characterization, part two

Here’s Cindy’s email question again:

My (compound) question is this: What else can I do to ensure that my characters are not too far off the mark, and how much should I worry about it? As far as possible I’ve based my characters on historical fact, but it looks as though a fair amount of extrapolation will be necessary. It seems to me, at this point in my literary development, at least, that one of the worst things that could happen would be for my work to be dismissed as inaccurate.

I take this question to be about more than one issue. It has to do with the nuts and bolts of storytelling (setting up, undertanding and following a character around) — when that character is from a very different time and place.

The first part of the question is relevant to any kind of storytelling. There are a lot of ways to try to get closer to a character, exercises that range from the odd (go out and decide what clothes they’d like or not like, what they would order for breakfast at a particular restaurant) to the scholarly: not to ask ‘what happens now?’ but to ask ‘why does this happen now’ (which some theorists will tell you is the ‘better’ question, and maybe it is. What do I know.)

Here’s the thing. You need to know the character very well. You need to know what she wants, and what is stopping her from getting what she wants. It’s by means of that conflict that the character becomes real to the readers. That’s true of anybody, whether they lived in the year 200 BC or in the year 2040.

Now, if your character does happen to be living in the year 200 BC or the year 1830, your job is that much more difficult because while human motivations are basically the same, the way people go about getting what they want depends a lot on the society they live in. I find it hard to write characters who really, truly are governed and even terrorized by strict religious beliefs because it’s almost impossible for me to get my mind to that place. It’s easier for me to get close to a character who is schizophrenic than one who really, truly believes in the literal word of the bible. So I avoid such characters — lazy of me? Maybe. That’s one of the benefits of writing fiction, you get to make up your own world.

But say you’ve got some characters (as Cindy does) who lived a long time ago, and you want to do them justice, or come as close to doing them justice as you can. My suggestion here is pretty much always the same. Find diaries and letters of the time, and read them. They will give you more information, real information, than any history could ever hope to impart. Sometimes those kinds of documents are hard to get hold of, that’s true. It might take some digging. But it is always worth it. When I was writing a study of language change in 16th century Nuremberg (long story, and a long time ago) I read volumes of diaries and letters written by nuns, women whose husbands were away on business trips, boys at university, etc etc, and it was those letters that let me hear their voices, for the first time.

So you do your homework, and you work hard on understanding the character, and you stay true to them. That’s all you can do. That is fertile ground out of which you may well be able to coax a good story.

One more thing: if you let your fear of potential criticism stop you, you’ll never finish anything. Not everybody will appreciate what you write, and some people will dislike it intensely. There’s no avoiding that. Will you let those people keep you from telling stories that interest you? I hope not.

Somewhere out there is the (anonymous) reviewer for Publishers Weekly (probably a graduate student being paid $25 a review, and resentful as hell) who wrote that my novels are populated by “color by number cartoon characters.” And there’s another one (maybe the same one?) who compared Elizabeth and Nathaniel Bonner to Wally and June Cleaver. But I’m still writing, and I’ll keep writing. And you should too. If you stopped, you’d be giving that kind of critic what he or she wants: People like that don’t care about the story, they only care about who gets their writing in print. Especially because it most probably isn’t them.