Friday, November 21, 2008

David Grossman on Characterization

I recently read (and reviewed) David Grossman's Writing in the Dark, a collection of essays mostly about literature and a little about politics. I loved the collection, and I'd like to share this excerpt on Grossman's view of characterization:

When I write a character, I want to know and feel and experience as many characteristics and psychic arrays as possible, including things that are difficult even to name. For example, the character's muscle tone, both physical and emotional: the measure of vitality and alertness and tautness of his or her physical and emotional being. The speed of her thought, the rhythm of his speech, the duration of pauses between her words when she speaks. The roughness of his skin, the touch of her hair. His favorite position, in sex and in sleep.

Not all of these things will end up in the book, of course. I believe it is best for only the tip of the iceberg, only one-tenth of everything the writer knows about his characters, to appear in the book. But the writer must know and feel the other nine-tenths too, even if they remain underwater. Because without them, what surfaces above the water will not have the validity of truth. When these complementary elements exist in the writer's consciousness, they radiate themselves to the visible aspects and serve as a sounding board and a stable foundation for the character, and it is they that give the character its full existence.
If only all writers were this thoughtful about their characters.


Robert Nagle said...

David Grossman is already on my shortlist as a result of your glowing recommendation. I just wanted to say that my approach for conjuring characters is the opposite.

Start out with minimal details and embellish when necessary. (I should add that I'm somewhat bad about visual descriptions of characters. Many of the stories I have written have chracters whose age is never specified. And I'm happy with that.

Another trick I tried. Treat the character as one of the people I know in my life, and make modifications where necessary (the fan fiction approach?). There is a danger in trying to over-research and over-prepare and over-determine a character before you deal with the story.

On the other hand, I think Grossman's approach works splendidly for actors and backstories in TV series. I'm sure Joss Whedon went into exruciating detail about the backstories of all the characters in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, even though these details wouldn't appear in the show.

All I'm saying is, there are drawbacks to Grossman's method, especially in the novel.

Kundera comes to mind. He extolled this Diderot play, Jaques the Fatalist (great read btw) about how characters developed personality through action and plot. An author, he argues, can't predetermine characters; he or she just has to start out with a situation and let personality show through actions and reactions.

Gwen Dawson said...

Grossman is definitely a thinking/calculating writer, and I can see where that might not always be the best approach. Perhaps a certain impulsiveness is lost, but the sentence construction and narrative structure are pristine.

Gwen Dawson