In a recent post at s1ngularity, Trent Walters objects to the paucity of compelling characters in the horror fiction he's been reading for review. He then goes on to speculate about how "character" in fiction is created.
There are two obvious extremes of characterization (obvious because of their extremity) that help writers to quickly sketch a vividly realized character. One is the crazy or really weird character common to the literary story. Writers do this often to get noticed by a literary magazine, to do something that hasn't been seen. The other is the object or affectation of the character's that distinguishes this character from the others. He's the thin man, the fat man, the girl with the bone through her nose, the three-legged dog, the boy who stutters.
But neither rendering has much to do with character except that they both quickly sketch what a character appears to be, but appearances don't capture the reality of a character. Actions characterize the character (or, in the case of Hamlet, inaction, which is still an act). . . .
It may be true that in some fiction--perhaps in horror fiction more than most, although I have my doubts about this--character emerges mostly from "action," but I would propose that in the very best fiction, genre or otherwise, character is actually just an illusion created by the use of language in a particular way--by a writer's style, although the illusion thus created may be more or less a conscious act, may in fact be simply an artifact of the stylistic choices the writer has made to begin with. This may seem a preposterous notion, way too "postmodern" to be taken seriously, so I will further illustrate with examples of writers who couldn't be considered postmodern by anyone.
It is sometimes said that among the first "realistic" characters in works of fiction are those to be found in the novels of Jane Austen. They seem quite firmly rooted to the soil of real life, restrained in their actions and words in comparison to most of the fiction of the 18th century, where realism tends to be sacrificed in favor of color and dynamism. But isn't this a consequence of Austen's style, which is itself quite understated and restrained? To the extent a character like Elizabeth Bennet seems to us a very levelheaded and quietly witty woman, isn't this because Jane Austen is a very calm and quietly witty writer? What else do we need to know about Jane and Elizabeth Bennet beyond what we learn from this brief exchange early on in Pride and Prejudice about Mr. Bingley: "He is just what a young man ought to be," said [Jane], "sensible, good-humored, lively; and I never saw such happy manners!--so much ease, with such perfect good breeding!" "He is also handsome," replied Elizabeth, which a young man ought likewise to be, if he possibly can. His character is thereby complete." How much of the effect on our perception of character comes from the revelations of "speech" in the ordinary sense, and how much from the fact Jane Austen is a master at composing very sly and exquisitely worded dialogue?
Likewise, Dickens's characters are usually described as outsized and vigorous (and they are), but how often do we pause to consider how outsized and vigorous Dicken's own style actually is? Don't his characters come across to us in the way they do because of that style? Even the minor characters in Dickens are always vivid, partly because of Dickens's strategy of picking out one or two habits or features and exaggerating them, but also simply through Dicken's forceful and distinctive way of writing, as in this brief account of "Mr. Fang," from Oliver Twist:
Mr. Fang was a lean, long-backed, stiff-necked, middle-sized man, with no great quality of hair, and what he had, growing on the back and sides of his head. His face was stern, and much flushed. If he were really not in the habit of drinking rather more than was exactly good for him, he might have brought an action against his countenance for libel, and have recovered heavy damages.
It could be said that the effect of a passage such as this comes more from what is ususually called "voice" rather than style per se, but what else is voice in writing but the concrete effect created on the printed page by an appropriate arrangement of words and sentences and paragraphs? Dickens's style, garrulous but pointed, seemingly ingenuous but actually quite caustic at times ("brought an action against his countenance for libel, and have recovered heavy damages" seems a delicate way to put it, but is really very cutting), might be called "theatrical," but so might all of his characters, their theatricality a reflection of the language used to create them.
Similarly, the characters in Henry James's fiction, which most readers find quite convincing even when the fictions themselves are judged to be somewhat short on dramatic action, share the obsessed and ratiocinative qualties of James's style. When James Joyce or Virginia Woolf create character through the use of the stream-of-consciousness technique, the characters that emerge, Leopold Bloom or Mrs. Dalloway, aren't compelling because of the "content" of their thinking or even because we're given a glimpse into the way they think, but because of the manipulations of language and expected novelistic discourse that each author performs. Literally, it's the strange way in which the words--broken up, rearranged, discontinuous--are put down on the page. "Character" in Ulysses or Mrs. Dalloway can't be separated from these puposeful arrangements of words.
To use an example from genre fiction: How much more do we ever really learn about Chandler's Philip Marlowe than we do from the very first paragraph of The Big Sleep, as Marlowe stands before the Sternwood house?:
It was about eleven o'clock in the morning, mid-October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn't care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.
Everything we associate with Marlowe is here, manifested in this brief but punchy paragraph: his powers of observation, his self-deprecating, wiseass attitude, accomplished through a demotic yet also eloquent style. And in this case it is specifically a writing style, as Marlowe is the narrator of his own adventures, which ultimately makes it impossible for us to separate Marlowe the writer from Marlowe the "character." The "action" in which Marlowe always becomes embroiled is fun to read, perhaps even keeps us reading, but for me such action adds little to my perception of him as a character, which is also always being reinforced by the way in which he describes this action to us.
First-person narration makes it most apparent that it is style--voice, if you wish--that evokes character, not action, certainly not the quirks or affectations that some writers try to use to force characters into being "vivid," to return to Trent's comments quoted above. Not only is the narrator's own character what we discern through his/her style, but all the other characters about whom such a narrator might speak clearly enough are what they are because of the way this narrator speaks about them. But good writers approach third-person narration in the same way they would a first-person narrator. It is itself a character, a voice, with his/her/its own distinctive way of summoning a fictive world through writing. Perhaps at his point you have to say that character and style are indivisible, but this is where "the reality of a character" has to start.
There are some writers for whom style supersedes character, for whom the "authorial" character is the main character, and their fiction doesn't suffer in the least from it. Stanley Elkin is such a writer. His characters are believable enough, vivid certainly, but their vividness comes not from any externally imposed "features," fastened onto the characters like artificial limbs. It comes from Elkin's inimitable and inexhaustibly inventive style. Here is a third-person account of Ben Flesh, protagonist of The Franchiser:
Forbes would not have heard of him. Fortune wouldn't. There would be no color photographs of him, sharp as holograph, in high-backed executive leathers, his hand a fist on wide mahogany plateaus of desk, his collar white as an admiral's against his dark, timeless suits. There would be no tall columns of beautifully justified print apposite full-page ads for spanking new business machines with their queer space-age vintages, their coded analogues to the minting of postage, say, or money--the TermiNet 1200, the Reliant 700, Canon's L-1610, the NCR 399--numbers like licence plates on federal limousines or the markings on aircraft.
Though he actually used some of this stuff. G.E. had an anwer for his costly data volume traffic; Kodak had found a practical alternative to his paper filing. He had discussed his microform housing needs with Ring King Visibles. He had come into the clean, bright world of Kalvar. A special card turned even a telephone booth into a WATS line. Still, Fortune would do no profile. Signature, the Diners Club magazine, had never shown an interest; TWA's Ambassador hadn't. There was no color portrait of him next to the mail-order double knits and shoes.
(It's worth noting how Elkin here describes Flesh by what he's not; all the clutter of detail only produces a stereotype that Ben Flesh mercifully avoids.)
Here's a first-person narrator, from The Bailbondsman:
So I'm Alexander Main, the Phoenician Bailbondsman, other men's difficulties my heritage. Alexander Main the Ba'albondsman, doing his duty by the generations and loving it, thriving on the idea of freedom which is my money in the bank, which is my element as the sand was my ancestors'.
So give the Phoenician your murderer, your rapist, your petty thief yearning to breathe free. Give him your stickup guy and embezzler, your juvenile delinquent and car robber. Give him you subversives and menslaughterers. I like dealing with the public.
Pretty clearly both Ben Flesh and Alexander Main are really Stanley Elkin. Or "Stanley Elkin," the manufactured authorial presence. In many ways, all of Elkin's characters seem just like all the others, are versions of this most important character, the writer. No one who loves Stanley Elkin's work, as I do, could want it any other way. Who needs characters when you can be carried along by writing like this?