James Wood on the “nonsense written” about characters in fiction

From what I recall (I consume way too much without proper digestion), James Wood is a meanie of a literary critic who is erudite to a flaw and a bit fusty. I probably read some of his reviews back when I was reading The New Yorker (grandparents had a subscription — is anything better than hand-me-down magazines?), but I don’t remember them. However, when I read the reviews of his latest book How Fiction Works, I quickly ordered it from my local library. Several months later, I finally have it in hand.

I enjoyed it and learned from it so I suppose that means that it’s a good book. Reminds be a bit of John Gardner’s On Moral Fiction in its breadth and insistent literariness. I liked that Wood uses tons of examples from literature and that he expresses a real breadth as a reader (although he doesn’t deal much with genre) in that he likes and finds value in works of literary realism, postmodernism, and pre-realism, yet isn’t afraid to show where all of them can go wrong. He cites (approvingly) James and Nabokov and Austen and Stendhal and others and does a good job of not conflating all of them. He shows where there are serious points of differences. I also love that he clearly loves novels, loves fiction. And he goes after some of the silly truisms that get passed on, celebrating all types of metaphor and characters and style and point of view (although he does go on about free indirect discourse a lot — but he’s right — it’s what makes novels unique and wonderful and heterglossic, to borrow from Bakhtin). One wishes for a bit more structure and the latter 1/3 of the book seems a bit more rushed and less-developed than what comes before.

I do want to quote one section from How Fiction Works because it relates to a particular issue that comes up quite a bit in Mormon fiction circles. It’s not the most quotable work because so much depends on specific examples and prior discussion, but hopefully this comes across okay enough:

A great deal of nonsense is written every day about characters in fiction — from the side of those who believe too much in character and from the side of those who believe too little. Those who believe too much have an iron set of prejudices about what characters are: we should get to “know” them; they should not be “stereotypes”; they should have an “inside” as well as an outside, depth as well as surface; they should “grow” and “develop”; and they should be nice. So they should be pretty much like us. (101).

He goes on to cite a New York Times review of the films The History Boys and Venus. Neither film sounds like something I would want to see — something about old men who grope young boys. There is indeed an “ick factor” there. But if I disagree with the particular example, I do think what he has to say about this in relation to characterization is worth thinking about and discussing:

In other words, artists should not ask us to try to understand characters we cannot approve of — or not until after they have firmly and unequivocally condemned them. The idea that we might be able to feel that “ick factor” and simultaneously see life through the eyes of these two aging and lecherous men, and that this moving out of ourselves into realms beyond our daily experience might be a moral and sympathetic education of its own kind, seems beyond this particular commentator, of whom all one can say is that she is unlikely to be so unforgiving when she herself has reached seventy. But there is nothing egregious about this article. A glance at the thousands of foolish “reader reviews” on Amazon.com, with their complaints about “dislikeable characters,” confirms a contagion of moralizing niceness. (102)

Bit of a cheap shot there, Mr. Wood (and speaking of characters — I keep picturing the author of How Fiction Works as the animated version of James Woods playing himself on “Family Guy” [James Woods, incidentally, was born in Vernal, Utah). But it raises the issue of this: unless you condemn all fiction then I don’t think that it’s fair either to say a) the characters made me do it and b) the characters are dislikeable/immoral and so that must mean the book (and perhaps the author) is too. Authors are in control of their characters. Readers are in control of their response to the story. Flat characters can be interesting, entertaining and instructive. Round characters can be insufferably boring and lame. Meta-fiction can be interesting and well-done or it can be pretty stupid. etc. etc.

We all make certain allowances when we read fiction. I firmly believe that individual readers have the right to make the allowances they wish and to draw the boundaries where they so desire. But I also think that, in general, the more we take fiction to be fictive and the more we stretch our willingness to work with the styles, plots and characters (in a variety of modes — I have no patience for those who can’t read 19th century fiction because they are too lazy to work with non-20th-century transparent genre style nor with those who refuse to read genre fiction because they have some narrow notion of style and literariness or even worse of “literary realism”) of all types of storytelling, the more interesting readers (and writers and reviewers) we become.

I have wondered in the past if I’m not just not demanding enough of a reader because I enjoy so many types of genres, authors, styles, etc. I don’t know that I can make any large claims about magnanimity because I still have my irrational blind spots and reading ruts. And yet, I can say that being able to delight in a wide assortment of characters is fulfilling and fun.

27 thoughts on “James Wood on the “nonsense written” about characters in fiction”

  1. “Authors are in control of their characters.”

    You might think. But sometimes they get away from you.

  2. LOL, Patricia.

    Who was it that said something along the lines of, “My characters go places and do things, and I just follow along behind and take notes”? I thought it was Faulkner or Fitzgerald, but I can’t find it.

  3. Also, once a reader or 600 get hold of your characters, you lose any semblance of control because they become theirs.

    Hopefully.

  4. Let me add something that Wood says about character because I think it’s important:

    Not all of these characters have the same amount of realized “depth” but all of them are objects of perception, to use Gass’s words, all of them are more than mere bundles of words (though of course they are bundles of words), and thing that can be correctly said of persons can also said of them. They are all “real” (they have reality) but in different ways. That reality level differs from author to author, and our hunger for the particular depth or reality level of a character is tutored by each writer, and adapts to the internal conventions of each book. (119-120)

    ———
    Now about this idea of characters and control. Wood writes:

    Nabokov used to say that he pushed his characters around like serfs or chess pieces — he had no time for that metaphorical ignorance and impotence whereby authors like to say, “I don’t know what happened, but my character just got away from me and did his own thing. I had nothing to do with it.” Nonsense, said Nabokov, if I want my character to cross the road, he crosses the road. I am his master. (116)

    Of course, that’s Nabokov. I’m not very familiar with his work — just never seemed like something I’d enjoy — but what criticism I’ve read about his work suggests that he may be a bit on the extreme side in terms of views on plot and characterization.

    Even so I’m still wary of entertaining too seriously this metaphysical notion of creation. It displaces authorial responsibility and underplays the role of craftsmanship. And of revision and editorial influence.

  5. he may be a bit on the extreme side in terms of views on plot and characterization.

    I think this gets into the territory of forcing your character to do something that is not consistent with the person you created, so I’d have to know how far he’s crossing over that threshold or if he’s not at all and he’s just built the world consistently and logically to begin with.

    Even so I’m still wary of entertaining too seriously this metaphysical notion of creation. It displaces authorial responsibility and underplays the role of craftsmanship. And of revision and editorial influence.

    I don’t think it’s an either/or situation; say you take the metaphysical path to rough draft, but take the craftsman’s path to final draft. Then your editor gets hold of it. How much is the Muse and how much is the Editor? Who’s to say?

  6. “Nabokov used to say that he pushed his characters around like serfs or chess pieces — he had no time for that metaphorical ignorance and impotence whereby authors like to say, ‘I don’t know what happened, but my character just got away from me and did his own thing. I had nothing to do with it.’ Nonsense, said Nabokov, if I want my character to cross the road, he crosses the road. I am his master. (116)”

    Whoa! Sounds like Nabokov had his literary calling and election sewn up. Well, good for him! Some of us are still ripening on the archetypal vine, however, and are making thrilling discoveries and startling decisions in new writing environments just as we do in life.

    Looks like Mr. N. might be one of those people who believes that language’s nature is static, that is, it’s like that hammer you pick up to nail something in place. Chess pieces you can move — a hammer with which you can fix something in place — eh, close. Very control-oriented, very strategic. But maintaining control doesn’t necessaily equate with taking responsibility, nor does experiencing surprises when you write automatically equate with capriciousness.

    I write for several reasons, but one reason is that language opens up new possibilities for me here and now as I push the boundaries of what I think I know. This is a narrative process that forms me as I form it. Would I say, after writing one of those scenes (which happen rarely) where something other than what I had planned happens to a character, that “I had nothing to do with it?” Hm, I think I would say, “I had everything to do with it.” Maybe writers exist who would say, “I had nothing to do with it,” or maybe Nabakov is caricaturing.

    I bet Nabokov didn’t like surprise birthday parties, either. Too much out-of-hand metaphorical ignorance.

  7. Oh, permit me to add that not only would I say, “I had everything to do with it,” but also I would say, “I take full responsibility for it.”

  8. Whoa! Sounds like Nabokov had his literary calling and election sewn up.

    That’s the second funniest thing I’ve read all day.

  9. I agree with Wood that it can be edifying to read a story that illustrates the perspective of an unsympathetic character. However, I think he’s being a little unfair to call his list “iron prejudices” instead of recognizing that there’s a little give and take involved.

    As a reader, I don’t expect the main characters to necessarily have all of the qualities he lists (we should get to “know” them; they should not be “stereotypes”; they should have an “inside” as well as an outside, depth as well as surface; they should “grow” and “develop”; and they should be nice). Yet if the main characters aren’t developed and are all familiar stereotypes or stock characters and are presented only superficially and don’t change and aren’t sympathetic, then (as a reader who likes characters most of all), I feel justified in dismissing the story as uninteresting (to me at least).

    Similarly, I think it’s very difficult to write a story where (1) the situation and plot are realistic and (2) the characters are realistic and (3) the dialog is realistic and (4) the story is lively enough to keep the reader interested. So I don’t have a problem with sacrificing a little on some of these points for the sake of the whole. But I don’t think I’m being unfair to expect that at least some aspect of the story should be realistic and/or original.

    On an unrelated note, a friend of mine had a completely different criticism of Wood’s book.

  10. Patricia:

    “But maintaining control doesn’t necessaily equate with taking responsibility, nor does experiencing surprises when you write automatically equate with capriciousness.”

    I completely agree. I just wish that authors would dampen some of the metaphysical talk and expose more of the craftmanship of creating a beautiful work of fiction. My beef is with the cult of the author and not with ripening of stories and the surprising turns characters can make.

    Also: That Nabokov quip is the funniest thing I have read all day. The birthday one is the second funniest thing I have read all day.

  11. “I just wish that authors would dampen some of the metaphysical talk and expose more of the craftmanship of creating a beautiful work of fiction.”

    Oh, me too — but we’ve discussed somewhere around here before the intimate relationship between craftsmanship and responsibility, and how “responsibility” is society’s newest four letter word. In fact, all those other four letter words have edged into society’s mainstream, among other routes via the arts, but utter the word “responsibility” aloud in a gallery glowing with illuminati and a shocked hush falls over the crowd.

    “Please, ma’am, if you speak that word again, you will be asked to leave immediately.” (Note passive voice usage.)

    I would like to hear more about what you consider a “beautiful work of fiction,” Wm. What is beauty in fiction?

  12. I have no idea how to go about answering that question, Patricia. In fact, I considering erasing that adjective before I posted the comment.

    Is anybody willing to be braver than me and toss out an answer?

  13. .

    I’ll be more flippant than you, but I’m feeling too tired to be brave, just at the moment.

    I should have a good answer to that question though, as I overuse that word something awful.

  14. What’s interesting is that I enjoyed the Wood quotes from the link in C. L. Hanson’s comment more than the ones that William posted. I have always felt in writing that, while there is perhaps nothing so terminal as “mathematical finality,” there are certain literary (and perhaps even artistic) locks that have only one key. Now, that’s not to say that another key does not or could not exist, but as it might not have yet been discovered, there exists this singular moment that triumphs within the work like a puzzle piece locking into place. And because an artistic work is unlikely to be duplicated, that puzzle piece is unlikely to be bested or at least proven imperfect. For example, I have often discussed with friends the fact that I have read many great books, but very few great endings. In this case, the ending is that moment when the work of art – spaced over the time of the experience – becomes as final as the equation itself. Oh, one might register the aftertaste, of course. But in that moment, I feel as though I have experienced a symmetry and majesty in narrative that approaches the mathematical. I think of the end of “The Bourne Identity,” “Catch-22,” “Animal Farm,” and “The Grapes of Wrath.” As a student of film, I would say the same thing about “The Godfather” (parts I and II), “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” and “Casablanca,” just to name a few. The point is, the sum of the narrative parts throughout adds up to an answer, and I would argue that in the aforementioned works, it adds up to THE answer. It’s not a question of whether or not someone could come up with a better ending, but whether or not in the mathematics of story if a more correct ending even exists. A hundred years ago, Romeo and Juliet was performed with a happy ending, largely because the bard’s version was seen as too depressing. Why have we gone back to the original? Because the mathematics of the happy ending didn’t work. Mathematics is largely about reality. Story (and art in general) is more about authenticity. But each has its equations.

    In the arts, one may be empowered with choice in a way that isn’t possible with mathematics, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that there isn’t a correct answer (or perhaps several correct answers) to the story question. But whereas the finality of mathematics is universal, perhaps its artistic equivalent is merely personal. That said, I have many mathematician friends who speak glowingly of imaginary numbers (like negatives) and quantum calculations and all sorts of arithmetic wherein the imagination of man is taxed. Thus, perhaps the two pursuits are more closely linked than we realize.

  15. C.L. & ET:

    You both bring up good points about the believability of a fiction, of a character: if the author can’t make the character’s actions and thoughts plausible, at least to some degree, I just can’t make myself buy into their world.

    I especially like your analogy, ET, about the equation from which authenticity is derived. I read a book for one of my undergrad lit survey classes (I can’t even remember specifically what it was right now, that’s how much it affected me) in which the ending didn’t quite add up. I suppose it was supposed to be a bildungsroman of sorts, but the character’s journey didn’t make sense in that I didn’t see him change as much as the author assumed he had. Perhaps I just didn’t read closely enough to watch the changes take place, but in the end, he did something totally out of character and it left a pretty bad impression on me, so much so that that’s all I remember about the experience we had together.

    I guess that goes to show, at least for me, the need for author’s to create human reality and human response in their fictive worlds.

  16. the need for authors to create human reality and human response in their fictive worlds

    I think it’s also important to note that no two readers will come to the work the same way. I refer you to a post on Dear Author regarding “reader baggage.”

    The contract between the author and the reader is this: Author tells Reader a lie. Reader may or may not buy the lie. If the Reader does not buy the lie, he is free to put down the lie (book) and not buy any more of that Author’s lies and tell everyone in the world what a bad lie Author told.

    It has been pointed out to me that fiction is, in fact, NOT a lie and that it can be more truthful than reality, but I read that to be completely metaphorical. Fiction can reveal truth about the human condition, but it is not in itself truth.

    Unless the words “this really happened and all names have been changed so I won’t get sued” are included somewhere in the front matter, the story is a lie because it did not happen. Random Reader can buy the lie or not buy the lie. However, to say that All Readers must buy the same lie (and if they don’t, it only means that Author is a bad writer) is just silly.

  17. Unless the words “this really happened and all names have been changed so I won’t get sued” are included somewhere in the front matter, the story is a lie because it did not happen.

    Yes, but how much truth is there really to the events related in a “true” story? As you say, we all carry our own reader baggage and our particular “reading” of any event will be bogged down by that baggage. Hence, no true story can be considered objectively true because it will be told with the author’s personal slant. Neither can a true story be read as truthfully as it was written because it will be read through reader’s personal lens.

    In a sense, then, when we read any story, whether billeted as fiction or non-fiction, we’re simply buying a lie, though some lies are merely more truthful than others.

    (Phew! Lots of truths and lies in there…)

  18. Tyler, I understood you to originally say that you didn’t buy X author’s lie:

    the character’s journey didn’t make sense in that I didn’t see him change as much as the author assumed he had

    which is a fair assessment. You then said:

    I guess that goes to show, at least for me, the need for authors to create human reality and human response in their fictive worlds.

    So proportions of truth/lies in storytelling aside, I took you to mean that because X author didn’t work for you, that it didn’t work at all. That was my objection.

    If that’s not what you meant, then I humbly apologize.

  19. It’s funny that you should mention endings, ET. One of the posts I’m working on is the problem with endings in Mormon novels.


    Regarding reader baggage — I prefer to use the term sediment. We all have different layerings and types of sediment and when the narrative washes over us, certain things go in to different grooves and interact differently with the various sands, gravels, rocks and boulders of our psyche. And some of these narrative leave additional deposits. Some more than others.

  20. No need to apologize. I simply took your comment as an extension of what I’d said in my final sentence.

    Having said that, what I meant (at least what I think I meant) was that the change in this author’s character didn’t seem plausible, at least to me, though it may work for someone else. (Obviously the professor thought it worked.) Not having the book in front of me (I can’t even find it on my bookshelves), I can’t lay out a more definitive reading as to why it didn’t seem authentic.

    As for the creation of human reality and human response in fiction, I intended that to mean, according to my reading of the failures of X novel, that if an author is dealing with human characters (even, perhaps, un-human characters) that they should allow them to act in authentically human ways, should surround them with essentially human realities (situations, challenges, weaknesses, etc.) and allow them to respond to those realities in essentially human ways.

    (If that makes any more sense…)

  21. (Add this to my thought:) To have a character end their story by suddenly doing something out of character and out of line with the story’s progression doesn’t fly with me because, to return to ET’s analogy, the equation just doesn’t add up. If a character is supposed to be human and humans don’t just do things out of character, unless motivated by some rational or irrational idea/force, then show me or at least hint at the reasoning. Don’t lead me to one conclusion then suddenly jump ship just because you want to surprise me. Show me why you jumped ship, even if it takes me a minute to figure it out.

  22. William, I like “sediment.” That truly describes where I am as a reader. There are two authors in genre romance (both NYT bestsellers) who seem to be beloved above all others and…I don’t get the love and I am apparently a minority of 1 in both instances.

    [the author] should allow them to act in authentically human ways, should surround them with essentially human realities (situations, challenges, weaknesses, etc.) and allow them to respond to those realities in essentially human ways.

    I think what I’m trying to say is that your “essentially human” is not the author’s “essentially human.” Novel X worked for both the editor who acquired it and, as you note, your professor, so the author’s “essentially human” worked for them. They bought the lie.

    Your words “real” and “human” and “authentic” are loaded with connotations I can’t begin to assess because they are different from my words “real” and “human” and “authentic.” Since I don’t know what your words mean, I can’t understand where you’re coming from. [And obviously, in this particular instance, I can’t know unless I read Novel X (which I’m not asking for, LOL!) and we have a discussion.]

    Someone said of my work, “Nobody I know talks like that.” That’s fair. What would not be fair is to say, “Nobody I know talks like that, therefore your work isn’t authentic.”

  23. Okay, okay. Uncle! I see where you’re coming from. (Sometimes I wish we could just communicate beyond the challenge and burden of language and that I knew more of You–as in AMV commenters–than what I can gather through the printed word.) I was simply trying to elaborate on ET’s comment that he’s read a great many books but very few great endings and that the endings weren’t great because the equation adding up to a story’s authenticity or believability didn’t quite work out. Perhaps since literature is a more subjective domain than math, an equation isn’t the best analogy. But I like the idea of it.

    Now if only I could find that damn novel to remind myself of why it didn’t work for me…

  24. (Sometimes I wish we could just communicate beyond the challenge and burden of language and that I knew more of You”“as in AMV commenters”“than what I can gather through the printed word.)

    We could try a Vulcan mind meld.

    As for language, I’ve always thought there must be a way to calculate (mathematically) rhythm and function (you know, like music theory is mathematical), but I have to use a calculator to add 0+0, so I’m not going there. 😀

  25. The technology exists, but I am not making it available until AMV rises to the level of FranklinCovey or Nu Skin. The good news is that all of you are in on the ground floor and so will be the first invited to join the collective mind.

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