Some notes as I read Orson Scott Card’s “Characters & Viewpoint”. This post contains paraphrasing of some points from the book and some of my related thoughts on them.
Some good examples of “show, don’t tell” but from the angle of “seeing actions” as opposed to having them explained. We derive information about people from what we see them do.
Knowing the motive for an action makes it more impactful still, as if there is a hierarchy like this:
- Directly telling (bad)
- Showing the actions (better)
- Showing a character’s actions when the reader knows something about the motive (better still)
Card suggests that motive is more important than the consequence of an action, as the reader can make judgements about attempted but failed actions based on the apparent motive. I’m less sure about this as it seems to reduce the fatalism of the story.
I suppose a failed attempt can be fate just as much as a successful action. Unintended consequences of actions can also be interesting, but I think probably shouldn’t be overdone, as again they give a sense that the characters’ decisions don’t matter as much as external circumstances.
Fiction gives more access to motive than real life can.
Pre-empting characters and events is effective. It increases fatalism. Learning details about a character before we meet them fits with this pattern.
Paraphrase: “A character is what they do, and what they mean to do.”
Inaccurate reputations need to be justified in the story.
Ambivalent feelings towards characters
You may not approve of what the character does, but also wouldn’t judge them harshly for it knowing their motives.
Strangeness is both repellent and attractive. A character that feels too similar to the reader is not interesting. Some level of difference creates some simple fear and curiosity at first. We’re less interested in finding out more about characters whom we think we know already. I wonder if this sometimes contributes to the success of foreign language fiction in translation – there’s a built-in level of curiosity and inability to stereotype.
Taking characters out of their usual context is an effective device. This is also a cliché, but I suppose it can be done subtly. Thinking of Norwegian Wood as an example, I don’t think the characters are frequently put into unfamiliar contexts. The novel actually focuses on the characters in their habitual contexts with rare changes, perhaps? Watanabe seems comfortable and mostly unchanged by the contexts he is in. Perhaps that is the point with him as a character – other people find him solid and unchanging.
Depicting habits of characters can be a cheap way to get in extra information about them and the context. High potential for cliché here, with an alcoholic detective being the cliché of clichés.
Motive, action and past
Summary that what the character wants, what they do and what they did in the past are above all the most important aspects of characterization. These are more important than e.g. appearance.
- So what? – why should the reader care?
- Oh yeah? – how can the reader believe in this?
- Huh? – what can the reader understand?
Give readers a reason to care, soothe their doubts and give them enough explanation to follow the story.
The situations where you need to withhold information from the reader are rare. When the answer is not clear to the reader, then at least the question should be clear to them.
Seems to suggest erring on the side of giving the reader information than holding things back. This must be a hard balance to get right.
Author as first audience
There must be at least some details of each character that intrigues you and rings true to you in some way. If it fails this first test with you as the audience, then it needs more tweaking until it passes.
Faith, hope, clarity
More aphoristic summary of the above:
- Faith: give the reader reasons to care
- Hope: give the reader justifications for belief
- Clarity: give the reader explanations they understand
Series: Characters & Viewpoint
- Notes on Orson Scott Card's "Characters & Viewpoint", 01 (this page)
- Notes on Orson Scott Card's "Characters & Viewpoint", 02