Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The empty mirror

When people criticize my novels, a common complaint is that I spend too much time explaining my characters with back story, memory, etc. I do indeed do a lot of that, though I never think of it as explanation. I think of it as something interesting that happened in the character's past, which I want to get to write about. Sometimes I can't bear to edit it out later, even if it comes to seem gratuitous.

I'll take this a step further, though, and suggest that maybe protagonists don't need to be developed all that much, period. Maybe all that matters is a voice for the reader to buttress with their own assumptions and imagined detail. Secondary characters, you need to develop better, because they aren't who the reader is identifying with. But the protagonist, quite often, is there to be filled up with parts of the reader's self. All the writer needs to do is hint, and the reader will supply natural psychological explanations based upon their own experiences and feelings.

Of course in some cases the back story is the point; in some cases the novel consists of the protagonist explaining himself, or trying to explain himself and failing (e.g., Kazuo Ishiguro). But for a lot of books, it just isn't necessary. Think of Chandler's Marlowe, or Denis Johnson's Fuckhead, or just about anybody in Flannery O'Connor.

Ultimately it's a matter of confidence in your writerly ability to evoke a personality. Like the Rembrandt drawing above ("The Single Greatest Drawing Ever Made," according to David Hockney) it's as much what the artist chooses to leave out as what he puts in.

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

Your entry here made me remember a couple of things like the way Penelope Fitzgerald travelled so far on so little in The Blue Flower. She was a ferocious self-editor going in with a rake. I do believe it is the reader that ends up doing the work then, in a satisfying way for them. It's a kind of magic trick, editing out.

I love that Alice Munro won the international Booker Prize today.

Hello to the family-

Nancy

jrlennon said...

Aha, did she really?!? Great!

Yeah, Fitzgerald is a master of restraint, and as a result her novels are usually a bit cryptic, even baffling at times--in a good way. I'm glad you reminded me about her actually, I should read her again.

rmellis said...

I think you might be right... I made the protagonist of my first novel kind of specific, and the flak I got from people was almost all about her. Why is she fat? Why is she nuts? Why didn't you make a more attractive, lovable narrator?

In future, I will probably make my protagonists more sketchy. If I can -- characters tend to come to me fully formed, and there's not much I can do about how they are.

rmellis said...

Hello Nancy, is Hamish still on the MOUNTAIN?

Lily said...

This is such an important observation -- it takes a lot of confidence (at least it does for me) to be suggestive rather than descriptive where a protagonist is concerned.

And yay for Alice Munro!

Anonymous said...

he summited on May 19 th and is home now.
elated !! he and me !!

-nancy

rmellis said...

Yay! Pass our congratulations on to Hamish!

jrlennon said...

How many fingers does he have left then? Will he have to duct-tape his tea mug to his hand?

For the uninitiated, commenter Nancy's husband has just climbed Mount Everest. Congrats to him...

Anonymous said...

Thanks J & R, Hamish laughed at the duct-tape image. He has what they call a "cold finger". No frost bite this trip.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/fundy/3544690737/

-Nancy