A Character Is What She Does

In Ron Carlson Writes a Story, Carlson says, “A character is what he or she does.” He writes, “Action is narrative evidence. It proves as it goes, whereas adjectival telling (she was careless, manipulative, compulsive, willful) alerts us to how a character might be, but doesn’t prove it with the force good drama requires.”

This notion of character in motion seems obvious. But can I just tell you how many drafts of stories I have where someone is walking or sitting or thinking? Too many. Or what about thinking and walking? Or remembering and sitting? Why is it so difficult for me to get my characters moving?

The reason is that it feels like they’re moving. For example, I have a character in a story that remembers a time she was running for a subway train. I’m revising that story now and even though I’ve had it drilled into my head over and over again that characters need to move, I still had this character remembering!

And then I read this snippet from James Wood’s How Fiction Works. It’s from the first paragraph from the chapter, Character:

The unpracticed novelist cleaves to the static, because it is much easier to describe than the mobile: it is getting these people out of the aspic of arrest and mobilized in a scene that is hard. When I encounter a prolonged ekphrasis… I worry, suspecting that the novelist is clinging to a handrail and is afraid to push out.

At least I could take comfort in the idea that describing characters in motion wasn’t easy. But I wasn’t thrilled to admit that I’d been clinging to the handrail. Later that night, after reading that section from Wood’s book, I revised my scene. Now my character is no longer remembering a time she ran for the train. Now she is actually running for the train. Making this change was not easy. I had to delete the first three pages or so, and what’s more, I had to write an entirely new scene, which I realized the story needed.

So I ask you. Are your characters in motion? Or are you still hanging onto the handrail?

Photo: Jaako / Flickr Creative Commons

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