Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Reader in the Gaps

Neither of us will be participating in National Novel Writing Month this year. MrsDarwin is making slow but constant progress on wrapping up Stillwater, and hopefully you'll be seeing another post there in the not too distant future. (Whether the novel or the baby will be delivered first is now becoming an open question, but rest assured that it will get done.) Meanwhile, I'm working away at outlines and research for the Next Big Project, which will start publishing in August 2014.

However, the impending NaNoWriMo season has had me thinking about my project last summer If You Can Get It, which I do plan to go back and whip into some kind of a publishable form at some point, though that point may be a year or more off.

One of the things that I'd worried was a problem with the novel is that the main character seemed a bit of a woman without qualities. Sure, she cared about her job and staying in shape and she had some nice clothes (and got irritated by her younger sister's mess) but what did she do in her spare time? When I was coming up with the character, I mostly only had this figured out in negative terms: She wasn't a writer or any kind of artist, she wasn't a fan or indeed a big reader. In other words, I had decided that she wasn't like me as I am now or have been I the past in a couple key ways. (reading, writing, genre fan, etc.)

Having established that she wasn't like me in those ways, though, I ran up against the problem that I have very experience being Not Like Me, and so I wasn't sure what she did do in her spare time. This bothered me a lot, especially as a lot of people seemed to like her younger sister better (Katie, after all, did have some obvious interests: video games, cooking, etc.)

One of the things that I want to work on when I revise is making sure that I'm more clear on Kristy's personal and emotional arc, so that remains on the list of things I want to work on. However, at a certain point recently (while reading something else) I started to think that my concerns about knowing what my character does in her spare time might be misplaced.

What I was thinking about is: How is it that we come to see a character in a novel as a fully rounded person? We only see certain aspects of the character, those which the author sees fit to reveal to us. And yet, if it is well done, we see that character as a fully rounded person who exists in the round. I think I'd naturally assumed that this meant that the author needed to know everything about the character, that the character needed to exist in the round in the author's head, and that the author then revealed to us (the readers) what was relevant to the story. But the moment you press upon this assumption a bit and think about it, it become untenable. Of course the author cannot have thought of every detail which might exist. The author provides us with the important details, the aspects of that character which are (in the distilled version of a world which we see in a story) relevant, and if the author does a good job we as the readers fill in the remaining gaps with what we, as readers, assume such a person to be like.

In a sense, this isn't so unlike our experience of real life. We know that the people we interact with have fully rounded lives, but we only interact with them some of the time. The rest we will in with our assumptions.

With fiction, the key is that the bits we see must suggest a plausible whole -- what we're seeing a part of a fully rounded person rather than a plot place-holder which exists only to serve the author's purposes. If the author is successful in giving this impression of seeing the relevant pieces of a fully rounded person, we do the rest of the work ourselves.

Sometimes, we actually do it a bit too well. For instance, as I've been re-reading War & Peace, it's been striking me that I'd ignored a lot of briefly mentioned aspects of characters in order to form an image of the characters which was more like me, or more like the culture that I exist in. I was taking the major elements of Tolstoy's characters and filling them in with something familiar because the broad brushstrokes were something I liked enough that I wanted to identify with the characters and see them as like me.

Such identification can go too far when it makes you misrepresent a character to yourself, rather than seeing what the author is actually portraying, but within bounds it's a very useful tendency for the author. If the author can sketch out characters which the reader identifies with enough to want to fill in the rest with himself, the author has both made the characters come alive to the reader and has also successfully offloaded some of his work on the reader.


GeekLady said...

Huh. I thought you were deliberately defining her with a sort of personality negative space deliberately. She dresses well and takes care of her health and her house and is dedicated to her job... But that was all. I've known people like her, so I thought that was what you were going for and that she was very realistically drawn. She managed to be that sort of flat person without ever being really two dimensional, it was her interactions with people that kept her rounded.

She might have a hobby, but she's too vaguely snobby to indulge in it publicly. She certainly won't tell you. If you want to find it out, you'll have to write her relationship with Dan, because he will. :-)

GeekLady said...

Sorry about that double deliberately. It's hard to comment from my phone while on the bus!

Darwin said...

I suppose I was, in a sense. I've known some people like that at work, and I've always kind of assumed there must be a lot of other stuff going on there that I don't know about because otherwise I'm not sure how you fill all the time. But since I've never penetrated far enough to know, I really have no idea what.

I kept asking myself, "What filled Kristy's time before she had Katie to bring chaos into the apartment?" Though maybe one of the reasons that she realizes through that experience that she needs a family is that the answer was mostly: nothing.