Andromeda: Character: Fiction's Master Key

Tolstoy had an entirely different plan for the character of Anna
Karenina. I happily stumbled across that fact last week in a book called Showing and Telling by Laurie Alberts.

According to Tolstoy’s translator, Alberts explains, Anna in
the original conception “was a crude, hypocritical beauty and her husband, portrayed
in the final draft as cold and rigid, was the sympathetic character. Vronsky,
Anna’s lover, was a noble artistic fellow instead of the dilettante he ends up
being. Character as well as structure evolved.
Tolstoy started with a vision of a woman who flaunts rules but he ended up
wanting pity for her. The novel became a condemnation of the society that
condemned her.”
Often, it takes a lot of writing – sometimes getting to the
middle of a novel, and sometimes all the way to the end—before we fully
understand the story we’re trying to tell, and before we let our characters
play the roles they are truly meant to play. My own characters have regularly
evolved beyond the constraints that I unwisely made for them by having too many
preconceptions about both character and plot. Often, my ideas will completely
flip-flop. A character whom I first imagine is the selfish buffoon ends up
having wisdom and heart. The character who is conceived as noble ends up, once
we see him in action, being a prig, and paying for it in the end.
That’s all right, as long as one has flexibility–and that
more elusive thing, the stamina to revise. I remind myself again and again that ideally, I should resist
building too strong an edifice of premature assumptions to begin with. I should
work more fluidly and confidently, believing in E.L. Doctorow’s assertion: “Writing is
like driving at night in
the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole
trip that way.”

I strongly
believe, after all, that most writers err by overplanning than by
underplanning. The urge to push and jiggle a character around like a marionette
puppet, just in order to get them to the church or royal ball or firing range on
time is too great a temptation for most of us to ignore.

And yet…there is
never one way to do anything.
For the last six weeks, I’ve been doing some intense and
collaborative spec TV writing, and if I’ve learned anything, it’s that one
shouldn’t jump into writing a script too soon or too lightly. The format is
unforgiving, and one doesn’t have fifty or more pages to wallow around (either
as writer or reader), trying to figure out what a character is all about. We
have to see a character’s essence nearly from the first moment he or she
appears in the script or on the screen. And to draw with a crayon that fat (in other words, no subtleties), one has to do a lot of preparatory work first.
One has to plan.
maybe that’s just simplistic TV writing (you – and I – might be thinking
together). Turns out, some amazing novelists pre-plan and even prepare character
studies before drafting. One of them, among the most subtle and literary
novelists publishing today, is Kazuo Ishiguro (Remains of the Day). According to an intriguing article in the Wall Street Journal about many writers’ novelistic processes, “Before
(Ishiguro) begins a draft, he compiles folders of notes and flow charts that
lay out not just the plot but also more subtle aspects of the narrative, such
as a character’s emotions or memories.”

versus planning, or finding some middle ground between the two. That’s only one
issue faced by the writer working on character—and only one topic we’ll
consider together in the next 49 Writers class I’m teaching, “Character: Fiction’s Master Key.”

also discuss what makes a character interesting and likeable—if likeability matters in the first
place. (If it does matter in a conventional sense, then how did Nabokov get
away with Lolita’s despicable Humbert
Humbert, and how did Elizabeth Strout help us to care for prickly Olive Kitteridge?)
We’ll look at how POV choices affect our readers’ understanding and engagement
with our characters. We’ll take inspiration from authors past and present, and
even from a TV/film character or two.

Consider joining us. And even if you don’t: Tell us here at the blog what you look for
in a character, name a few of your favorite literary characters, or share what
you’ve learned about making your own characters come alive on the page. We’re
waiting to find out. 

Andromeda Romano-Lax is the author of two novels, The Spanish Bow and The Detour. She is a co-founder of 49 Writers and teaches for the 49 Alaska Writing Center and for UAA’s low-residency MFA in Creative Writing and Literary Arts program. 

1 thought on “Andromeda: Character: Fiction's Master Key”

  1. Thanks, Andromeda, lots of good things to ponder here. I am drawn to characters that I can root for, but they don't have to be perfect. For example, Huck Finn, Scout Finch, and Elizabeth Bennett all have their faults but they're also sympathetic characters.

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