Sunday, March 3, 2013

#71: "Mrs. Turpin Reads the Stars" by Margot Livesey

~This essay originally appeared in Cincinnati Review (2007).

"As if they were our own handiwork, we place a high value on our characters." 
                                                      Epicurus, "Vatican Sayings," 3rd. cent. B.C.

            As a reader I have no trouble identifying vivid characters.  I recognise them the moment they appear on the page.  Oh, here she comes, I say, as Becky Sharpe hurls a book from the carriage window or Miss Havisham, in her bridal gear, commands Pip and Estella to play cards.  Becky and Miss Havisham don't stay on the page; they walk right out of it, along with many other great literary creations, to keep me company.  Memorable characters are not necessarily the sine qua non of memorable fiction, but they are a significant part of it and an enormous part of all fiction, memorable or not.  The ordinary reader, E.M. Forster's passenger on the Clapham omnibus, in so far as he or she survives these days, still persists in flying in the face of current literary theory and discussing characters in novels and stories as if they were real people.  Writers tend to do the same.  In a letter to a friend Pushkin wrote of one of his characters, "My Stella has run off and got married.  I never would have thought it of her." 
            So it seems decidedly odd to be deficient in such a major aspect of fiction - like a golfer who can't putt, or a drummer with no sense of rhythm - but such, I have to confess, is my situation.  I am character handicapped.  Re-reading my early drafts, I discover that I write as if I had worked first as an optician, then as a hairdresser, two admirable professions of which I have only the most superficial experience.  I introduce almost every character in terms of eyes, (colour, shape, glasses/no glasses) and hair, (colour, length, texture).  Of course the range is fairly small, brown or blue, dark or fair, with far too many redheads for comfort (except in my most Celtic stories.)  These characters, lacking nearly all necessities of life, not surprisingly remain adamantly one dimensional.  They're barely on the page, so how can they leave it?
             The livelier characters that do emerge from my later drafts have largely been the result not, alas, of inspiration but of craft and, of course, some measure of that writerly good luck we always need.  But here’s the odd thing.  Teaching in graduate programs and exchanging work with other writers, I’ve come to realise that I am far from alone in my difficulties.  Some authors do have an instinctive feel for character but many, if not most, have to work to people their fictions.  This essay grows out of my efforts to understand why the process of creating characters in fiction often seems so elusive and what we can do to make it less so.  To paraphrase Flannery O’Connor’s famous remark about story, everyone knows what a character is, until they sit down to create one. 
      And what does craft consist of in this case?  What does make readers believe that these little black marks on the page in some mysterious way designate a being about whom they can care and argue and have opinions?  Well, other than taking public transport and looking closely at the obdurate, richly peopled world around us, craft largely consists of going back to those writers who have created lasting characters and trying to figure out just how their words turn into flesh and spirit.  In addition, as with many other professions and art forms, fiction writing has generated some venerable advice books.  Before trying to reinvent the wheel, I thought I should take a look at a few of these to see what guidance they could offer in this tricky business.  
     To begin at the beginning: Aristotle's POETICS.  When I turned back to this seminal work, I was surprised to discover that Aristotle devotes only one of his twenty-six sections to character.  He is much more concerned with questions of poetry and plot, comedy and tragedy.  In section fifteen, he at last comes to character and offers his usual succinct opinions. 

          In respect of character there are four things to be aimed at.  First, and most important, it must be good.  Now any speech or action that manifests moral purpose of any kind will be expressive of character: the character will be good if the purpose is good.  This rule is relative to each class.  Even a woman may be good, and also a slave; though the woman may be said to be an inferior being, and the slave quite worthless.  The second thing to aim at is propriety.  There is a type of manly valor; but valor in a woman, or unscrupulous cleverness, is inappropriate.  Thirdly, character must be true to life: for this is a distinct thing from goodness and propriety, as here described.  The fourth point is consistency, for though the subject of the imitation, who suggested the type be inconsistent, still he must be consistently inconsistent.
Most of us nowadays would take issue with Aristotle’s notions of propriety and repudiate his class system but much of what he’s saying still makes admirable sense.  Although we might think these demands somewhat contradictory - to be good and true to life, to have propriety and be true to life - what emerges clearly is that for Aristotle characters in literature are measured against humans and, like humans, are judged by their actions.  "All human happiness and misery," he claims, "takes the form of action," an opinion that now echoes through the workshops of America in the form of that oft-repeated, occasionally disputed, admonition: show don’t tell.  The famously supine Oblomov would have been carried off the stage in act one of any Aristotelian drama; so, I fear, would Bartleby the scivener.  The philosopher goes on to urge that both plot and character should “aim either at the necessary or the probable,” a deft way of describing the fiction writer’s endless task of seeming to mirror the real world (in most cases) while not actually doing so.
I read these trenchant words with admiration and with the pleasing sense of getting a brief glimpse behind the veil of time – across twenty-four centuries I can see a man’s mind at work - but I cannot say that I find them immediately useful when I sit down to write.  Yes, of course our fictions need to be expressive of moral purpose, our characters to be consistently inconsistent, yet here I am at the start of a new story and here is Martine with her straight mousy hair and her narrow brown eyes.  When is the rest of her going to show up?
      Skipping over Machiavelli’s THE PRINCE, Castiglione’s THE COURTIER and whatever wisdom Ruskin, Pater and the Romantics have to offer, I went next to one of our best loved advice books, E. M. Forster’s ASPECTS OF THE NOVEL, which was first published in 1927 and based on the lectures Forster delivered that spring at Trinity College, Cambridge.  Like his famous predecessor, Forster regards characters in fiction as our close cousins – he refers them to them as homo fictus – and he also comes up with a comforting number.     
The main facts in human life are five: birth, food, sleep, love and death.  One could increase the number – add breathing for instance – but these five are the most obvious.  Let us briefly ask ourselves what part they play in our lives, and what in novels.  Does the novelist tend to reproduce them accurately or does he tend to exaggerate, minimize, ignore, and to exhibit his characters going through processes which are not the same through which you and I go, though they bear the same names?

      We read along, nodding and feeling confident that we know how to answer his question.  Yes, most authors spend more time on love than sleep, more time on death than food.  Forster goes on to provide his famous analysis of flat characters versus round.  These definitions have so thoroughly entered our vocabulary and are so frequently invoked that to actually re-read Forster’s original discussion is a surprising experience.  The term flat nowadays is almost invariably disparaging but certainly this is not Forster’s attitude.  Indeed he takes issue with a critic of D.H. Lawrence's who argues that flat characters, because they can be summed up in a single sentence, are a falsification of homo fictus; no human, the critic complains, could be dealt with in this fashion.  Forster agrees but goes on to argue that flat characters can achieve surprising depth.  They have their antecedents, he explains, in the caricatures and humours of the seventeenth century and are created around a single idea.  “It is a convenience,” Forster tells us, “for an author when he can strike with his full force at once, and flat characters are very useful to him, since they never need reintroducing, never run away, have not to be watched for development, and provide their own atmosphere – little luminous discs of a pre-arranged size, pushed hither and thither like counters across the void or between the stars; most satisfactory.”
What Forster doesn’t precisely say but this description makes clear is that creating a good flat character is not conspicuously easier than creating a good round one.  Look at all the things he wants a flat character to do.  A dull sentence simply doesn’t cut it as a little luminous disc. 
            He goes on to offer his splendid analysis of Lady Bertram in MANSFIELD PARK.  Lady Bertram, he argues, is a very successful flat character but when her two daughters get into trouble – the unmarried Julia elopes; the married Maria runs off with a lover – Lady Bertram rises to the occasion: “the disk has suddenly extended and become a little globe.”  And this, Forster explains, is part of Austen’s genius; her characters, although flat, are never conceived of as simply flat; they are always capable of reaching towards roundness.  In conclusion, he offers an illuminating comparison between Austen and Dickens.  “Why do the flat characters in Jane Austen give us a slightly new pleasure each time they come in, as opposed to the merely repetitive pleasure that is caused by a character in Dickens?…. the best reply is that her characters though smaller than his are more highly organized.  They function all round, and even if her plot made greater demands on them than it does, they would still be adequate.”
The word ‘organized’ is not the first word that most readers reach for in praise of character.  Vivid, complex, engaging, life-like, poignant, richly imagined, we tend to say when we want to describe those characters who have taken up residence in our heads and hearts.  But as writers facing the open page none of these kindly terms is particularly useful.  “Organize” comes from the Greek word for tool and that is what our characters are, tools in the little laboratories of our stories.  We make them and, ideally, they help us to make something else.  Searching my bookshelves, I soon found another advice book whose author refers to characters in this fashion.  Here is William Gass’s beautiful and bracing attack on the notion of character as homo fictus. 
Enter Mr. Cashmore, who is a character in THE AWKWARD AGE.
           Mr. Cashmore, who would have been very red-headed if he had not been very bald, showed a single eyeglass and a long upper lip; he was large and jaunty with little petulant ejaculations that were not in the line of type.

         We can imagine any number of other sentences about Mr. Cashmore added to this one.  Now the question is: what is Mr. Cashmore?  Here is the answer I shall give: Mr. Cashmore is (1) a noise, (2) a proper name, (3) a complex system of ideas, (4) a controlling perception, (5) an instrument of verbal organization, (6) a pretended mode of referring, and (7) a source of verbal energy.  He is not an object of perception, and nothing whatever that is appropriate to persons can be correctly said of him.

In the paragraphs that follow Gass makes three persuasive points.  Firstly, Mr. Cashmore has the attributes that have been given to him but he also has many others which have not been precisely ascribed.  From what James tells us, we invent the rest.  This is a crucial and complicated aspect of the relationship between readers and characters, and it is an aspect which authors are always seeking to manipulate in appropriate ways.  How much or how little do we need to put down on the page to get the reader to fill in the rest?  Secondly, characters are those primary substances to which everything else in the novel is attached.  And thirdly, Gass argues for the importance of naming.  Proper names, he says, are the only part of our prose whose meaning we invent for ourselves.  “Character,” he writes, “has a special excitement for a writer (apart from its organizing value) because it offers him a chance to give a fresh meaning to new words.”
I am not suggesting that we abandon homo fictus; indeed even Gass is unable to abandon him and soon lapses into gossiping about characters in our usual fashion - “What an unlikely couple;” “Who would have thought she’d end up being a car mechanic.”  But I do think there is something about this rather abstract discussion which is both suggestive and helpful as to some of our difficulties in creating characters.  What Gass reminds us of, even more clearly than Forster, is on the one hand how artificial characters are, the degree to which they are indeed constructs rather than organic beings, and on the other how rapidly, as readers, we respond to the right kind of verbal energy.  Forster remarks admiringly on Dickens’ ability to bounce the reader into accepting even the most preposterous situations.
And Gass’s emphasis on the importance of names also speaks to two of our more pervasive failures of imagination.  At the beginning of  a recent semester I compared my students’ names to those of their characters.  Of course it wasn’t a blind test but I was struck by how much more colourful, exotic, awkward and memorable their own names were than those they bestowed on their characters.  Looking through the pages of their fictions, I encountered Sarah after Rebecca, John after David.  Of course there were exceptions in both directions but many authors do tend to be remarkably conservative in their choice of names. 
Gass also reminds us that we are fully responsible for our characters – both for what Mr. Cashmore has been given and for what he hasn’t – and that in creating a new character we are inventing a new language.  As lexicographers, we can’t take too much for granted.  It is up to us to provide both connotation and denotation.
                                                               *  *  *
Before looking at some examples from literature I’d like to mention a fairly recent phenomenon in the history of fiction writing, namely that heir of the advice book: the how to book.  Almost all of these deal very pragmatically with the question of how to create characters and suggest techniques for doing so.  Lists of specific suggestions are offered – what is your character’s horoscope? Do they have a nickname? What are their hobbies? - and strategies are recommended.  Yes, yes, I think as I read these sensible remarks, often written by and for writers, but when I close the book and try to apply the suggestions, my own characters still seem to divide into barely breathing and road-kill - to borrow some categories from the writer Francine Prose - rather than the more desirable round and flat.  Perhaps the real difficulty is that the first reader for whom we need to bring our characters to life is ourselves and these lists and strategies, although very helpful with the later stages of creation, may not help to ignite that first vital spark.  Even if it can work well for readers, we, the authors, have a hard time believing in the identikit process.  (The obverse of this,  of course, is that aggravating situation when the character is fully alive for the author but still robotic to the reader – in which case deliberate fleshing out may prove very useful.)          
            This seems as good a moment as any to offer my own list of strategies for creating characters:
Name the character.
Use myself, or use someone I know.
Borrow from a newspaper story.
Give the character a house/flat/doorway/car that I know well.
Send them to a careers’ counciller.
Let them talk. 
Make them act - n.b. Aristotle. 
Give a sense of their role and position in society. 
Show their relationships – we may all die alone but hardly anyone lives alone. 
Describe their appearance, in so far as it's relevant. 
“Good”characters must have some failure, or vice: bad handwriting, a hatred of violets.
“Bad” characters must have some strength or virtue: perfect pitch, the ability to recognise edible mushrooms. 
Every character should have something they share with me: a landscape, a habit, a taste. 
Every character should have something which I absolutely do not share: perfect pitch, the ability to recognise edible mushrooms. 
Characters who are very different from myself, I create from the outside in.  I give them houses, jobs, activities, friends, clothes and, gradually, I figure out their inner lives. 
Clones and dopplegangers, those characters who more or less stand in for me, or whom I want the reader to believe do so, I create from the inside out.

            The part about sameness and difference is especially crucial.  I need a place to stand while I invent a character, a basis of knowledge.  At the same time, for a character to really come to life, my imagination must be engaged, so I give the character something – a taste, an activity, a relationship, a phobia - that I don’t have so that I can imagine them into being.
            In a recent interview Richard Ford made a rather similar claim.  Frank Bascombe, the narrator of Ford’s novel INDEPENDENCE DAY, is to a large extent defined by the death of his son and the subsequent divorce from his wife.  Ford, who has never had a child nor been divorced, when pressed about his relationship to Bascombe’s life said the following:
         Invented it.  That’s my job, I think.  I didn’t do these things and yet I try to write vividly about them.  That in itself is a testament to the vitality, the immense possibility of imaginative fiction.  I am sometimes vexed by people wanting to trace back something that I write to some fact in my autobiography.  It sells short something that I so believe in, something that is so important a resource to human nature, namely an ability to invent something better than you know.
            I love this praise of the imagination yet, as a matter of craft, I would point out that Ford and Bascombe do share some crucial elements.  Bascombe lives in New Jersey, a landscape Ford knows well.  He used to earn his living as a sports writer, a job Ford held for a while, and he becomes a real estate agent, a profession Ford carefully researched.
                                                                           * * *
            So I have my list and perhaps you have yours but the question still remains: what brings a character to life for a reader?  The best way to an attempt an answer is to look at how a number of authors introduce their characters.  Here is the opening of Flannery O’Connor’s masterful story “Revelation.”
The doctor’s waiting room, which was very small, was almost full when the Turpins entered and Mrs. Turpin, who was very large, made it look even smaller by her presence.  She stood looming at the head of the magazine table set in the center of it, a living demonstration that the room was inadequate and ridiculous.  Her little bright black eyes took in all the patients as she sized up the seating situation.  There was one vacant chair and a place on the sofa occupied by a blond child in a dirty blue romper who should have been told to move over and make room for the lady.  He was five or six, but Mrs. Turpin saw at once that no one was going to tell him to move over.

Like Mr. Cashmore in William Gass’s analysis, Mrs. Turpin has only a few physical attributes, her size, her little bright black eyes.  She has a proper name; she has a ruling conception; she is an instrument of verbal organisation and a source of verbal energy.  She also, and I think we can glean this even from a few sentences, has what she hasn’t been given; we amplify her size, we guess her wardrobe.  From the moment Mrs. Turpin is introduced, in that beautifully cadenced first sentence, we know that her job is to make the world seem smaller; she marches into that waiting room and right out of it, into the reader’s imagination.  The crucial thing that brings Mrs. Turpin to life, though, is no single attribute or detail, no action or remark, but the overwhelming sense we get, as we read these lines, of how Mrs. Turpin regards herself and the world: her attitude. 
            This seems to me the key to creating vivid and memorable characters.  It is also, I think, the reason why doing so can prove such a tricky task.  No amount of detail – eyes, teeth, hair, jobs, dreams, relationship to mother, history of dog ownership, bank balance – will avail unless it conveys attitude.  Indeed long lists of detail without affect may simply make the task harder, for both reader and writer.  What one needs are the right details, the so-called telling details and what those details tell is attitude.
O’Connor is a splendid example in these endeavours.  Her characters, especially her three great archetypes – the older woman who knows where she stands, e.g. Mrs. Turpin and the mother in “Everything That Rises Must Converge;” the righteous younger person, e.g. Hulga in “Good Country People;” the n’er do well young man, e.g. The Misfit in “A Good Man is Hard to Find” - are brimming with attitude.  In spite of this, however, I do not find O’Connor an entirely helpful model.  Her accomplishment is clear, her method obscure.  In looking for hints of how to approach this inchoate task, I turned to “Polly Ongle,” a novella by the Canadian writer, John Metcalf. 
Paul was enraged by his son’s appearance, manners, attitudes, reflex hostility, hobbies and habits.  He was reduced to incoherent anger by the boy’s having mutilated all his clothes by inserting zippers in legs and sleeves, zippers which were secured by bicycle padlocks, so that he looked like an emaciated scarecrow constructed by a sexual deviant, … by his bleached hair which he coloured at weekends with purple food-dye, by his ruminant of a girlfriend…. by his intense ignorance of everything that had happened prior to 1970, by his inexplicable and seemingly inexhaustible supply of ready cash….

And on and on, as Paul offers his seemingly inexhaustible list of things he finds aggravating about his son.  Once again what makes this come alive are not just the details, though they're sharply specific, but the way in which the details reveal the attitudes of both Paul and his son towards a whole range of things: clothes, fashion, money, history, themselves.  In her lively and sympathetic text-book, Janet Burroway suggests writing monologues for one’s characters as a way to bring them to life.  A number of writers I know do do this to good effect but often I have some difficulty in getting my characters to hold forth.  Even my chattiest teenagers, my most verbose postal workers grow oddly speechless, as if they were suddenly being forced to make conversation on a bare stage before a hostile audience.  But “Polly Ongle” provides a very fruitful model.  When I set my characters on each other, allow them not simply to talk but to rant about each other’s short-comings, I tend to get much better results.  What Flora couldn't stand about Edward, I write, was his too short trousers, the way he was always apologising for the weather, his insistence on using a fork in a Chinese restaurant, his inability to decide to see a film the same day he read a review ....  Maybe it’s a sign of my own bad nature that grumpiness generates more energy than affection, at least on the page.       
            But affection can bear results.  A good example is Truman Capote's tender evocation of an elderly cousin in "A Christmas Memory."  As with the work of Metcalf and O'Connor, I was struck both by the specificity of detail and of how that detail conveyed attitude.  But what I particularly want to point to is Capote's use of denial.  "In addition to never having seen a movie,” the narrator tells us, “she has never: eaten in a restaurant, traveled more than five miles from home, received or sent a telegram, read anything except funny pages and the Bible, worn cosmetics, cursed, wished someone harm..."   A vivid picture of the cousin emerges from this negative list.  Perhaps in part because of that convention by which readers understand that more of a character is implied than stated – if Mr. Cashmore has an eyeglass then we presume the eyes - it can be particularly powerful to spell out, as Capote does, what a character would never own, do, say, dream.  Such statements, whether made by or on behalf of our characters, almost invariably convey attitude.  One can imagine Paul’s rant about his son working almost as well when cast entirely in negatives.         
So I have two new additions to my list:
Let my characters rant.
Use denial.

                                                                              *  *  *

       But what has become of Forster’s analysis in all this?  Implicitly I have been discussing the creation of round characters but I think it is apparent that the successful flat character is also endowed with attitude.  Remember Lady Bertram grieving over her daughters’ behaviour?  Those little luminous discs are discs with attitude; that’s why the reader remembers them from one appearance to the next and instantly recognises them.  And precisely because of this a successful flat character can, if necessary, expand into roundness.  If we stopped reading after the first paragraph of “Revelation,” then Mrs. Turpin would merely be a superb flat character, but if we continue then we see O’Connor take her heroine’s hopes and fears to an entirely new level.  Mrs. Turpin’s sense of self, which depends so much on her sense of where she stands in society, is deepened and complicated and finally enlarged to include her tremendous apocalyptic vision of heaven. 
Perhaps this consanguinity between round and flat is one reason why a story like John Cheever’s “The Swimmer” works so well.  As Cheever’s main character, Ned, swims home across Connecticut, through the swimming pools of various old friends, acquaintances, and neighbours, we are introduced to a stunning array of vigourous flat characters.  “The Hallorans were friends, an elderly couple of enormous wealth who seemed to bask in the suspicion that they might be Communists.  They were zealous reformers but they were not Communists and… for reasons that had never been explained to him (they) did not wear bathing suits.”  As the protagonist of the story, one might even say hero, Ned ought to be a round character but I am not sure that he is, or at least not in the conventional sense.  Apart from his relentless swimming, Ned’s burden and accomplishment is to be singularly lacking in attitude.  Instead what brings him to life are the reactions of the many flat characters he encounters on his journey and also, it’s worth noting, Cheever’s lovely descriptions of  the swimming pools themselves.  But Ned himself remains curiously blank.  The triumph of the story is to circumnavigate that blankness, like a black hole, as it drives towards its famous conclusion.
            Perhaps what Ned most fully embodies is Aristotle’s dictum that character is action.  From the opening page of the story, he is in action and what he does both delights and intrigues us.  There’s a wonderful comic pleasure in the idea, and the actuality if I may use such a word in connection with “The Swimmer,” of Ned’s journey across his home state.  He comes to life for us not only because of his telling relationships with his neighbours but also because of the unusual task in which we find him engaged.  Of course not every story can be organised around a single activity, still there is something to be learned about the degree to which our notion of a major character can be governed by the attitudes of minor characters.  We might call this the Great Gatsby effect.
Thinking about “The Swimmer” made me realise that attitude was a quality which could be both understood and conveyed in different ways.  The opening of Chekhov’s famous story “Lady with A Pet Dog,” for instance, introduces us to the two main characters, Gurov and Anna, and describes in some detail Gurov’s relationships with women: how he is afraid of his wife, how he simultaneously pretends to look down on women and cannot manage without them.  All of this is stated directly and becomes a given of the story.  In the process of conveying this information, the prose, as it were, takes a back seat.  The writing has a quiet confidence and authority but it does not draw attention to itself and the details, although precise and subtle, are not distinctively different from those many other writers might offer in such a description.
         Here, by contrast, is a paragraph from the French writer Emmanuel Bove’s first novel.  I became interested in Bove’s work after reading an article which claimed that without exception each of his twenty-four books had been unfavourably compared to his first: MY FRIENDS, which he published in his twenties, during the 1920s.  Still this frustrating career was not without its consolations; among his admirers Bove numbered Colette, Beckett and Handke. 
         The narrator of MY FRIENDS is a young unemployed French man who, as a veteran of the First World War, receives a meagre pension; he spends his days wandering around Paris.  Here is the opening of one of the several portraits that makes up the novel.   
          Lucie has a beer-drinker’s figure.  An aluminium ring – a souvenir of her husband who died at the front – decorates the index figure of her right hand.  Her ears are flabby.  Her shoes have no heels.  She keeps blowing at the wisps of hair which have escaped from her bun.  When she bends over, her skirt splits open at the back like a chestnut.  Her pupils are not in the middle of her eyes; they are too high up, like those of alcoholics.
            After only a few sentences, indeed a few phrases, one recognises a narrator who, as Forster said about Cavafy, stands at a very odd angle to the universe.  The two stunning images at the end of the the paragraph tell us an amazing amount about both the narrator and Lucie.  But they also, and this is where I would argue Bove is doing something different from Cheever and Chekhov, create a very particular attitude which emerges as much from the manner as the matter of what is being stated.  (I hope it is clear that I am not for a moment suggesting that Cheever and Chekhov lack subtlety or sub-text – quite the contrary – but their prose itself is not what has the attitude.)  Reading more of Bove’s work, I discovered that almost every character was described in terms of their ears. 
I would ascribe this same quality of embodied attitude to some of those writers driven by voice: Leonard Michaels, Lydia Davis and Faulkner come to mind.  (Whether a writer chooses to embrace voice seems, from my limited research, to be one of  those innate choices we have a hard time bringing to the conscious level.)  In a rather different tradition the British novelist Ivy Compton-Burnett is also voice driven.  The opening page of her novel, DARKNESS AND DAY, is absolutely typical of her work, namely 90% speech with an absolute minumum of gesture, setting, or description. 

          “Now, Sir Ransom, we shall have to have sunshine in ourselves to-day.  There is none outside for us.  But that should not be difficult for fortunate people like ourselves.” 
“Are we so fortunate?” 
“Now you know I don’t mean having a roof over our heads or having enough to eat.  To lack those things would be to be fortunate indeed.  But many of the rarer ones have come our way, and the sunshine should be within us.” 
“Perhaps that is why I have been out in the rain.  It did not matter its not being anywhere else.”

         Compton-Burnett’s characters are organised principally by their names and, Aristotle would appreciate this, by their roles in society.  In fact you don't know until nearly the bottom of the first page that the person addressing Sir Ransome is the governess Miss Hallam.  Again I would argue that what distinguishes the characters and brings them to their own peculiar kind of life are their attitudes but more than that: the prose itself is a character and also has an attitude.  So here is my last addition to the list, an addition to which all the other items are party and might even be subsumed:
Give, show, create, describe, embody ATTITUDE.
            The reason brown hair and blue eyes are such uninformative details is not only because they're fairly common but because they convey so little about the character and his or her attitude to the world, or even indeed to these particular attributes.  What we need to get on the page, I would argue, is how our characters feel about themselves and the world - what matters to them and what doesn't - and seen in that light all these lists, favourite food, astrological sign, hobbies, can be immensely helpful.  In “Revelation” Mrs. Turpin never does consult her horoscope but somehow I feel I know precisely what it would be like if she were to do so.


       I wrote "Mrs. Turpin Reads The Stars" because I was frustrated and baffled by my inability to create vivid characters.  It's one of the most fundamental aspects of fiction and yet my first drafts are full of cliched, one dimensional characters.  I hoped that looking at how other writers accomplish this task would help me on my own journey and I'm cautiously optimistic that it has.


Margot Livesey, Distinguished Writer in Residence at Emerson College, is the author of seven highly praised novels: Homework, Criminals, The Missing World, Eva Moves the Furniture, Banishing Verona, The House on Fortune Street and The Flight of Gemma Hardy, as well as the short story collection, Learning by Heart. Her short fiction, essays and reviews have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic and Vogue, among other periodicals. A recipient of grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation, she is currently a Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, where she is working on a new novel.


  1. As a fiction writer turned nonfiction writer, I read this wonderful essay wondering how much of Margot Livesey's analysis might apply to my work. Then, I thought all of it, noticing who is present in a room, who commands that room, and particularly knowing oneself. Not as easy as it sounds. Thanks Margot.

  2. One of the best things ever written about character in fiction!


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