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Reflections of a working writer and reader



Learning to Write XXV

In Robert Browning‘s Fra Lippo Lippi, the following lines occur:

But, mind you, when a boy starves in the streets
Eight years together, as my fortune was,
Watching folk’s faces to know who will fling
The bit of half-stripped grape-bunch he desires,
And who will curse or kick him for his pains,–
Which gentleman processional and fine,
Holding a candle to the Sacrament,
Will wink and let him lift a plate and catch
The droppings of the wax to sell again,
Or holla for the Eight and have him whipped,–
How say I?–nay, which dog bites, which lets drop
His bone from the heap of offal in the street,–
Why, soul and sense of him grow sharp alike,
He learns the look of things, and none the less
For admonition from the hunger-pinch.

I have accented the lines in bold type to illustrate that the earliest part of our learning is an unconscious process.

Learning how to create character on the page, is a continual process and one that will take up most of a writer’s years. With some skill he or she may create characters who traverse the pages with a convincing gait, but without a comprehensive understanding of why people act as they do act or why environment affects different people in different ways, no writer will produce characters capable of carrying a novel.

In our early years we may, as Browning’s Fra Lippo Lippi did, survive a life lived on the edge, and learn much in the process. We may have grown up in a large and loud household, and seen actions and motives react against each other on a daily basis. Or perhaps we struggled against constant illness and concentrated our attention on books and the people and emotions they described.

But without experiences like these, the opportunities to increase our comprehension, our consciousness of motives and of the affects of environment, diminish. It is still possible to achieve it, but it is not easy and does require constant attention. There are two main ways.

One is to strive to overcome your own self-consciousness. The primary ways that self-consciousness manifests itself is through shyness or a desire to be the leader of the pack. Both of these muffle a writer’s ability to listen or observe. There are exceptions, of course, and some writers (I think of Dickens, perhaps, and Wilde, for example) have been poor listeners, or inordinate talkers, or just exhibitionists. But most good writers are those who have the possibility of whole-hearted listening, in fact this could be regarded as a necessity.

A second way of increasing your comprehension of character is to encourage yourself to think about human reactions, causes and results. And you can do this by pausing when reading a newspaper, a book, or hearing a story in any form. Our tendency is to hurry on ahead, to get to the conclusion as soon as possible, to run with the plot.

But if you want to know about the psychology of your character, (and if you want to write fiction it is essential that you do so), then keep in the forefront of your mind that speed, briskness, getting to the end of the story, is always fatal to your understanding of character.

Yesterday I posted a piece which stated that Marquez’s wife, Mercedes, had to hock her jewels to keep the family alive while he finished his novel. What I am asking you to do is to stop at that point and think about what kind of character would do that. Pause. Leave the story and think only about and around what could possibly have motivated her to do that, to take that course of action and no other. If you can do that you will find you are closer to understanding a whole group of actions and motivations. You won’t get the newspaper (or the blog) read, but you’ll be a better writer.

Again, a few days earlier I reported on a blogger who was aiming to read 100 books from 100 different countries in one year. Pause. Never mind the rest of the story. You have to think about what kind of person, woman, man, would come to that decision and then announce it publicly. But pause, don’t carry on reading at that point, or you’ll lose the possibility of distinguishing this character from all the others you met today.

What we are aiming for here is a way of preventing that hardening of feeling, that concentrating on the immediate present which is needful for the carrying on of everyday life.

Study faces and the relationships between members of a family. Speculate on why unexpected actions come about. These are occupations which will actively improve your ability to characterize the people who carry your fiction and will be invaluable to anyone whose desire to write effectively goes deeper than a pose.

13 Responses to “Learning to Write XXV”

  1. Paul says:

    John – Excellent blog.
    I think Dickens did most of his listening and observing in his early days – was it a boot-blacking factory he worked in? He certainly never forgot the shame of poverty, the terrible living conditions of the working class, and the ruthless exploitation of children. He gave the poor a voice and he did it by giving them character, showing that they were human beings with the same emotions and feelings as those who exploited them (and not just factory fodder).
    Oscar Wilde, seemed to me, to approach character from the perspective of the constant war that raged in his own being. He had a very clear view of what was right and good and estimable – a very moral man living an amoral life, in a deeply hypocritical society. He seemed almost to use his writing like a battle re-enactment, secretly hoping to convince himself of the power of good and God.
    Both had the power to give of themselves in a way that few have been able to emulate.
    Sorry for the personal and subjective view. I don’t think it contradicts anything you were saying.

    jb says: Don’t be sorry, Paul. Your remarks are most interesting. I’ve also enjoyed both Dickens and Wilde, and I’m sure I shall again. I wasn’t sure about using them as examples, but I suppose they were exceptional writers in more ways than one.

  2. bloglily says:

    I love being given license to watch people closely, an activity that is sometimes viewed with great suspicion, but here has been elevated to an important part of the writer’s work. It occurred to me as I read this post, and also the Guardian obituary of Dibdin, that the detective mirrors the writer in that both are involved in this close observation of human character. Maybe that’s why I like crime novels so much: you get to find out so much about people.

    jb says: Indispensable, I’m afraid, Bloglily. People watching, for writers, especially writers of fiction, is just one of the chores of the job.

  3. Brian Hadd says:

    Another aspect of the Browning is the sharp growth. Pain I fear assists wonderfully in the overcoming of a self consciousness–stop punching me!

    No answers here John, but thanks for the questions.

    jb says: Thanks, Brian. I was aware, when I wrote that, that those lives lived on the edge also destroy people. And I wasn’t, for a moment, advocating that road as a solution. My point was merely that for those who survive it, as in the Browning poem, there is usually not a lot of self-consciousness remaining. But I’m also aware, as are you, that those survivors represent perhaps only a tenth of those who are destroyed by it.

  4. Shawn says:

    Another great piece of advice, John.

    I think that in addition to honing one’s powers of observation, a writer should hone their capacity for empathy. To watch someone from a detached perspective can provide a wealth of external information and help one make educated guesses about a character’s motivation. But to enlist one’s empathy in understanding a character or a person, to imagine what it would be like to be that person, can help a writer find their way under the surface to the inner life we can’t see from simply watching.

    jb says: You’re right, Shawn. But I was trying to take this trip one step at a time.

  5. Jerry Prager says:

    When I was much younger and first reading novels I could not believe how much a writer could understand from the way a person did the smallest of things in a book. It’s why I wanted to write. I didn’t know anything about people, I had been driven into myself at one point as a child, and the seeming power of writers to perceive human depths helped draw me out my own locked places. Whatever the value of my own writing, the value of the insights of other writers undoubtedly kept me alive, because they allowed me to see that life could be understood and cared about deeply if you paused long enough to trace a soul in a gesture or in the lift of a gaze.

    jb says: Thanks for this, Jerry. Spot on.

  6. Paul says:

    Shawn – I think you’re right about empathy, but wonder if it extends further than that when writing. My feeling, which I find difficult to express, is that when we develop characters in our writing, we are in a sense giving form and expression to different aspects of ourselves.
    We are all, part inheritance, and part upbringing, but thereafter the choices we make determine who we become, define us as individuals. All the emotions, love and hate, kindness and greed, are latent inside us. We choose to reinforce one aspect and erode another, developing a conscious and unconscious definition of self, trying to be who we want to be, and sometimes who others expect us to be.
    The fact that the basic gamut of emotions still exists, however, gives us the power to empathise and to write about diverse characters, sometimes very different to ourselves. In a sense when we write about others we are writing about different aspects of ourselves, magnified and exaggerated, but nevertheless there. We are “walking a mile” in their shoes, because we tap into parts of ourselves that are also part of them. We examine how our own character might change if the world around was suddenly different.
    In the end, perhaps that’s what empathy is, locating common understanding within ourselves.
    I always remember the actor (though I forget his name) who played “Yozzer (Give us a job) Hughes” in “Boys from the Blackstuff” . He played the role so well that he changed, both mentally and physically, until he almost became “Yozzer” in real life.
    John- You’ll have to accept my reassurance that I am sane. This is just something I’ve been thinking about in the context of character development.

    jb says: It was Bernard Hill; the actor.

  7. Paul says:

    I’ve just read my own posting and it sounds pretentious.
    The whole thing was probably meant as a question, rather than as an answer. I tend to be too prescriptive in establishing characters – telling the reader what to think – rather than letting the character emerge from dialogue, action, and perception of setting.
    I use too much convenient dialogue and excessive reminiscences.
    I need to be a better editor, but I would welcome any tips (as per original blog) and suggestions from your readers.

    jb says: I didn’t read it as pretentious, Paul. Merely a point of view. But I didn’t answer it as it was addressed to Shawn, and I was interested in what he will say about it. (No pressure, Shawn.)
    As for tips; you’ll get plenty of those here, though from your remarks about letting the character emerge from dialogue, etc. you’re already a long way down the road to creating convincing character.

  8. Shawn says:

    Hi Paul and John. Sorry I didn’t get to this sooner–though I did have a moment to post on John’s blog, it was a busy day yesterday.

    Paul: I don’t think your question/comment was pretentious, I actually agree with what I think you’re trying to say. I think what you wrote is a description of precisely what empathy is. We really can never truly know another human being the way we know ourselves, which makes the “walk a mile in their shoes” such an apt phrase; we can’t be another person, but if we place ourselves in their situation (or at least try), we can not only better understand another person, but recognize their humanity by recognizing ourselves in them.

    Obviously, how well we can pull this off can depend a lot on who we are trying to empathize with. Albert Schweitzer would be a lot easier to empathize with than, say, Mussolini, but even with the most repulsive of individuals we, at the very least, learn that even the most unspeakable behavior is well within the capacities of every one of us.

    I hope I don’t sound like a moral relativist by that last line. I think (or maybe I just strongly like to believe) there are basic natural moral principles that all humans share, in particular the capacity for cooperation, compromise, friendship, and love–hardly the ten commandments, but our morality comes more from these vague impulses than from the text of any religion. What perverts these natural impulses are what a given society or culture values over these natural impulses, and most societies have always encouraged either the suppression of these natural impulses in favor of other equally natural impulses (territoriality, competition, aggression, greed). Or, if these good impulses are not suppressed, they are sublimated to serve some purpose other than the harmony and well being of a community, which I think they would naturally tend to promote.

    Anyway, there’s my theory which may or may not be relevant but, in any case, I’ve gone quite far afield from the original topic.

  9. Jerry Prager says:

    And sitting in the far off field
    where beginnings circulate like breezes
    you catch a drift and dive back in.

  10. john baker says:

    I’m interested, in this instance, in the development of character and of the use of empathy on the page.
    And from a writer’s point of view it is important to be able to go there whether it feels comfortable or not. In fact, often, it is more important to go there when it feels downright uncomfortable.
    Language and art lead to dark places as well as light ones.
    I believe that most of us find it relatively easy to empathise with someone we like or someone we recognise as like ourselves, but the real trick is to be able to empathise with the character who is our antipathy.
    As a writer you have to be able to write about and empathise with characters who are horrifying and perhaps repugnant to you.

  11. Paul says:

    John – I wasn’t sure if the thread was closed, but I felt there seemed to be questions lingering in your responses.
    Perhaps the difficulty we experience in empathising with our antipathy, comes from a writer’s need to understand and explain. With the more ordinary characters we are content to describe them as they are, and have them act “in character,” accepting that they exhibit certain character traits, perhaps to a more exaggerated level than the norm.
    With the darker characters we perhaps feel more compelled to understand and explain how they became so.
    Yet we see daily how some children are treated in public – shouted at, sworn at, ignored, hit – It’s only a small, if frightening, leap to imagine how they might be treated in the privacy of their homes.
    The strange thing is that some people break away from their roots, whilst others take it as a template for the future.
    I once worked with a chap who came from a family of ten or twelve children. Half his family were in caring professions (nuns, ministers, nurses, doctors) whilst the other half were criminal, or bordering on such (drug-dealers, prostitutes, thieves). Even he didn’t understand why.
    I read something about most decisions we take being made in our sub-conscious. That our conscious mind only really had the power to reject or go along with that decision. Thus the conscious mind, as ultimate arbiter, reinforces or erodes impulses from the sub-conscious, and thereby conditions the next reaction to similar stimuli/situations. Each choice we make therefore determines who we become. Whether we change, or remain the same, or head off in a new direction, depends on those choices.
    We humanise by seeing similarities between us, we de-humanise by dwelling on the differences.
    When we have no choice, or little control over our own lives, then psychological trauma will often result.
    Thank you for providing the stimuli for thinking through some of my own writing problems in terms of characterisation.

    jb says: There are three emotions involved, sympathy, empathy and antipathy. Sympathy has always seemed, to me, to be a completely useless emotion. I prefer something more active, like love. But sympathy has this tendency to pull everything into itself, to merge separate identities into a common mass. Antipathy, on the other hand exerts an opposite pull, keeping things apart, maintaining a separate identity. The two working together maintain a status quo which maintains identity and a recognition of shared similarities. Perhaps it is not in stasis, but a moveable feast, sometimes maintaining strict separation and at other times allowing a kind of merging.
    By the constant counterbalancing of sympathy and antipathy, identities “can resemble others and be drawn to them, though without being swallowed up or loosing singularity” (Foucault, The Order of Things).
    To empathize means to recognize diversity as the “the action of understanding, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts and experience of another or either the past or present, without having the feelings, thoughts and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner” (Webster’s Dictionary).
    Something else struck me about the professions in the family you refer to. Is there really such a huge gap between the professions in the first classification and the second?

  12. Paul says:

    John – ‘Is there really such a huge gap between the professions in the first classification and the second?’ – No. I see what you mean. The chap himself was a lay-minister, in an evangelical church, but as colourful a character as I have ever met.
    Also, the short Foucault quote pulls a lot of thinking together.

    jb says: Hi Paul. Strange, isn’t it; Foucault doesn’t always manage to do that. 🙂

  13. Paul says:

    Hi John – not sure if your smiley face is a simple Easter greeting or signifies more?
    I have to confess to my own ignorance, before I’m found out. I’ve never read any Foucault, nor for that matter, many books of philosophy.

    jb says: It’s only a philosopher’s smile.