. If you would like to follow along in this conversation, I recommend getting yourself a copy of Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them from either your favorite independent bookstore or Bookshop.org.
Bookshop.org does donate proceeds from every purchase to independent bookstores. You can even specify the bookstore that you want to donate to!
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As always, I look forward to hearing your thoughts!
Eliot, G. (1871). Middlemarch. Independently published.
Prose, F. (2006). Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them (P.S.). Union Books.
Traubel, H. (1951). The Metropolitan Opera Murders (Library of Congress Crime Classics). Poisoned Pen Press.