The OF Blog: "Characterbuilding"

Wednesday, October 27, 2010


Over the past few years, I have made occasional posts expressing my exasperation over the perceived fetishism surrounding the term "worldbuilding" in genre circles.  A lot of that perhaps deals with my preference for the centrality of character over the centrality of setting when it comes to judging the paramount characteristic of most of my favorite novels.  Instead of rehashing those points, I thought it might be more interesting to highlight a character-oriented passage from Nicole Krauss' recently-released novel, Great House:

But you know all of this, don't you?  I sense that it's why you came.  Before I die there are things you want to say to me.  Let's have it out.  Don't hold back.  What's stopping you?  Pity?  I see it in your eyes:  While I fly up in my mechanical chair I can see your shock at my diminishment.  The monster of your childhoo defeated by something as mundane as a flight of stairs.  And yet, I only need to open my mouth in order to send your pity scurrying back under the rock it came out from.  Just a few well-chosen words to remind you that despite appearances I am still the same arrogant, obtuse asshole I've always been.

Listen.  I have a proposal for you.  Hear me out and then you can accept or reject it as you choose.  What would you say to a temporary truce, for as long as it takes for you to say your piece and me to say mine?  For us to listen to each other as we have never listened, to hear one another out without becoming defensive and lashing out, to put, for a moment, a moratorium on bitterness and bile?  To see what it's like to occupy the other's position?  Perhaps you will say it is too late for us, that the moment for compassion is long past.  And you might be right, but we have nothing more to lose.  Death is waiting just around the corner for me.  If we leave things like this it's not I who will pay the price.  I will be nothing.  I won't hear or see or think or feel.  Maybe you think I'm belaboring the obvious, but I'd venture a bet that the state of nonbeing is not something you spend much time thinking about.  Once you did perhaps, but that was long ago, and if there's one idea the mind can't sustain it is its own nullification.  Perhaps the Buddhists can, the Tantric monks, but not the Jews.  The Jews, who have made so much of life, have never known what to make of death.  Ask a Catholic what happens when he dies and he will describe the circles of hell, purgatory, limbo, the heavenly gates.  The Christian has populated death so fully that he has excused himself altogether from the need to wrap his mind around the end of his existence.  But ask a Jew what happens when he dies and you'll see the miserable condition of a man left alone to grapple.  A man lost and confused.  Wandering blindly.  Because though the Jew may have talked about everything, investigated, held forth, aired his opinion, argued, gone on and on to numbing heights, sucked every last scrap of meat off the bone of every question, he has remained largely silent about what happens when he dies.  He has agreed, simply, not to discuss it.  He who otherwise tolerates no vagueness has agreed to leave the most important question mired in a nebulous, fuzzy grayness.  Do you see the irony of it?  The absurdity?  What is the point of a religion that turns its back on the subject of what happens when life ends?  Having been defined an answer - having been denied an answer while at the same time being cursed as a people who for thousands of years have aroused in others a murderous hate - the Jew has no choice but to live with death every day.  To live with it, to set up his house in its shadow, and never discuss its terms. (pp. 173-175)
I rarely see this sort of passage in the fantasies I read, with the exception of some of the more "weird fiction" entries, where the clash between Character and Setting is more important to the story.  It is a refreshing change for me, seeing not just a situation described through a character's eyes, but to read an internal conflict that has several shadings of meaning embedded within it.  I am often weary of those complaints revolving around the "show, not tell" maxim.  Sometimes, it feels right to have a character's thoughts outlined like this.  There is more to this particular character than the passage quoted above; it is this indulgence in developing this character, in building this character, that made this scene so attractive to me.  The character appears to be more than just an instrument through which the plot is executed; by "breathing" and "living" here, the character feels more well-rounded, more "real" for elements such as this.

Sadly, I do not often see panegyrics devoted to such "characterbuilding" on most genre blogs and sites.  Depth of character and "realism," even in the light of the strangest and weirdest of situations and settings, has the potential to add so much to a fantasy story, but too often a well-realized setting has but the sketchiest of characters to be placed wherein.  Sometimes, some readers want more than that and it is refreshing to find these sorts of characters in non-speculative fictions.  Too bad they are not as common as I would have liked in spec fic, however.


Bill said...

Nice post, Larry. Great quote, as well.

I think you're onto something. Most of the posts I read about writing suggest an efficiency of prose that wouldn't really allow for the character building you have shown or described.

Is that based on some assumption that the average writer can't pull it off? Perhaps.

I read lots of posts on character arcs, story conflict and pacing. From readers/reviewers, lots of posts on story and setting - and maybe, just maybe, whether or not a protagonist was likable or the antagonist was believable.

Websites are built on fictional worlds and settings, and despite the advice to not cater to trends, writers/agents tend to do so anyway - even if only in the observation that the fanbase seems to enjoy that sort of thing.

But this is the struggle, and that's why I enjoy your blog. It's a nice reminder that it's okay if I want to indulge a character, instead of a village, and at least one person will appreciate the effort.

Mihai A. said...

I do like "world-building" and I tend to like it a lot. But it is very true that only a setting without the proper character doesn't work very well. A balance between these two aspects works the best. And I believe that I will always like more a story with a great "characterbuilding" but not much of a setting than a story with excellent "worldbuilding" but flat characters.

Ben Godby said...

Got to agree with you, Larry; although, perhaps because I am a bit of an undignified reader, it doesn't bother me terribly when I finish a book and realize I was really only enjoying the plot and the setting, and the character was a placeholder.

However: the difference is enormous when I do read something with good characters. It's a million times more present... in the soul, I guess? Anyway... the world ought always to be built in the character's eyes, no matter what.


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