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.
Hills sets the tone in this section for a number of chapters to follow. Much of the section discusses the various ways in which people have tried to categorize personality types through the ages. It’s a temptation writers have always been susceptible to for obvious reasons. If you can grab a character off the rack, and nobody notices the difference, what’s the harm?
With one important caveat, Hills agrees:
…economy is necessary in creating characterization in a short story, and individualization from a type may be a substantial time-and-space saver over creation of a characterization from the ground up.
The obvious caveat is “individualization”, by which I take Hills to mean an author ought to do something to make each character unique. Types are two dimensional; characters ought to be three dimensional in some sense.
Still, if differentiating from a type is useful in the confines of a short story, it ought to be equally useful in other mediums when an author wants to introduce a character without too much bother. Fixed characters in any medium come to mind, as do members of a supporting cast that have brief but important roles.
There’s no test that will tell you when you’ve crossed the individualization threshold. Like everything else in the narrative arts the question is subjective and unique to each audience member and instance. What’s enough for some won’t be enough for others, but therein lies freedom. You can’t meet everyone’s needs, so better to quit worrying about it and get on with writing. (This is, again, the value of the workshop: it allows you to sample your success rate in short order.)
I’m uneasy with the idea of categorizing anything in fiction because it leads inexorably to a formulaic appraisal of writing. I don’t think in terms of character types when I write, but I can’t argue against the utility of doing so if it works for you. Just as every shade of paint springs from a few primary colors, it may be that every character springs from a few basic character types.
In my own work I usually know so much about my characters by the time I engage them that I’m already past the categorization stage. Knowing a character’s job, or her regional background, or his relationship status, tells me a lot. Throw in the weather, the setting, the other characters in the story, the reason for that character’s appearance, and that all leads me away from types and toward the kind of individualizing detail that Hills demands.
Too, the whole question of thinking about categories is not without risk. Most of what a storyteller does is murky and uncertain, so it’s understandable that being able to glance at a list of characteristics and pick something suitable might be useful. The problem with doing so, however, is that it promotes similar ideas about plotting, and about all other aspects of fiction writing — which again leads back to formulaic writing.
What storytellers should practice are those things that improve effect and create an indivisible whole. The relationship of plot to character to setting should be so intertwined and deeply enmeshed as to be impossible to separate. Any attempt to shorthand a narrative by describing its parts should necessarily omit the story’s meaning and power, but quite often formulaic fiction can be described as a completed checklist rather than an organic experience.
For Hills the problem of writing from types is compounded by a misunderstanding of what a type really is:
Studies show that if you establish a rating system from “most introverted” to “most extroverted” and scale a whole group — like, say, a collegeful of students — you would get a regular bell-shaped curve with most of the students grouped somewhere in the middle — not the bimodal curve (that is: two groups) that you’d have to get if the theory that there are two types of people in this world were correct.
As a practical matter, then, if you’re building characters from types, what you’ll want to do when individualizing those characters is add detail that moves characters toward the norm. Failing to do so means presenting characters that are exceptions, not groups. Not surprisingly, Hills tackles that subject in the next section.
Next up: Types as Exceptions.
— Mark Barrett
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