The Hero’s Actions
“In the sphere of psychology, details are also the thing. God preserve us from commonplaces. Best of all is to avoid depicting the hero’s state of mind; you ought to try to make it clear from the hero’s actions.”
When I first studied writing, one of my professor’s constant criticisms was that I needed to give all of my characters a quirk. That is advice I still offer today, but I didn’t take to it at first because I really didn’t understand it. I recall sitting in his office complaining that he wanted this guy to have an eye patch and that guy to have a false leg and that I didn’t want to write a bunch of pirate stories. It was there I began to learn about making characters as specific and individualistic as possible.
But these physical quirks were nothing if they had nothing to do with the character. The best way to make a character truly unique is by his actions. You find his worldview and his motivation so that you can wind him up and let him play. And if you do this effectively you will never need internal monologue to tell us what the person is thinking. We will know their mindset by their action.
“You understand it at once when I say, ‘The man sat on the grass.’ You understand it because it is clear and makes no demands on the attention. On the other hand it is not easily understood if I write, ‘A tall, narrow-chested, middle-sized man, with a red beard, sat on the green grass, already trampled by pedestrians, sat silently, shyly, and timidly looked about him.’ That is not immediately grasped by the mind, whereas good writing should be grasped at once—in a second.”
So if we need specific details to make characters as unique as possible, then the more details, the greater the specificity of the character, right? Wrong! Too many details muddle the image. Pretty soon you have so many details that you have none.
Not only to superfluous details of a character get in the way of seeing him for who he is, but it obscures whatever action he may engage. From Chekhov’s example just listed above, the point the writer needs to get across is that the man sat on the grass. To go into an array of specifics about the man and the grass get in the way of the fact that the man sat on the grass. Good fiction writing is wrapped up in action, not physical details.
The Writer As Chemist
“That the world ‘swarms with male and female scum’ is perfectly true. Human nature is imperfect. But to think that the task of literature is to gather the pure grain from the muck heap is to reject literature itself. Artistic literature is called so because it depicts life as it really is. Its aim is truth—unconditional and honest. A writer is not a confectioner, not a dealer in cosmetics, not an entertainer; he is a man bound under compulsion, by the realization of his duty and by his conscience. To a chemist, nothing on earth is unclean. A writer must be as objective as a chemist.”
I lost the desire to make any character likable or unlikable quite a long time ago. When I learned to grey my characters, make neither white or back heroes and villains, I dropped the need to force them to be a certain way. Our good guy’s flatulence never smells like treacle just like our bad guy’s suffering can make us shed a tear.
So Chekhov’s notion of the writer as a chemist is a clear description of what our attitude towards our own characters should be. In the end it is not so much hero versus villain, good guy against bad guy, but protagonist and antagonist. These protagonists might do some vile things and these antagonists may seem perfectly justifiable. They are antagonists only that that they oppose the protagonist in getting what he wants.
Character development is one of the most difficult aspects of story writing simply because it is so involved. I will spend months plotting and outlining a novel before I begin a first draft, and most of that time is working on the uniqueness of my characters. Let’s face it, the most amazing of stories turns into a snooze fest if the actions of this tale are performed by flat characters. Chekhov’s advice helps me, and I hope I does you some good, as well.