The Ditchwalk Book Club is reading and discussing Rust Hills’ seminal work, Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular. Announcement here. Overview here. Tag here.
Just as Hills previously discussed fixed and moving actions, here he confronts Moving Characters, as against Fixed Characters. Where actions poorly prepared for smack of the author’s will, a change in character poorly prepared for smacks of an unconvincing shift.
The difference between the two types of characters — both in construction and in the effect they have on the reader — is found in preparation. Whether you’re writing a fifteen-page short story or a five-hundred page novel, you probably know in advance, if only at a gut level, which characters will be central to and affected by the story, and which characters will be presented only as context, backdrop, continuity and spice. The former group will necessarily need more preparation and presentation than the latter, precisely because they will change, however slightly, along the way.
As Hills has already discussed, the relationship between action (plot) and character is symbiotic. What affects one affects the other, which is why preparation for change must be carefully considered. A complex, fully evolved character presented only through fixed actions may foreshadow no hint of plausible evolution, leading the reader to feel any eventual movement as unconvincing. By the same token, a character presented as fixed yet obviously moved by plot may leave the reader perceiving manipulation by the author.
What I routinely think of as balance is what Hills routinely calls agreement, and it extends to the relationship between action and character:
…to serve as a dynamic or moving character in the action of a story, a characterization must have not only the capacity to be affected by the action, but also the capability of causing it.
Hills goes on to note that any character can be a moving character, provided preparation is sufficient:
It really all depends on how convincingly the character and the narrative are presented by the author and the skill with which he uses the methods of enhancing the interaction of character and plot.
It may seem as if Hills is simply encouraging you to be a good writer, and in a way he is. But his idea of a ‘good writer’ is someone focused on effective methods and objectives. It’s not enough to be gifted: you have to know what you’re trying to accomplish. Between talent and technique Hills clearly believes both are necessary, but the point is really moot. Whatever talent you have you have. Technique, on the other hand, can be learned. And knowing that your central character must be capable of movement is an aspect of storytelling technique.
In the section Hills discusses why some characters seem more capable of movement than others, but in the end he comes back to preparation:
The key thing, though, is that the characterization of a moving figure must be deep enough. If too little is know of the character, if he is presented only superficially or in a one-sided way, then he will appear fixed to the reader.
As if often the case in Hills’ book, a rudimentary section leads to an extended discussion. In this case the next nine sections will focus on characterization, and methods by which characterization can be achieved.
Next up: The Series Regulars, as against the Guest Stars.
— Mark Barrett
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