Reaching for the Characters

by Josh Marshall

In all the years I’ve been writing – learning, honing, experimenting – the biggest challenge I’ve faced is to stick to writing a novel. There have been many failed attempts for sure. From it’s birth, the ‘aha’ moment where I believe I’ve got a brilliant idea, to the outline. And even to the revision of the first few chapters! But then… empty space.

These experiences have stifled me to the point that I’m apprehensive of attempting a novel, and I just stick to flash fiction, short stories and occasionally, poetry. The all-consuming task of the novel, the culmination and the proof of consistent hard work, sweat and sleepless nights lost in thought or flow eludes me. I want it bad. Yet I can’t go beyond a few pages before I tell myself: Who am I kidding? I won’t finish this and even if I do, who the hell will want to read it?

So what’s my problem? At the beginning, themes motivate me, settings intrigue me, plot drives me on, tension excites me, and point of view challenges me. What doesn’t make the cut here is the most important aspect of good writing—characters.

In all those attempts, I was introduced to the terms ‘flat’, ‘two-dimensional’, ‘passive’, ‘unbelievable’, and ‘underdeveloped’ characters; thrown at me by course instructors or readers alike. Ouch. Or is it? Did I really know about the values of characters then? Like any avid reader, there were literary characters I loved, as well as not-so-literary ones, but did I ever realize the nuances of a character in a novel? What it was about them that made them memorable? There simply was no way for me to write a three-dimension, fleshed out, well-developed, active and believable character (now there’s a mouth full).

As I continued writing, my interests shifted more to the literary spectrum of literature and less to pulp, fan fiction, or commercial fiction. The taste and appreciation for characters – what and how they went through their ordeals ­– became the focal point of any good story I enjoyed. From this vantage, I began experimenting with characters, their limitations, choices, exploits, until I dug deeper and discovered the world of the psyche, which was all mine to fashion and make sense of. How exciting. Writing took on a whole new turn.

I have written flash fiction and short stories with what I hope are interesting enough characters. But the characters I sketch at the outset of a novel stop there. They stop because of me. They stop because I’m afraid. They stop because I want to control them. How utterly silly of me. Maybe if I were a parent already, I’d have realized my folly much earlier: as if anyone can control his or her child. And before you roll your eyes: oh no, not another writer who thinks characters are their children, take a moment and think about it. It’s a reasonable analogy.

This incessant need to control – to know – what my characters are thinking, what they should do, how they should react, interact and speak, and all of that, is ridiculous. When I can let go and relinquish control, they will come to life on their own. And like a good parent, I just have to guide them to make good choices. But that alone would make for a dreadful read, so I have to also feel like I’m the bad parent that lets them fall on their ass and doesn’t give a shit, because how can we ever discover what any character is made of without conflict, emotional turmoil or insurmountable obstacles? How else can we see their humanity? And how else can we empathize with them?

Lesson learned—just let go.


Samir Rawas Sarayji