Learning to Write XXV
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.