Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Characters not people

There's a new Jim Shepard interview out there, and here's a preview of it. From this excerpt, it sounds like this interview is particularly successful in bringing across Shepard's singular conversational voice, analytical and chatty at the same time. Where do I get the journal?

I've been reading all kinds of random stuff this week: an essay on abstract and concrete concepts of class (from Andrew Sayer's "The Moral Significance of Class"); a 1979 novella by a Soviet author, Galina Shcherbakova (who died a few days ago); Danzy Senna's "Caucasia"; a few pieces from Tin House's collection of translated contemporary Russian stories, "Rasskazy" (only three or four left -- and then I'm going to write a review of it); the most recent issue of the Paris Review and the AWP journal. Blogs, from one of which I learned that Tim O'Brian thinks that writers these days don't pay enough attention to sentences. Shcherbakova's novella, "You couldn't even see it in your dreams" ("Вам и не снилось") was made into a hugely popular movie in 1981, one of my favorites as a teenager. I had never even known that the movie was based on a literary source, and I can only imagine the joy that my 17-year old self would've experienced upon this discovery. My primary emotion reading this today is extreme discomfort.. I cannot approach it as a model reader, and approaching it as a critic seems completely futile. It would be as absurd as trying to criticize ghosts.

In terms of narrative theory, I'm continuing to think about characters, people on paper, or Homo Factus, as E.M. Forster called them. Suzanne Keen quotes the words of a novelist Jill Paton Walsh: "You can't put actual people into books, because you don't know enough about them." This seems paradoxical, because how can you know anything about fictional characters that don't even exist? Keen explains this further: "Unlike Homo Sapiens, Homo Fictus possesses a mind and feelings that can be rendered accessible to readers of narrative fiction." (59). Her main point in this chapter is to show "the profound difference between real people and fictional characters." (57-8).

The difference is, indeed, profound, but the more I think about it, the more confused I get. Yes, real people are essentially unknowable -- I have no access to anyone's thoughts or feelings except my own (and even that is questionable). Fictional characters are abstractions, they are simplified to a series of traits. The problem is, they exist not only on paper but in the minds of the real people, who tend to interpret the thoughts and feelings of fictional characters in vastly different ways -- and ways that sometimes have very little to do with words on paper. Thinking about this as a writer is even more confusing. Because the minute I create a fictional character on paper, I create this fictional character in my mind -- that is, I alter paper and self at the same instance.

Ontological confusion aside, the practical aspects of this are fairly simple. Sure, fictional characters behave by a series of rules vastly different from those that apply to real people. And the more "real" a character "feels," the more strict and conventional the rules usually are. Moreover, these rules change with time according to our changing tastes (epics to novels, for example) and to our changing understanding of self (and also changing it in the process). The rules (the craft, the technical) are the easiest stuff to learn and to imitate, although they too become daunting because of their number and contradictory nature.


  1. love the interview. do you recommend particular texts for thinking about character? I tend to fear that reading about technique will make me too self conscious....

  2. Evelyn, Keen provides a list of texts on character for further reading. Let me copy some of the citations that look promising:

    Cixous, Helene, "The Character of 'Character'," in new Literary History 5 (1974), 383-402. Keen writes: "Cixous argues that the very idea of character is repressive."

    Hochman, Baruch, Character in Literature (Cornell University Press, 1985) "Highly recommended nuanced recuperation of fictional character from new Critical, structuralist, and post-structuralist denigration."

    Phelan, James, Reading People, Reading Plots: Character, Progression, and the Interpreatation of Narrative (University of Chicago Press, 1989(

    And also this one should be particularly useful to your work, I think (I think this book has a very good discussion on psycho-narration and free indirect discourse that you use so well):

    Cohn, Dorrit, Transparent Minds: Narrative Modes for Presenting Consciousness in Fiction (Princeton University Press, 1978).