Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Some Thoughts On Constructing Character In Novels

The novel has remained a largely unchanged art form since its introduction. Other than the period of experimental Modernism by authors like Joyce, Woolf, Beckett, Faulkner and Stein. They are by and large stories revolving around a central character or characters, with beginning, middle and end. These characters undergo a "journey", more psychological than actual, in which they end up changed as a person by the novel's end compared with the point at which they started. This journey can notionally be 'plotted' by a character arc, that is the progress of their change of viewpoint could almost be plotted on a graph.

I have always seen the character arc and the notion of a journey itself as reductive. Human beings in real life don't undergo journeys, they just live their span of life and narratives and patterns may be imposed upon their lives to try and bring meaning to it. While I understand the notion that novels are illustrative rather than imitative of real life, I have always believed they can be illustrative through other models of mapping human behaviour and attitudes than the journey.

Psychoanalysts will tell you that people are creatures of mental habit. Locked into repetitive patterns of behaviour, often influenced by anxieties and neuroses, but especially by the action of the unconscious whose influence on them they remain by definition, unaware. Even psychically healthy people have blind spots about their own behaviour. Now I would never want to reproduce fictional versions of the theories of Freud, Jung et al, because I have my severe doubts about such theories for diagnosing and explaining human mental health. But the notion of unconscious behaviour is a useful one for fiction writers, because it allows the author to construct their character as having only partial knowledge. Thus  the author can gradually reveal the character through a slow drip-feed of information about the character through their behaviour and actions in the book.

So the unconscious serves conventional narratives as well as the less conventional. But I'm interested in this notion of people being habitual in their thoughts and responses. In my debut novel, I jumped straight into the character, where everything about her psyche is hanging out from the opening paragraph. She has been on a journey, socially through different milieus, and physically as the book opens with her hiding in exile. All the action has happened before the start of the book. Instead of a drip feed building up her character through accumulation like a stalagmite, the book is an unpeeling away of the repeated behaviours in the different contexts of her different milieus, to get back to the source of her 'stuckness'. The epigram for the book is "Saul knows everything except what to do with what he knows" from Steve Tesich's wonderful book "Karoo". There is no redemption on offer by the end, instead a powerful analysis of those social dynamics that both shaped and constrained her and an inquiry into the power of self-knowledge and the nature of self-delusion.

But for my new book, I decided to try something in a diametrically opposite direction. Rather than being stuck and habituated, condemned to repeat the same mistakes over and over, I went for a narrative structure of facing the same social situation time and again, but afresh each time and the vagaries of human nature and the influence of emotional colouring of thought processes, taking different decisions and having different reactions each time.  In this book, the characters never stand still. Their emotional state leads them to radically different courses of action. A missed cue or misheard word produces utterly different outcomes from those scenarios before. I found this a tremendously liberating approach to trying to get under the character's skin. The scenario was a seduction between a man and a woman. A situation replete with signals, codes, flurried emotions and calculations of effect and outcomes.

So three different approaches to character. Each trying to get under the skin of what it means to be human. To represent emotional truth in the characters. Are any of them better than any others? I do feel that the two less conventional approaches allow for a greater freedom, less formulaic writing and a certain freshness in tackling this most fundamental issue in the novel, of how to represent a human being.


Viv said...

Excellent post.
It was very revealing of your process, too.
In mine, it's somewhat different. It feels more as if I am somehow narrating a story that already exists, a memory I've lost somehow.
And character emerges out of my lost, fragmented self.

Sulci Collective said...

Thanks Viv. The fragmentary nature of representing character is I think a very important one. But it could run through each of the 3 different approaches, perhpas not being unique to any of them? I'm going to go away and think about that.