Questions for a bad question

I regularly take the the top voted question from readers and answer it in a post. With 85 votes, today’s winner was:

How do you create a reliable character in your story?  how do you create a deep, reliable personality? So they would seem real?  (Submitted by Elchanan Paley)

I am going to do something I haven’t done before and deliberately not answer this question, at least not directly.

This question seems, at first, like a reasonable, if basic, thing a writer should ask. But there are several issues lurking inside this question that made it a great example for how to ask better questions. It’s not a bad question, despite the title of this post, but it certainly could be a better one. And the way you ask better questions is to question the question.

Why does a character need to be reliable?

I know many unreliable people in real life. Part of what makes a person a person is their contradictions and flaws. Even narrators can be unreliable in good books. It’s by carefully capturing the important details of a person in words that makes them seem real or not. And don’t forget depending on the kind of writing you are doing, unreality is an asset. Consider Frankenstein, Darth Vader or even Harry Potter. Unreliability, or superficiality, might be the most important trait a character, or a person has.

Which writers have you read that have written good characters?

One powerful thing about books is there are no wires or strings. There are no special effects. Every book is just a series of words. This means anything one writer achieves can be studied by other writers. Go read how Dickens describes the characters in Great Expectations, or Tolstoy in Anna Karanenna. It’s all there. Of course you can’t see how many drafts it took them to arrive at these finished works, you can see every verb, noun and adjective in every sentence.

You might read these books and decide that the way these writers wrote those characters isn’t all that good, and as a writer you are entitled to your opinion (A great exercise is to take a page you don’t like from a classic book and rewrite it in your own style). But the way you develop your sensibilities isn’t to just read books about how to write, but to read whatever kinds of books you’re trying to write, study them and then write something yourself based on what you learned.

Pick any two novels, read ten pages of each, and then compare the different ways the author was effective, or ineffective, in achieving whatever thing you want to achieve in your own works.  To be a serious writer demands developing your own opinions and you can only do that by changing how, why and what you read.

Why do you think there is an objective answer?

I think The Catcher in The Rye is a good book, but many people don’t agree, as it has 400+ one star amazon reviews. There is no one answer for what is a good book, much less for what is a well written character. The writing styles of, for example, Hemingway and Updike, are very different, but neither is necessarily better than the other.

This is part of the challenging of making things: you have to accept we are an opinionated species. Some people will like what you write and some people won’t no matter how good a writer you are. Some people will prefer characters written one way, others another. John Gardner, author of the classic The Art of Fiction, wrote that “Nothing in the world is inherently interesting… to all human beings.” If you want to write you have to accept the subjectivity of writing. 

Why do you think I would know the answer?

I’ve written five books, but they’re all non-fiction. I have an unpublished novel, but that, in the grand scheme of writing fiction, isn’t much of an achievement. This means I’m not the best person to ask this particular question. Given how many writers make a living purely by writing about writing, rather than writing books on other subjects, there are many good places to start. Gardner’s The Art of Fiction is the first book I think of for new writers of fiction, but it’s easy to find others.

6 Responses to “Questions for a bad question”

  1. JMiller

    Having written a lit crit fic book (and finding that all narrators should be distrusted), I’m going to agree with everything Scott said and then promptly threadjack this to answer the question in a novice-author kind of way probably as it was asked.

    The only thing you should be able to rely on a character for is to be who they are. I recommend the following:
    1) Give the character a secret to keep. It should almost be surfaced at some point in the story (or maybe completely surfaced), but it should be big enough to change How You Think when you’re thinking as that character. “After this knowledge, what forgiveness?” asks TS Eliot.
    2) Give the character a desire or a goal, ideally one that your readers can identify with. Our most powerful narratives are ones that explain to the audience how to do what they want to do (or avoid what they’re afraid of). “Every character should want something,” explained Kurt Vonnegut, “even if it’s just a glass of water.”
    3) And don’t be surprised to find that your characters are somewhat like you; anticipate this and add to them in terms of things you haven’t done and/or wouldn’t do. Camus noted in The Plague that no one character is the author, but all of the characters put together very well might be.
    4) Don’t be afraid to spend a lot of time just listening to people — especially people in your target audience — and getting their tonal inflections and speech patterns in your head. They learned how to talk from other people; it’s only natural that your characters should also learn how to talk from other people.

    Hope it helps!

    1. Scott Berkun

      It’s not threadjacking at all (assuming I know what that means :). Thanks for giving more direct answers than I did.

      The more I read the more I discover how few rules there really are. You can always find a work of literature that is well respected, or should be, but that violates long held principles. Of course as a new writer the standard advice is useful, but most rules can be bent or broken if the hand that’s doing it knows what it’s doing.

  2. Nancy

    I’ll share my experience.

    I still use something I learned early on. When I work with screenwriters, I ask that they consider using it, too. That is to write an auobiography of each and every character, even minor ones. I do mean autobiography (not biography), so one is writing in that characters voice. Put in incidents from childhood, secrets, desires, quirks, tics, etc. Political and religious views (or lack thereof). Did they graduate high school, drop out, go to college? What was their major? Once the character is “built,” it gives a solid base to work from. If a character then acts “out of character,” there needs to be a reason why.

    When each character has a unique story, then I believe each unique voice comes through. I have read far too many screenplays where every character speaks in exactly the same way. When you write a line (or action) for a character, could you insert any other character’s name in there and it would work just as well? If so, that is something that needs to be addressed.

    Of course, all that backstory will not appear in the actual work, it is for your information only. Make the character a real person before you ever begin to write about her or him.

    1. Scott

      I’ve heard this advice before and it makes good sense to me. Any book is only going to be the tip of the iceberg of a character. They have lives before and after (maybe) the chronology of the book. Spending time developing their entire timeline can only help.

      Of course it’s another kind of work that won’t directly appear in the finished novel, or screenplay, and many new writers don’t comprehend, or don’t want to believe, how much work they have to do that won’t be directly visible to readers.

      1. Nancy

        Hi Scott
        I never got notified of a follow-up post (maybe it’s a bug in the new site?), but I want to respond to this, even a couple weeks late.

        Your last point is why I enjoyed your talk so much at WDS2014. It is a lot of work, and that has been my experience as well. What has been a difficult lesson for me, in working with new writers (primarily screenwriters), is meeting someone with a sh*tload of talent who doesn’t want to do the work. I used to try and convince the writer it would be worth it. I don’t do that any longer; in fact, I hardly do it at all as I’m taking a break from helping others write and doing it myself.

        Thanks for your insights.

  3. Eugene Wallingford

    I read the questions as how do *you* create reliable character and personality. In that case, the desired answer is not objective. It is Scott Berkun’s method or approach.


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