Shoptalk: A Prose Central Series
By DeWitt Henry, Prose Editor
I evolved shoptalk or notebook sheets during my teaching of fiction workshops, which proved helpful to me and to students. I asked them to ask themselves about character, plot, setting, dialogue, sensory imagery, sentimentality, translation, simultaneous actions and other aspects of craft. But foremost of all was “on character.” This series reflects my personal sense of what makes one person interesting or recognizably different from others in life and on the page. Different writers will have different questions.
Work Points on Character
1) I have always fondly remembered a remark that I heard fall from the lips of Ivan Turgenieff in regard to his own experience of the usual origin of the fictive picture. It began for him almost always with the vision of some person or persons, who hovered before him, soliciting him, as the active figure, interesting him and appealing to him just as they were and by what they were. He saw them, in that fashion, as disponibles, saw them subject to chances, the complications of existence, and saw them vividly, but then had to find for them the right relations, those that would most bring them out; to imagine, to invent and select. and piece together the situations most useful and favorable to the sense of the creatures themselves, the complications they would be most likely to produce and to feel. -Henry James
2) You mustn’t look in my novel for the old stable ego of character. There is another ego, according to whose action the individual is unrecognizable, and passes through, as it were, allotropic states which it needs a deeper sense than any we’ve been used to exercise, to discover are states of the same single radically unchanged element. -D.H.Lawrence
3) A character in a book is real…when the novelist knows everything about it. He may not choose to tell us all he knows–many of the facts, even of the kind we call obvious, may be hidden. But he will give us the feeling that though the character has not been explained, it is explicable, and we get from this a reality of a kind we can never get in daily life… .For human intercourse. . . is seen to be haunted by a spectre. We cannot understand each other, except in a rough and ready way; we cannot reveal ourselves, even when we want to; what we call intimacy is only a makeshift; perfect knowledge is an illusion. But in the novel we can know people perfectly, and, apart from the general pleasure of reading, we can find here a compensation for their dimness in life. -E.M. Forster
Some Aspects of Character
PHYSICAL : attractive or ugly (by what standards)? Healthy or sick? strong or weak? body a concern or something to take for granted? do body’s demands (sex, hunger, exercise, sleep, etc.) conflict with circumstances? does he/she naturally have a lot of energy? Too much? Less than conditions ask? typical gestures?
INTELLECTUAL: what are his/her capacities? smart or dumb? how educated and in what? what are primary interests? what kind of mind? imaginative? obtuse? what ideas? What is on his/her mind?
EMOTIONAL: how strong are his/her feelings? can X feel? is X passionate? how does X deal with passions? big or mean hearted? what does X feel about? sensitive? insensitive? what limits are imposed on X’ s feelings?
MORAL: how does X feed his/her spirit? What are X’s spiritual needs? what are the sources of X’s pride? What are X’s values? what is X’S need or capacity for love? hate? praise? ambition? what does X think of his/herself? can X BE what X believes is valuable? how permanent and dependable are X’s values? how reliable? what can X experience and what can’t he/she? does X feel guilt? fear? feel free or trapped? meaningful or meaningless? why? how strong and how organized is X’s will, conscience, aesthetic sense?
A) Customs: what are X’s habits? X’s ordinary day? rituals? patterns of time, money, energy, life spent? how does X usually meet experience? .
B) Responsibilities: to self? to others? what can’t walk away from? ” /
MATERIAL: what are X’S possessions? what do they mean to him/her? to others?
ECONOMIC: how does X find means to live–food, board, insurance payments, etc? is X in debt? how well does X live, by what standards? what is X’s physical environment? how much of X’s day is spent on providing for self and others? how stable is X’ s economic condition? who and what depend on X?
SOCIAL: how is X involved with other people? how much does X need involvement (or seek to avoid it)? can X live alone? does X have men friends? what sort? women friends? what sort? is X capable of friendship? of love? of hurt? of treachery? what does X look for in people? How is X valued by people? what do people think of X? what people? how does X want people to think of him/her? what people?
A) Family: married? children? parents? siblings? relatives? what is X’s relation to them? love? Hate? duty? how does X value family? how does X provide for family? treat them? who are they? to whom?
B) Community: what does X expect of community (law, order, trash collection, supermarkets, employment, friendship)? what does it expect of X? how established is X? what is his/her reputation? does X have roots? has X had roots? what sort? where is X from? what are the values of X’s community? do they conflict with X’s values?
A) Lessons from the past: what has X learned from life? Is X bitter, blithe, egotistical, giving? how educated is X’s heart? has X faced death, 1oss, sex, betrayal, ignominy, etc.–the beasts in his/her jungle? what does X consider to be wisdom? How wise is it? how has the past changed X? influenced X’s present and future?
B) Fate (future experience): the inevitable (X will age, die; X will have to deal with people; X will face taxation, etc…), the probable (if proud, X will probably learn humility; if single, Xwill probably love and marry; if healthy X will probably get sick and well again), the possible and accidental (X might win a contest; if doomed, might win grace; if walking down a street, might have a piano fall on him/her). Given X’s capacities and attitudes, how will these kinds of future experience change X? How does X regard the future now? Dreams? Nightmares? Is X in control of the future, or think he/she is?
VERBAL: what tone or tones in his/her speeches, or writing, or consciousness? what vocabulary /vocabularies? what dialect? what speech habits? syntax? how literary? how rhetorical? metaphorical? ironic? poetic? proverbial? can X meet experience with words? the right words?
CONTRAST AND PARALLEL…
What sort of questions do YOU as a writer ask about people and yourself? What realities about people do you think the best characters in fiction can bring to mind?
Thank you! Very helpful questions for seeing the characters hovering before us.