Thursday, April 5, 2012

Guest Author Mithran Somasundrum on Characterization

"Action is character," F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in a notebook, meaning that showing a person's actions, and more importantly his choices, is the clearest way to delineate his personality. But there is a distinction between character and characterization. It's one thing to make a man seem brave, petty or violent. It's something else to make him seem real. The best short description of characterization I've ever found was a quote on the back of a novel whose title and author I can't even remember. While they've gone out of my mind, the quote, by V. S. Pritchett, remains.  "[Author X]," he wrote, "knows the fantasy lives of his characters." 
When great writers look at the works of others, they often end up discussing themselves; and Pritchett's statement could just as easily have been a description of, and an explanation for, the vitality and life in his own work. Throughout the whole of his long writing career, you feel Pritchett had a direct line to the cinema playing behind his characters' eyes.  The cinema where they were the heroes and happiness unfolded.
While we judge the people we meet in fiction by their decisions, we believe in them largely because of what comes out of their mouths. Which ties good characterization inextricably into the art of writing good dialogue. "Good" doesn't necessarily mean clever or long. "You killed Miles and you're going over for it," is good because it's true to Sam Spade's hard-headed, uncomplicated view of his life. However, given that the main purpose of the pages of a novel—any novel—is to make you keep turning them, dialogue needs to be more than just true.  It needs to be interesting. 
The fuller section of The Maltese Falcon that I've just quoted is,
"I don't care who loves who. I'm not going to play the sap for you. I won't walk in Thursby's and who knows who else's footsteps. You killed Miles and you're going over for it."
This has a great rhythm and power, without moving outside the vocabulary Spade would use or the kind of ideas he’d express. Another writer of great hyper-real dialogue is Saul Bellow. His characters use ordinary idioms and phrases, but often at such a pitch of emotion their thoughts go tumbling into each other. From The Victim, when Leventhal finally decides he's had enough of Allbee leeching off him:
"You dirty phoney!" Levanthal cried huskily. "You ugly bastard counterfeit. I said it because you're such a liar, with your phoney tears and your wife's name in your mouth, every second word. The poor woman, a fine life she must have had with you, a freak like you, out of a carnival."
People reveal themselves in anger; they lose hold of the image they want to present to the world. But it's impossible to write a novel in which everyone is angry all the time. So the writer needs to find the smaller signs where people give themselves away. Great examples of these are scattered throughout Paul Theroux's collected short stories.
Theroux is a great describer of groups. Whether it's a reception at a London Embassy, the muggy heat of a Malaysian polo match, or four poets strolling through a frosty Amherst night, Theroux's group scenes bristle with life. This isn't because his characters are constantly screaming at each other—although their tempers do fray and irritations do flare—but rather because he creates the impression of separate human minds running on very different rails. Theroux's people talk to one side of each other, they enter conversations pre-armed with a view of the world, their minds snag monomaniacally on an idea and then refuse to let it go.
How much mental space an author needs to achieve this is moot.  Graham Greene often said he knew his characters had become real when they became capable of surprising him.  In contrast, Nabokov described his characters as "galley slaves."  And yet to the reader Humbert Humbert remains as disturbingly real as his desire for Dolores Haze. 
The issue of authorially-granted freedom has often led to novels being labeled as either plot-driven or character-driven; but the fact is, any wholly alive story is set moving by the hungers and self-deceptions of its people. The plot of The Maltese Falcon ticks along like a Swiss watch. But it's the low cunning and mutual suspicion of Joel Cairo, Brigid O'Shaughnessy and the Fat Man, and the almost amoral nature of the "blond Satan" (Sam Spade) they turn to who set the book ticking.
Who would you recommend as a great example of characterization, either to learn from or simply to enjoy?  Which writer and which of their works?
Mithran Somasundrum was born in Colombo, grew up in London and currently lives in Bangkok.  His short stories have appeared in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, The Sun, Inkwell, The Minnesota Review, Natural Bridge, and GUD, among others.


  1. Couldn't have picked a better example than Sam Spade. "When you're slapped you'll take it and like it!"

  2. Excellent and thought provoking. I'm keeping; "While we judge the people we meet in fiction by their decisions, we believe in them largely because of what comes out of their mouths. Which ties good characterization inextricably into the art of writing good dialogue." as a favourite quote. Thanks for sharing this.