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How to Write a Damn Good Novel
By James N. Frey
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1987 James N. Frey
All rights reserved.
WHAT IT'S ALL ABOUT IS "WHO"
WHAT'S THE WHO?
IF YOU can't create characters that are vivid in the reader's imagination, you can't create a damn good novel. Characters are to a novelist what lumber is to a carpenter and what bricks are to a bricklayer. Characters are the stuff out of which a novel is constructed.
Fictional characters — homo fictus — are not, however, identical to flesh-and-blood human beings — homo sapiens. One reason for this is that readers wish to read about the exceptional rather than the mundane. Readers demand that homo fictus be more handsome or ugly, ruthless or noble, vengeful or forgiving, brave or cowardly, and so on, than real people are. Homo fictus has hotter passions and colder anger; he travels more, fights more, loves more, changes more, has more sex. Lots more sex. Homo fictus has more of everything. Even if he is plain, dull, and boring, he'll be more extraordinary in his plainness, dullness, and boringness than his real-life counterparts.
Real human beings are fickle, contrary, wrong-headed — happy one minute, despairing the next, at times changing emotions as often as they take a breath. Homo fictus, on the other hand, may be complex, may be volatile, even mysterious, but he's always fathomable. When he isn't, the reader closes the book, and that's that.
Another reason the two species are not identical is that, because of space limitations, homo fictus is simpler, just as life is more simple in a story than it is in the real world.
If you were to write down everything that went on with you while you were, say, eating breakfast this morning, you could fill a fat volume — if you included all the millions of sensory impressions, thoughts, and images bouncing around in your head. When depicting the life of a fictional character, a novelist must choose to include only those impressions, thoughts, reflections, sensations, feelings, desires, and so on, that bear on the character's motivations, development, and decision-making faculties — those aspects of character that will affect the way in which the character copes with the dilemmas he will face in the story.
The result of this selection process is the formation of characters who, although they are lifelike, are not whole human beings. Homo fictus is an abstraction meant to project the essence, but not the totality, of homo sapiens.
SUBSPECIES OF HOMO FICTUS
There are two types of homo fictus. The simpler type is called "flat," "cardboard," or "uni-dimensional." These characters are used for the "walk-on" parts. They walk on, say a line or two, and that's that. They are the waiters, newspaper carriers, doormen, bartenders, bellhops. They may be colorful or nondescript; at a high emotional pitch or placid. But they are always peripheral, never central; the reader's interest in them is fleeting. They are easily labeled characters who seem to have only one trait: they are greedy, or pious, or cowardly, or servile, or horny, and so on. They may startle, enlighten, or amuse for a moment, but they have no power to engage the reader's interest for a protracted period of time. They have no depth; the writer does not explore their motives or inner conflicts — their doubts, misgivings, feelings of guilt. As long as uni-dimensional characters are used only for the minor roles in your novel, okay. But when they are used for major roles, such as the principal villain, dramatic writing turns into melodrama.
The other broad type of character is called "rounded," "fullbodied," or "three-dimensional," All the major characters in your novel should be of this type, even the villains. Rounded characters are harder to label. They have complex motives and conflicting desires and are alive with passions and ambitions. They have committed great sins and have borne agonizing sufferings; they are full of worries, woes, and unresolved grievances. The reader has a strong sense that they existed long before the novel began, having lived rich and full lives. Readers desire intimacy with such characters because they are worth knowing.
CREATING WONDERFULLY ROUNDED CHARACTERS, OR, HOW TO PLAY GOD
George Baker, in Dramatic Technique (1919), claims that "great drama depends on a firm grasp and sure presentation of complicated character ... thus the old statement 'Know Thyself becomes for the dramatist 'know your characters as intimately as possible.'"
Now then, how do you go about getting to know your character "as intimately as possible"?
Lajos Egri, in his essential and remarkable book, The Art of Dramatic Writing (1946), describes a rounded character as being three-dimensional. The first dimension he calls the physiological; the second, the sociological; the third, the psychological.
The physiological dimension of a character includes a character's height, weight, age, sex, race, health, and so on. Where would Jim Thorpe have been, for example, had he been born with a club foot? or Marilyn Monroe, had she turned out flatchested? Or Hank Aaron, had he had a withered arm? Or Barbra Streisand, a small voice? Obviously, not only would their choices of profession have been affected, but their personalities would have been shaped differently as well. A small man cannot "throw his weight around" as a large man can. Pretty or ugly, short or tall, thin or fat — all of these physical traits affect the way a character would have developed, just as such physical traits affect real people.
Society shapes our character based on our appearance, size, sex, build, skin color, scars, deformities, abnormalities, allergies, posture, bearing, lilt in the voice, sweetness of breath, tendency to sweat, nervous ticks and gestures, and so on. A petite, delicate, golden-haired girl with big blue eyes grows up with a completely different set of expectations about what she's going to get out of life than her needle-nosed, bug-eyed sister. To develop a fully rounded character, you must understand the character's physiology completely.
The second of Egri's three dimensions of character is the sociological. What is the character's social class? What kind of a neighborhood did he grow up in? What kind of schools did he attend? What kind of politics did he acquire? Which church nourished his spirit, if any? What were his parents' attitudes about sex, money, getting ahead? Was he given a lot of freedom or none? Was discipline lax or harsh, or somewhere in between? Did the character have lots of friends or few; what kind were they? A Missouri farm boy has grown up in another country from a kid in New York's Spanish Harlem. To understand a character completely you must be able to trace the source of his traits to their roots. Human character is forged by the sociological climate in which an individual is nurtured, whether it's a real human being or a fictional character. Unless the novelist understands the dynamics of the character's development, the character's motivations cannot be fully understood. It is the characters' motivations that produce the conflicts and generate the narrative tension that your novel must have if it is to succeed in holding the reader's attention.
The psychological, Egri's third dimension of character, is the product of the physiological and the sociological dimensions. Within the psychological dimension we find phobias and manias, complexes, fears, inhibitions, patterns of guilt and longing, fantasies, and so on. The psychological dimension includes such things as IQ, aptitudes, special abilities, soundness of reasoning, habits, irritability, sensibility, talents, and the like.
To write a novel you need not be a psychologist. You do not have to have read Freud or Jung or Dear Abby, nor must you be able to discern the difference between a psychopath and a schizophrenic. But you must be a student of human nature and acquire an understanding of why people do what they do and say what they say. Try making the world your laboratory. When the secretary in your office quits, ask her why. Your friend wants a divorce; listen to her complaints. Why did your dentist take up a profession that inflicts pain on others and requires him to be nosing around in people's mouths all day? Mine thought he could get rich that way, but so far he can't keep ahead of the payments on his drilling equipment. It's amazing what people will tell you if you ask politely and listen sympathetically. Many novelists keep journals or make character sketches of people they meet, which is a good idea. Grace Metalious, it's been said, peopled Peyton Place with friends and neighbors in her hometown, and everybody she knew had no trouble figuring out who all those rakish, bed-hopping characters were. She lost a few friends, got the cold shoulder from a few neighbors, but wrote a damn good novel.
MAKING CHARACTERS SIZZLE
If your novel is not only to succeed, but to be electric, you need to people it with dynamic rather than static characters. A character can be fully-rounded yet be too passive, too mamby-pamby. Characters who can't act in the face of their dilemmas, who run away from conflict, who retreat and suffer without struggling, are not useful to you. They are static, and most of them should meet an untimely death before they ever appear in the pages of your novel and ruin everything. Dramatic novels require dynamic characters, alive with great passions and strong emotions: lust, envy, greed, ambition, love, hate, vengefulness, malice, and the like. Make your characters, at least your major characters, emotional firestorms.
BUILDING CHARACTER FROM THE GROUND UP: THE FICTIONAL BIOGRAPHY
In Fiction Is Folks (1983), Robert Peck gives the following advice:
Writing is one heck of a rough racket, which means that if you do it dog lazy, it will defeat you quicker than boo. So, before you type Chapter One at the top of a Virginal Page (and then sit there for a week while you wonder what to do next) do your homework for each one of your characters.
"Doing your homework" means creating a background for the major characters: in effect, writing their biographies. For most writers, and certainly all beginning writers, character biographies are a necessary preliminary step in the making of a novel.
Suppose you want to write a murder mystery. You don't have a plot yet, or even an idea for one. The first thing you need in a murder mystery is a murderer. The murderer will be the villain and antagonist of the novel. In a mystery, the story stems from the machinations of the villain. In a sense, the villain is the "author" of your story. The cast of characters you will need in your novel will depend upon your villain's scheme.
Say you have a notion of a woman who murders her husband because he has disgraced the family by selling dope to finance his addiction to betting on slow horses. You have no idea who this woman is or what she is like, but you know she is a clever woman (otherwise she is not a worthy antagonist). You know she will plan the crime with great care and cunning. Her cunning, moreover, will determine the degree of difficulty the detective will have, so you'll want her to be as clever as you can make her.
The second thing you need is someone to solve the crime, the protagonist. You may at the moment not have anyone in mind to play the part. What do you do then?
There are many different types of detectives in such novels. He or she can be a hard-boiled pro (Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade), a cerebral pro (Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot), a gifted amateur (Ellery Queen, Miss Marple), or a bystander who gets drawn into the mystery (the second Mrs. de Winter in Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca).
Your decision will depend on the type of novel you envision. Detective fiction offers readers many delights. One might be the delight of watching a great thinker at work. Another might be sharing the bafflement and terror of an innocent caught up in murderous intrigue. Or watching a tough-guy detective slogging through the mud and mire on the seamy side of town, bashing heads and ducking bullets as he goes.
If you're an aficionado of one type, that's what you should be writing. Write the kind of book you like to read. The exception to that rule is the tough-guy detective novel written in the first person. It is a difficult prose style, especially for a beginner. When it's not done well, it comes off as imitative; or worse, as parody.
Whichever type of novel you select, you will be writing in a tradition, and it's best if you've read widely in that tradition and are thoroughly familiar with its conventions. An established writer may depart from convention and his readers will forgive the departure, but a beginner will not enjoy this privilege and is hereby warned to stay within the bounds of accepted practice.
Let's say you decide to write about a pro detective because you enjoy reading Erle Stanley Gardner, Ed McBain, Ross MacDonald, John Dickenson Carr, and Robert B. Parker. The "pro" detective is your favorite kind of detective. But you have no idea what your pro might be like. A good place to start is with a name, which might give you a mental image.
Let's not give him a typical detective's name like Rockford, Harper, Archer, or Marlowe. You want something fresh and different, but nothing far out. Nothing like Stempski Scyzakzk, which you fear might turn your reader off. The idea is to be creative within accepted form, as an architect will change the corners, pillars, slope of the roof, yet still have all the bedrooms, bathrooms and closets his clients have come to expect.
Let's call your detective something that sounds un-detectiveish, like, say, Boyer. Boyer Mitchell, how's that? Good as any. If you can't think of a name, the phone book is full of them.
A lot of detectives are middle-aged, tough, grizzled, and experienced. For novelty's sake, let's make Boyer young and inexperienced. Physically, he should not be a typical detective either. Fictional detectives are often tall, handsome in a rugged way, and brash. Let's make Boyer small-boned and gangly, medium height, intelligent-looking, and let's give him large, dark, penetrating eyes and make him round-shouldered and rather slow in his movements. He believes, let's say, in dressing well to make the best impression possible, is well groomed, and has large, sparkling teeth. He has a pleasant manner — quiet and thoughtful. Most people would take him to be a scholar. He's twenty-six and single.
Where did this picture of Boyer Mitchell come from? He was made up out of thin air by the author of the book you are reading, as the book was being drafted, selecting features that are the antithesis of those of most detective characters — features that have become stereotypes. Boyer could just as easily be old, fat, and alcoholic. Your decisions on what characteristics to include in your characters should be based primarily on two considerations: breaking stereotypes and good orchestration.
Good orchestration, according to Lajos Egri, is the art of creating characters with contrasting traits so they are "instruments which work together to give a well-orchestrated composition." In other words, don't make all your characters, say, greedy or ambitious. Characters should serve as foils for one another. If one is excessively studious, another might be excessively lazy in his studies. Hamlet was indecisive; he lacked will, being prone to thinking rather than acting. He brooded, sulked, and felt sorry for himself. His foil, Laertes, was a tough man of action.
One other consideration, when it comes to making up characters, is that you, the writer, will have to live inside the heads of your characters for a long time. You should ask yourself whether you really want to work with these characters. Are they characters you find interesting? Maybe you wouldn't want to work with Boyer Mitchell if he was old, fat, and alcoholic, for no other reason than that you prefer him to be young, small-boned, intelligent, and so on. That's okay, it's your book. If you are fascinated by your characters and like them, it is more likely your readers will too.
So far we have determined some of Boyer's physiological dimension and have a hint of his sociological dimension. We are starting to get a picture of what he is like, but it's still nebulous. We will need to penetrate his character and really get to know him, for he is to be the star of this novel.
Excerpted from How to Write a Damn Good Novel by James N. Frey. Copyright © 1987 James N. Frey. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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