I’ve mostly focused on meta-considerations with writing so far, I’d like to fix that today. It isn’t that I reject the conventions of craft or turn away from main-stream conceptions of productive aesthetically appealing writing. In fact, I actively dislike and do reject the so-called “experimental” modes of fiction that seem to channel Joyce or Borges at their best and distill them into unfathomably atrocious simulacrums that I would feel terrible wall-papering my bathroom with. Most “flash” fiction and “hypertext” novels are as enjoyable to me as I imagine having a bowl full of rusty nails shoved up my rectum would be.If your notion of “good” writing involves conscious deconstruction of the phallogocentric Western paradigm because of under-representation of certain groups or authors in the “canon”, then we will have to—I apologize for the cliché—agree to disagree. If you enjoy Allende or Murakami because their work is awe inspiring, instead of enjoying them because someone told you to, that’s great.
Either way, I want to disabuse you of the idea that I hate “deep” characters. I’ve been accused of this before, often by people who try and tell me that my characters aren’t “real” enough. Their logic seems to follow that since I cannot write “real” characters, I do not have appreciation for them. I’ll ignore the fact that my characters actually tend to have more layers than a yomi-master and focus instead on how I perceive the art of building “believable” characters.
It is critical to realize that the general mass of humanity is not composed of complex, multi-layered personalities. While it is true that many people wear different hats or “play many parts” in an abstract sense, the mundane reality is quite the opposite. Only in rare circumstances are your thoughts and feelings unique and most individuals respond nearly identically to most impulses.
If you are writing a story about a stripper, for example, you will almost definitely feel pressure to “flesh out” his or her background, to come up with some compelling narrative that drove her to the Lucite heels. A bad writer will need to explain that the character was molested by a priest or camp counselor, had negative interactions with his father or mother, and generally feels “un-loved”. A better writer might “subvert the trope” and go into detail about how the character is witty and intelligent and realized she could make a lot more money dancing than she could working behind a desk. In either case, the only reason the details should ever be included is if it actually matters to the story you are telling. If your novel is about a stripper who uncovers a plot to run a massive meth distribution ring using clubs as fronts, then why the hell would I care if he got the shit kicked out of him by his father? If the story is a coming-of-age and “finding yourself” literary narrative, then you might as well throw it away before you finish the first draft. But if you don’t, I’m guessing I can probably assume the amazingly sad/ironically happy background based on what the inciting incident is in the first three chapters. In either case, you aren’t “building” a “real” character by creating the back story, you are engaging in authorial masturbation.
To test the merit of this concept, record you and your friends the next time you find everyone engaged in some sort of party atmosphere, such as New Year’s Eve. When someone tells a story, do they feel it necessary to tell you about exactly who Bob from Accounting is? Not really. They will probably use a “character tag”; a kind of Grecian bromide such as “from Accounting”. Those two words tell you all you need to know about the character, and the story will succeed or fail based on its content, not the emotional malaise of Bob’s privileged upbringing.
Now, when you are writing a story for mass consumption, you do have to acknowledge that not everyone in your audience is going to be familiar with the specific “Bob from Accounting” you are referencing. Yet, stereotypes exist for a reason* and they can be used, especially in short stories, to give a generalized sense of a character without the need to delve deeper—unless such delving has a point, i.e., to demonstrate how the character does not fit the stereotype, but even in that case, these “deeper” characterizations amount to little more than self-congratulatory fluff.
Rather than worry about the David Copperfield-crap regarding your characters, it is much more effective on the part of a writer to allow the character’s choices to demonstrate their background and personal philosophy. A routine complaint in writer’s workshops is that a character will do something that seems illogical or contrary to their established behavior, resulting in a jarring disconnect from the fiction they are found in. This is a neon-glowing sign of a bad writer. Usually.
The word of the day is catechresis, which is a fancy term that I use to describe intentional rule-breaking or Fourth Wall-smashing action in a story. One of the best things to come out of the reader-response school of literary criticism is the notion that a story should really be judged by how you react to it. If you do not find it that strange that the mild-mannered neighbor is a serial killer in secret, then it doesn’t matter how it is presented in the text.
My concern, however, is that if you do find it strange, it is up to you to try and understand it. The responsibility for your comprehension does not fall on the author’s shoulders unless you have reason to believe they are actually just pathetically bad at writing. This is the reason that almost all of my stories include a Reader’s Cheat Sheet. Think of it as a Videogame Guidebook that helps you through the parts the game doesn’t ever explain (like, for example, how to find and fight the Emerald WEAPON in Final Fantasy VII). You don’t have to read the Cheat Sheet to understand and enjoy the story, but if something has you stuck or you feel like what you are reading isn’t very good, the Cheat Sheet explains exactly why it is. (Think of how much more fun you would have reading the Wasteland, Ulysses, or the Cantos if you had one; or alternatively, think of it like the Internet…)
This is longer than I want these to be, so I’ll take a break here. Sometime in the future I’ll provide examples of what I think an exceptional character is, and maybe take some pot shots at bad ones.
*It is not the place or the purpose of this essay to examine stereotypes in history, but suffice it to say that if you are honest about the subject, you will acknowledge being aware that stereotypes are “true” in the sense that they apply generally. Otherwise they would not be stereotypes.