I find it hard to care about most characters in the books I read. I think it’s got something to do with me being a writer as well as a reader, with my background in poetry just making it worse. I’m always mulling over word choice, weighing the significance of sound and rhythm, why the author made the decisions they did. My attention skews to the micro rather than the macro, and the broader sweep of character arc and narrative structure holds less of my interest than the smaller choices an author made in arranging their words. Over time it has become difficult for me to turn this analytical side of my brain off, and simply enjoy a text for what it is: a story. My reading brain is always scavenging sentences for new techniques, tricks that may one day prove useful in my own writing; strip mining each row of words for images, influence, and inspiration. So characters become hard for me to care about, because my default mode is to regard them as illusion, a ghost an author built from a long sequence of decisions.
I’d compare my reaction to how you can’t be hypnotized unless you want to be.
Or how veteran standup comics almost never laugh at jokes, even the good ones. When they hear a joke they like, they just sort of nod and say, “That’s funny.”
Occasionally, however, I’ll encounter a piece of writing so powerful I can’t help but drop my guard. The words get past my weird defenses, and suddenly I’m swept into the story and care about the characters. The last time it happened was earlier this year, when I read Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, which won the Pulitzer in 2014.
Tartt’s prose is strong and immediate. It generates momentum. That’s what hooked me. The novel’s overall structure is fairly traditional. Our narrator, Theo Decker, is telling us the story of his youth in what is essentially one long flashback. We’re hand fed some vague initial hints about Theo’s present so we have an idea where we’ll end up on the other side of these 500+ pages. This is a large book, but Tartt doesn’t meander us through it. She doesn’t waste time. There’s an immediate and dire situation into which Theo is thrust early on in the book, one in which he has no time to do anything but react and survive, and the consequences of this event reverberate outward through the rest of the book.
I was completely shaken by this hard left turn in the narrative, and Tartt’s masterful description of these unexpected events only drew me in deeper. I was surprised. I was wrapt. I was engaged in what was happening in the text on a level that extended beyond stylistic analysis of the prose. In short, my defenses were down and Tartt had me in the palm of her hand. I just had to know what was going to happen next. She’s a writer that understands that character, conflict, and plot should not be at odds with one another in a narrative. They are elements that must harmonize if the overall work is to succeed.
She understands that momentum is crucial, and maintains it by weaving character development straight into the novel’s action. Instead of slowing everything down by unspooling a bunch of backstory, she reveals her characters’ nuance through their behavior in the here and now.
It’s a variation on the old writerly wisdom “show don’t tell.” Rather than have a character in the story stop that story just to tell me another story in the hope that I’ll care about them, Tartt keeps me immersed in events as they unfold. Her characters and conflicts play off each other, and are the stronger for it.
So I invite you now to create your own characters. Not by telling your readers everything about them, but by showing how they deal with unforeseen events. I ask you to be a little unkind, just a tad sadistic. Place your people in strange, dire, or in some way uncomfortable situations, and see how they react.
- Three people stand in an elevator. Tell me who they are, and tell me what they do when the elevator comes to a sudden stop between floors. How do they react to being stuck there? What do they feel when the overhead lights start to flicker? And when those elevator doors finally open sometime later, what has taken place inside?
- A car is moving through a lonely dirt road at night. There’s a driver and a passenger. Maybe there’s a third party in the backseat. Who are these people? What is their conversation like, and how does it change when they get a flat tire? How do they react to being on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere? What do they do when another car with its high beams on appears in the distance, pulls up beside them, and comes to a stop.
- Two people are meeting for coffee after many years apart. The first person has something to tell the second person. A secret they’ve kept for all these years. But the second person knows already the first person’s secret. Has always known. And they have a secret of their own they can’t wait to reveal.
Bob Schofield is an American writer of British, Chinese, Pakistani, and Egyptian descent. He currently lives in the Netherlands. He is the author and illustrator of The Inevitable June, Man Bites Cloud, and Moon Facts. He likes what words and pictures do. He wants to be a ghostly presence in your life.