Granthika Blog

On Character

My friend (and literary agent) Eric Simonoff once told me this story about one of his clients: this writer was on an extended book tour, enjoying the readings and persevering through the time spent trudging through airports and alone in hotel rooms. Writers know that on such a tour you must always travel with a fat novel or two. So in one anonymous hotel room, this writer settled in for a bout of reading with a deliciously thick novel by Anthony Trollope, the 19th century British author famous for his deft handling of characters through multi-book sagas. The protagonist of our story turned to the first page of this book, which is a late instalment in one of these series (I’m being purposefully vague here). He read the first line, in which Trollope bluntly informs the reader that one of the most prominent characters—until now developed in fine detail over several books—has died. The writer threw the book across the room. He couldn’t bring himself to read on for weeks afterwards.

How is it that sensible, grown-up human beings can get this emotionally invested and entangled with “characters,” things created through words, phantasms that were never alive in the first place?

In a 1978 paper, the psychologists David Premack and Guy Woodruff coined the term “theory of mind” to describe an individual’s ability to impute “mental states to himself and others” (Premack and Woodruff 1978, 515). To put it crudely: if I’m sitting across a table from you, I know that I have mental states, feelings, a consciousness within me. But for all I know, you might be a meat-bag, an automaton without a psyche within. Why and how do I know you have a mind like mine? Well, I can’t really know, I impute. This is not a formal “theory” that I use to reason about your interiority, but a blazingly fast process that happens automatically under the surface of my conscious attention. I read into your actions and glances and responses and project consciousness into you.

Human beings are not born with this ability, we grow into it. In a 1983 paper, Heinz Wimmer and Josef Perner described their experiment:

A story character, Maxi, puts chocolate into a cupboard x. In his absence his mother displaces the chocolate from x into cupboard y. Subjects have to indicate the box where Maxi will look for the chocolate when he returns. Only when they are able to represent Maxi’s wrong belief (‘Chocolate is in x’) apart from what they themselves know to be the case (‘Chocolate is in y’) will they be able to point correctly to box x. This procedure tests whether subjects have an explicit and definite representation of the other’s wrong belief. Yet, there is neither a problem in framing the test question by using mental verbs (e.g., ‘What does Maxi believe?’) nor are subjects required to verbalize their knowledge about other’s beliefs since a mere pointing gesture suffices. (Wimmer and Perner 1983, 106)

Younger children around the age of three typically failed such “false belief” tests—when asked where Maxi would look for the chocolate, they indicated the “y” location, where Maxi’s mother has put the chocolate. “Four- and 5-year-olds often pass such tasks, judging that Maxi will search in the cupboard although the chocolate really is in the drawer. These correct answers provide evidence that the child knows that Maxi’s actions depend on his beliefs rather than simply the real situation itself, because belief and reality diverge” (Wellman, Cross, and Watson 2001, 655). The three-year-olds assume that Maxi knows what they know—they are unable to impute a separate, independent consciousness to Maxi.

Children on the autism spectrum sometimes display what Simon Baron-Cohen has termed “mindblindness”:

[A boy] never looked up at people's faces. When he had any dealings with persons at all, he treated them, or rather parts of them, as if they were objects… He would, in playing, butt his head against his mother as at other times he did against a pillow.

[On a crowded beach, another boy] would walk straight toward his goal irrespective of whether this involved walking over newspapers, hands, feet, or torsos, much to the discomfiture of their owners. It was as if he did not distinguish people from things, or at least did not concern himself about the distinction. (Baron-Cohen 1995, 61)

But in large part, we ceaselessly and effortlessly impute consciousness, so much so that we read mind into matter—we give names to cars and boats and speak to them with affection; we mourn the death of a beloved computer; we give names to swords and guns. Famously, in 1966 Joseph Weizenbaum set up a computer program named Eliza that interacted with users like a Rogerian psychologist, echoing back the user’s input in a manner that sustained a seeming conversation. Some users began to unburden themselves in long computer sessions, shocking Weizenbaum into becoming “an advocate for social responsibility in science and a critic of artificial intelligence” (Campbell-Kelly 2008).

The writer’s craft consists of taking advantage of this human propensity. We create a facsimile of conscious beings through a collection of clever tricks, and readers impute mind to these ghosts and attach themselves assiduously. Storytellers have deployed these techniques for thousands of years, and they keep working.

Consider the following passage, the beginning of Elizabeth Tallent’s story, “No One’s a Mystery”:

For my eighteenth birthday Jack gave me a five-year diary with a latch and a little key, light as a dime. I was sitting beside him scratching at the lock, which didn’t seem to want to work, when he thought he saw his wife’s Cadillac in the distance, coming toward us. He pushed me down onto the dirty floor of the pickup and kept one hand on my head while I inhaled the musk of his cigarettes in the dash hoard ashtray and sang along with Rosanne Cash on the tapedeck. We’d been drinking tequila and the bottle was between his legs, resting up against his crotch, where the seam of his Levi’s was bleached linen-white, though the Levi’s were nearly new. I don’t know why his Levi’s always bleached like that, along the seams and at the knees. In a curve of cloth his zipper glinted, gold.

“It’s her,” he said. “She keeps the lights on in the daytime. I can’t think of a single habit in a woman that irritates me more than that.” When he saw that I was going to stay still he took his hand from my head and ran it through his own dark hair.

In that first sentence, why a “five-year diary”? Why one with a “little key, light as a dime”? As one reads on, these seemingly incidental details begin to reveal themselves as crucially important to the reader’s experience of the narrative (spoilers coming up). A diary, of course, is a means of constructing a narrative about oneself. But the key here is flimsy, and the lock doesn’t work; Jack’s specific gift is perhaps appropriate for a child, not particularly fitting for someone who has just (legally) become an adult. The story will soon become a duel between different stories about the future, and so the diary becomes a potent foreshadowing of this theme. Jack pushes her head down to his crotch, and the narrator allows him to do this and hold her in that position; we are in the morally treacherous realm of an older man who has been having an adulterous relationship with an underage girl. The power dynamics are clearly visible, or so we think—as the story goes on, Tallent will subvert our assumptions about what we see here. Jack’s wife drives a Cadillac, but he drives a dirty pickup truck; the seams of his jeans are bleached—always—along the seams and at the knees, hinting at what kind of work he does. Jack is irritated the most by his wife’s habit of keeping her car’s lights on during the daytime. In a few deftly turned sentences, we begin to see vividly who Jack his, who his wife is, the shape of what their marriage has become.

And there are also these voices, in the case of the narrator not only her dialogue but also her interiority, what she sees vividly and notices, and what is not allocated quite such focussed attention—in the terminology of the scholars who work in the newish field of Cognitive Poetics, “figure and ground.” Tallent’s skilled deployment of point of view (sometimes also referred to as “focalization”) places us very close to this young woman, intimately involved in this conversation and implicated in its back and forth. And yet—although you might not notice this during a first reading—the very first sentence tells us that we are looking at this crucial moment from a later vantage point, when the narrator’s eighteenth birthday is in the past, perhaps the far past. By the time this older woman is telling us this story, she knows and understands much more about herself, about the predictions she and Jack make about her future (remember that diary), about the dreams and truths that they are both reaching for in that one conversation in that dirty pickup truck on that one day.

Tallent’s story, which is barely over a page long in the August 1985 issue of Harper’s Magazine, is a tiny miracle of concision and expansiveness—a brief description of a few minutes in a fictional vehicle produces the implied presence of entire lives, all this achieved through a rapid accumulation of meaningful detail. This precise miniaturist technique of razor-sharp observation works through indirection, suggestion, implicature. The reader is prompted through these pointillist specks of bright colour (barely consciously noticed, if at all) into projecting, imputing life into the canvas—not just consciousness and mind and feeling into the characters but also the entire world within which these “people” exist.

The dexterity and grace of Tallent’s technique may be contrasted with the laundry-list method of character-description you may have sometimes encountered: “Björn was six feet tall. He had bright red hair and blue eyes. His arms were muscular and covered with tattoos.” Etc., etc. An attempt to browbeat the reader into an engagement with a character through a surfeit of detail will fail. The job of the writer is to find and fix the few crucial details that will suggest the whole.

Among the writers most obsessed with finding those diamond-sharp details is Ernest Hemingway. In Death in the Afternoon, his paean to the brutality and beauty of bullfighting, Hemingway describes watching a bullfighter named Hernandorena get badly gored by a wounded bull. For Hemingway, “the problem was one of depiction and waking in the night I tried to remember what it was that seemed just out of my remembering and that was the thing that I had really seen and, finally, remembering all around it, I got it. When he stood up, his face white and dirty and the silk of his breeches opened from waist to knee, it was the dirtiness of the rented breeches, the dirtiness of his slit underwear and the clean, clean, unbearably clean whiteness of the thigh bone that I had seen, and it was that which was important (Hemingway 1955, 20).”

Notice that it is not the detail alone that makes Hemingway’s prose work here—it is the alliterative insistence on dirtiness, and then on the “clean, clean, unbearably clean” whiteness of the thigh bone that sears the image into your memory. Detail must be embedded in carefully crafted prose. I read this book first as a teenager in India, about as far away from Spain as it is possible to get, and I’ve never forgotten this scene and its aftermath. In the same book, Hemingway also tells us of his mystical faith in the right details that come, always, from a place of knowledge: “If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the waiter had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing (Hemingway 1955, 192).”

In his 1927 book, Aspects of the Novel, E. M. Forster famously laid out the difference between “flat” and “round” characters. “In their purest form,” flat characters are “constructed round a single idea or quality; when there is more than one factor in them, we get the beginning of the curve toward the round.” Flat characters “can be expressed in one sentence,” and therefore Forster’s prototypical, extreme example for these characters is Dickens’ Mrs. Micawber, who can be reduced to her utterance, “I will never desert Mr. Micawber” (Forster 1927, 104).

“Round” characters, according to Forster, “have already been defined by implication and no more need be said”—that is, round characters are complex (as humans are) and they undergo change over the course of a narrative (as humans do over the course of a life) (Forster 1927, 117). Further: “The test of a round character is whether it is capable of surprising in a convincing way. If it never surprises, it is flat. If it does not convince, it is a flat pretending to be round. It has the incalculability of life about it—life within the pages of a book (Forster 1927, 118).” Forster’s examples of round characters include William Makepeace Thackeray’s Becky Sharp from Vanity Fair, Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones; and Charlotte Brontë’s Lucy Snowe. He allows that all the characters in a novel cannot be round—there is not enough space, so you can deploy flat characters in peripheral roles (the policewoman, the visiting doctor, the foreign princess, the old coot who says, “They went thataway!”). But in Forster’s view, at least the protagonists in a narrative must be round. “It is only round people who are fit to perform tragically for any length of time and can move us to any feelings except humour and appropriateness” (Forster 1927, 111–12).

Although Forster’s round-versus-flat schema is often presented as binary, we should note that he does point to transitional characters that exist in the space between the two extremes. His example for this middling category is Lady Bertram in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. For most of the novel, she remains flat, existing within the formula, “I am kindly, but must not be fatigued.” But Forster notes that when Lady Bertram suffers a family disaster, she surprises us with an unexpected reaction, and therefore becomes “capable of rotundity” (Forster 1927, 113). For a brief moment, this “disk has suddenly extended and become a little globe,” after which she “goes back to the flat” (Forster 1927, 114).

The characters in “No One’s a Mystery” don’t have the chronological time or narrative space to change much, although that first-sentence displacement of the narration itself into the future perhaps prompts us to ask, “Why is she telling this story?” And also, “How is this narrator different from the eighteen-year-old in the dirty pickup truck?” Yet, both Jack and the younger narrator are surprising and complex; the story works as a slow revelation of their motives, their understandings of each other and themselves. By the end of that one Harper’s page, the reader is indeed moved to many feelings, and surprised and aesthetically exhilarated.

How does one get to such complexity and depth? In my experience—insofar as I have been successful in reaching for depth and complexity—the process is a version of “remembering all around it.” I usually start with a bare inkling of a character, a hint of a person in a landscape, and a mood. As I spend time with him or her—weeks and sometimes months—I begin to feel like I know some history (the “back-story”), some sense of how this character’s mind works. The complexity and roundness unfolds itself, reveals itself. Sometimes I’m surprised, and therefore delighted. I take lots of scattered notes. As I figure out where this person comes from, what work they do, what they hate and love, I like to walk in the actual landscapes where they might live. I interview people in the field or domain the character works in. I ask questions and write down answers, but the much greater value is sitting in a policeman’s office for an hour or two. Years later, while I write, I remember the huge piles of files on his desk, and his sleek athletic shoes under the table. That kind of detail can help you carry a scene, carry emotion slantwise.

But this is also sometimes a crushingly lengthy and frustrating slow-burn journey. Some characters stay tantalizingly just out of reach. You must think all around them, observe them from the corners of your eyes. I know some writers who are much more systematic, who make lists of traits and quirks of personality, attach precise notes to character profiles. I’ve tried working like that and gotten nowhere. But I’ve had students who thrive with such a method, and I have an exercise I’ve used in workshops for decades with success. I call it “Twelve Prompts in Search of a Character.” I tell the students I’m going to give them a series of prompts, and that they should write down their reactions quickly, without thinking too much. And if they can’t find a response to a prompt, to not worry about it and go on to the next one. Then I give them the prompts, pausing after each while they write down answers. I tell them to write down:

  • The name of a character.
  • One peculiar thing about how/where/when this person was born.
  • Who hurt this person when they were young? And how?
  • Tell us about their education or lack of it.
  • Their greatest success in their teenage years.
  • Their greatest and most haunting failure in their teenage years.
  • Who or what broke their heart as an adult?
  • One peculiarity about their person or mode of dress.
  • A fantasy they’ve never told anyone.
  • One famous person they hate, and why.
  • Something in their life that makes them unhappy.
  • What does they want, desire, long for? What’s preventing them from getting it?

Once the students have finished responding, many of them are surprised at how quickly you can construct a fairly interesting and promising sketch of a character by being curious about where they come from, what the state of their current life is, what they want. The last two prompts, of course, are signposts that lead towards that essential ingredient of fiction, conflict. Ideally, plot must be inseparable from character, must flow naturally from people and situation. Being curious about your people is about as much about plot as about character.

(A query: I remember seeing this exercise somewhere many years ago, perhaps in a book or in a workshop. I’ve adapted it as I’ve used it, but: does anyone know where it originated? Seen some version of it elsewhere?)

Once you know a bit about your characters, especially the protagonists, the really hard part begins—getting what you know about your characters down on the page so that the reader can see and sense them as you do. This is accomplished through endless revision. Everything you know about a character might not end up in the manuscript, and that’s perfectly fine. You’ll also discover new nuances and facts as you write, which is terrific and heartening—this is how you know the story has its own internal logic and life.

Along with specifics about physicality, history, and so on, by far the most powerful tool you will use to bring your characters to life is point of view. Focalization is arguably the most complex element of the writing craft. For your narrator, you must choose first, second, or third person—in English, that is; some languages have more than three grammatical persons. Is your narrator reliable or not? Is this narrator mimicking written or spoken speech? Is she writing a diary that the reader is somehow privy to? At what distance from the happenings of the story is this narrator speaking from—a god’s eye view, or right next to the protagonist? Is this distance only spatial, or also temporal, and does this distance vary? Should the point of view be attached to the protagonist, or her friend? Who is the narrator speaking to, a threatening confessor or directly to the reader? And of course you can switch between points of view, chapter by chapter or section by section or paragraph by paragraph.

Figuring out what the right point of view for a story is can completely transform the story and the reader’s response. I’ve seen writers struggle with a story for months, realize that it needs to be told from that other point of view, and then sail smoothly from then on. For my novel Sacred Games, which switches point of view chapter by chapter (mainly) from a policeman to a gangster, I realized a couple of hundred pages into the writing that the gangster sections needed to be told in the first person. And in that moment, a great key to that entire narrative was handed to me. Very exciting, except that then I had to exist inside the head and body of a murderer and criminal even more intimately than before, and then get him onto the page not as a monster but as a human being, so that the reader would empathize (although not necessarily sympathize) with this man. A tricky task that took me several years to complete to my own satisfaction, and not exactly conducive to my own psychological well-being.

In a 2010 New York Times essay focused around Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes (starring Robert Downey Jr.), Charles McGrath wrote about the multiple incarnations of Conan Doyle’s character:

Holmes [has probably had] the most successful and elaborate afterlife that any fictional character has ever enjoyed. He has appeared in countless movies, stage plays and television series, and has inspired a shelf full of literary sequels and knockoffs, as well as some cartoon versions. He has even been played by Daffy Duck… (McGrath 2010).

The evidence for Holmes’ success as a character, in terms of reader response, is even more widespread and astonishing than McGrath considers in his article. The fascination of Holmes goes far beyond the global recognizability of that hawk-like profile, the deerstalker hat, the Meerschaum pipe. As Michael Saler observes, “Since his appearance in The Strand magazine in 1891, many believed Holmes existed or at least claimed that they did; and the interwar period witnessed an outpouring of articles in prominent magazines, and books from respectable publishers, which treated Holmes and Watson as real individuals, and that never mentioned Doyle” (Saler 2003). Conan Doyle himself noted this belief in the reality of Holmes, attributing it to the early multi-media presence of the character: “The impression that Holmes was a real person of flesh and blood may have been intensified by his frequent presence upon the stage” (Conan Doyle 1984, 11).

The Baker Street Irregulars, an exclusive world-wide organization of Holmes aficionados devoted to the Sacred Writings, deliberately avoid mentioning Conan Doyle during their meetings, and treat the Great Detective as a historical personage. It should be noted that many of the members of the Irregulars are enormously educated and accomplished men and women, including one American president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was awarded the privilege honoris causa (see Shreffler 1984, 197).

During Conan Doyle’s lifetime, the demand for new Sherlockian adventures was already enormous, and this constant clamouring and pressure drove him into writing that famous confrontation between Holmes and Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls. Conan Doyle referred to his Holmes-assassination as “justifiable homicide,” noting that “If I had not killed him, he would certainly have killed me” (McGrath 2010).

The response to the Great Detective’s death was swift. More than 20,000 readers cancelled their Strand subscriptions. The magazine almost collapsed, and its staff referred to Holmes’ death as “the dreadful event.” Letters poured in, including one that addressed Conan Doyle as “You brute!” In the United States, “Let’s Keep Holmes Alive” clubs were created (Keishin Armstrong 2016). Conan Doyle ultimately relented—in part due to the unfortunate state of his pocketbook—and in the story “The Adventure of the Empty House” revealed that Holmes had craftily faked his own death.

McGrath’s explanation for the robust longevity of Holmes is straightforward—Holmes is immortal because Conan Doyle—an incompetent writer—created a badly-written, barely-existent caricature on the page:

Had Conan Doyle been a better writer, the problem [of Holmes taking on a larger, extra-literary life] might never have come up. Holmes is so memorable because, like later superheroes, he is less a fully developed character than a collection of fascinating traits. Raymond Chandler once complained that Holmes was little more than a few lines of unforgettable dialogue and an attitude: the drug habit, the boredom, the violin playing, the show-offy logical deductions, which Conan Doyle freely admitted were based on one of his medical school professors.

Yet Holmes’s vagueness and incompleteness on the page are what make him so irresistible as a pop figure, on whom we can project our own interpretation. (McGrath 2010)

Oddly, it never occurs to McGrath to consider the possibility that it is indeed the “collection of fascinating traits” expertly created by Conan Doyle that gives Holmes his extraordinary powers. This is not surprising. Over the last century and more, generations of people the world over have been taught that round characters are “better” than flat ones in all narrative circumstances, and that to qualify as high literature or even effective storytelling, a story must engage with its characters in a very specific manner, deploying extended interiority, psychological musings, self-probing in a manner modelled on confessional therapy, etc. Both the psychology and the realism of “psychological realism” are taken as foundational truths in this world view. That is, you must Proust character representation, not Sherlock it, if you want to be taken seriously as literature.

And very often, the supposedly widespread cultural move from flat to round characters is understood to be progress. Flat characters are pre-modern, round characters are modern. We must give up the ways of our ancestors if we are to come into ourselves as fully-developed humans. The perfection of round characters, furthermore, is intimately linked to the rise of individualism in modernity. As people themselves become deeper by investigating the nuances of the private self, a new fictional representation is necessary to reflect this greater profundity. This is why a common feature of cultures that came under colonialism and its pressures was the quick move—especially common among the middle classes—toward writing “proper novels” along the modern, Western model. And also why the first place the English novel was made part of a curriculum was the colonial classroom in India—English literary study was supposed to improve the moral knowledge of the benighted Indians, to educate and civilize the people who comprised the White Man’s Burden (see Viswanathan 1989).

So, to explain the ongoing, enormous persuasive success of super-heroes and Holmes, two explanations are offered: flat characters belong in the icky, primitive, low-brow realms of genre fiction; and people who engage with said flatness are not sophisticated enough to relish the gourmet delights of fully round characters. Conan Doyle himself believed this: “If I had never touched Holmes, who has tended to obscure my higher work [his historical novels], my position in literature would at the present moment be a more commanding one” (Miller 2009).

In recent decades, this Just-so story about the virtues of certain modes of character-making has been challenged by scholars who have probed the cultural context that holds up a certain kind of representation as worthy of admiration. For instance, in her book The Economy of Character: Novels, Market Culture, and the Business of Inner Meaning, Deidre Lynch suggests that instead of round characters reflecting and enabling the growth of individualism, characters in novels allowed bourgeois readers to think of themselves as “deep” individuals. Why do they need to do this? As mass literacy and mass production of cheap books ramps up, middle-class readers needed to distinguish themselves from the common readers—they need to be seen as refined and self-cultivated. The heroines in many eighteenth and nineteenth century texts can’t be defined by class, dress, or commercial value and activity; they have a secret self that can only appreciated by individual, deep readers who read privately, as it were. (See Lynch 1998)

The round or deep character therefore becomes a way to resist the mass market, but of course it’s also a specific method of consumption. It’s a consumption that marks the consumer as refined herself, as opposed to the people who consume flat characters. This is typical of self-construction in the modern age, where refinement is defined by what you conspicuously consume. And flat characters are still thought to belong to mass production, while round characters to the individually produced and individually consumed. The human self hasn’t changed, but ways of representing and reading this self undergoes some transformations.

How did early modern or pre-modern people think of characters in narrative? A representative example might be found in Henry Gally’s 1725 essay, “A Critical Essay on Characteristic-Writings”:

A consummate Delicacy of Sentiments, and an exquisite Judgment are the very Soul of Characteristic-Writing; for every particular Stroke, as well as the whole Character, has a proper Degree of Perfection. To attain this Point, and to bring the several Parts, as well as the Whole, exactly to this Pitch, is the Work of a sagacious Head, and of a perfect Judgment.—An Author, in this Kind, must not dwell too long upon one Idea: As soon as the masterly Stroke is given, he must immediately pass on to another Idea. This will give Life to the Work, and serve to keep up the Spirit of the Writing, and of the Reader too: For if, after the masterly Stroke is given, the Author shou’d, in a paraphrastical Manner, still insist upon the same Idea, the Work will immediately flag, the Character grow languid, and the Person characteris’d will insensibly vanish from the Eyes of the Reader. (Gally 1725)

The overriding concern here is an economy of “strokes” or—one might say—“fascinating traits.” In Gally’s view, too many strokes, too much detail, and the person who is being characterized will actually vanish from the reader’s perception. A Proustian excess of detail will work against the author’s intent and the reader’s fascination. The job of the writer within Gally’s context is to find the right details, and the right number of strokes, to convey precisely and evocatively a sense of the person who is being characterized. As he puts it, “The original Design of Characteristic-Writings is to give us real Images of Life. An exact Imitation of Nature is the chief Art which is to be us’d” (Gally 1725). What is an “exact Imitation of Nature” is the chief point of difference between Gally and later round-character-boosters. We should also note that no matter what kind of fictional character we are reading, we are always projecting our own interpretations into the representations that we encounter. To believe that Forster’s round characters are—sans projection—somehow miraculously more present to the reader than other types of characters is extraordinarily obtuse.

But too often the purveyors and readers of “flat” characters are thought of as primitives who have not only bad taste but also a shallow sense of self, who each have shallow selves themselves. The very terms “flat” and “round” signal toward this rendering of these categories of human, especially in relation to pre-modern people. We moderns are better than our ancestors, more developed, more profound in our understanding of psychology and of course deeper in ourselves.

All this while millions of people thrill to superhero movies and Sherlock Holmes stories (new ones!) every day around the world. This understanding of history and human beings becomes—it seems to me—especially absurd within the Indic context, where investigating and exploring the self in all its complexity and subtlety has been something of an obsession for thousands of years. But the contempt towards the past remains prevalent, not just in the West but everywhere. This psychological and aesthetic ideology becomes particularly pernicious when it is drafted into the service of the narratives of colonialism, as happens in that essential text of literary modernism, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. The spine of that story is the journey that Marlowe undertakes upriver, into the “Dark Continent,” which becomes a kind of time travel into humanity’s past, because “going up that river was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world” (Conrad 2000, l. 1318)

And in this remote past, the Africans that are presented to us are naturally flat, not just in representation but in personhood. They have no speech—they communicate in a “a violent babble of uncouth sounds” or with “short grunting phrases” (Conrad 2000, lo. 1011, 1454). When Marlowe observes one African who tends the fire on his steamboat, this is what he sees:

He was an improved specimen; he could fire up a vertical boiler. He was there below me, and, upon my word, to look at him was as edifying as seeing a dog in a parody of breeches and a feather hat, walking on his hind-legs (Conrad 2000, lo. 1380).

Meanwhile, Kurtz has given himself over to the seductions of “the horror, the horror,” and Marlowe thrills fearfully to this unspeakable presence on the shores of the river.

To quote myself from Geek Sublime:

The irony here is that apart from the African languages that Conrad reduces to “babble,” the frightening “throb of drums” that Conrad refers to several times contain a sophisticated artificial language rich in metaphor and poetry. The drummers carried on conversations with each other, made announcements, broadcast messages. James Gleick tells us [in his book The Information] that this language of the drums metamorphosed tonal African languages into “tone and only tone. It was a language of a single pair of phonemes, a language composed entirely of pitch contours.” The drum language let go of the consonants and vowels of spoken speech and made up for this information loss by adding on additional phrases to each word. “Songe, the moon, is rendered as songe li tange la manga—‘the moon looks down at the earth.’” Listeners would hear entire phrases; the drum language dropped information but “allocated extra bits for disambiguation and error correction.” “Come back home” would be rendered as:

Make your feet come back the way they went,
make your legs come back the way they went,
plant your feet and your legs below,
in the village which belongs to us. (Chandra 2014, lo. 2655)

“Psychological realism” is a set of conventions that we often conceive as a transparent surface which affords us a clear view of the world as it is. It exists within the larger context of a number of conventional genres (and yes, “literary fiction” is a genre). All of these “better” and more valued contexts have their own tropes, their own familiar structures, and they produce as many formulaic constructions as any other genre. And yet, their devotees often accord an unquestioning agreement to the claims of these forms, which assert a greater and more profound engagement with “objective reality,” which is achieved through a clear, unmediated vision of the world. Interestingly, pre-modern literati and critics (at least in the Indian tradition, which is the one I’m most familiar with) were keenly aware of the conventionality of the forms they worked within.

For example, Rājaśekhara–a renowned 9th century poet and critic–wrote a book titled Kāvyamīmāṃsā (“Investigation of Poetry”), a manual for aspiring poets. He wrote three chapters dealing with “poetic conventions.” At the beginning of the first of these chapters, he notes that certain conventions are “contrary to what is known to happen in the world and contrary to the śāstras (texts of knowledge).” But, “[I say] that these descriptions are beneficial to the poet and these light up the poetic path” (Rājaśekhara 2000, 222). Which is to say that these conventions allow you to speak effectively to an audience which is familiar with these conventions and accepts them.

Accordingly, during a discussion of the various categories of nāyakas (heroes) the 16th century CE poet and critic Bhānudatta quotes the following verse, in which a woman speaks to her friend:

The house was empty, and I’d used every charm
I knew. So I took him to the woods
(not a soul was there) on the pretext of picking
flowers, and I looked at him
with longing, and pretending to offer him betel,
I let him see my breasts in full.
He still doesn’t get the point! O go-between,
what must I do to make him get it?

Bhānudatta writes, using his theoretical framework:

Now one should not suppose that the nāyaka has the same subclassifications as the nāyika [heroine]. An essential difference lies in the fact that the nāyika’s different classifications [384 categories in all] derive from her different temporary states [emotions like love, jealousy, etc.], whereas the nāyaka’s derive from his inherent character, and there are only four sorts of characters: the faithful, the gallant, the brazen, and the deceptive. Moreover, if the nāyaka were subject to temporary states, then we should have also to recognize a type of nāyaka who is worried, jilted, cheated on, etc. And this means that we would have a “worried” nāyaka at the time of a rendezvous if the woman did not come, though this is contrary to literary convention. And it is only the nāyaka, and not the nāyika, who can be a cad or actually bear the marks of having made love with someone else. (Bhānudatta 2009, 107)

According to this convention, or at least in Bhānudatta’s interpretation of it, male characters are categorized according to their svabhāvas, their inherent natures, whereas nāyikas are typed according to the fluctuations of their emotions. (One way to read this binary assertion is that while men are conventionally stable and simple, women are complex and changeable.) So Bhānudatta notes of the innocent nāyaka of the poem that such a male protagonist is termed “a semblance of a nāyaka,” that he is barely a hero in terms of the conventional attributes (Bhānudatta 2009, 107). The poet here is therefore consciously violating this convention, as writers are wont to do. Breaking a familiar convention becomes a source of literary and artistic energy.

Reading pre-modern literature is a bracing reminder that engaging with characters formed within cultural systems other than contemporary ones can be a forcefully affecting experience. I’m baffled by Forster’s insistence that “It is only round people who are fit to perform tragically for any length of time and can move us to any feelings except humour and appropriateness” (Forster 1927, 111–12). Characters who belong in other conventions move me every day. One of my favourite characters in the Mahābhārata is Karṇa, son of an unmarried teenage mother and the sun god Sūrya. Abandoned by his mother in a basket on a river, he is raised by a charioteer and his wife. Because of his abilities as a warrior, he becomes a friend and ally of a king who later fights an enormous war against Karṇa’s half-brothers; Karṇa understands these close blood-ties only too late. And then he will not turn away from his friendships and his loyalties. He dies alone in combat, tricked, betrayed by his own enormous generosity. He has been the protagonist of innumerable plays, poems, commentaries, and movies in South Asia, and he breaks my heart every time I encounter him. And yet he belongs firmly within a mode of aesthetic production very far from Forster’s.

So what should a writer do with these notions of “flat” and “round” characters? The writer must understand the context she is working within, and then work up her characters to accord with the requirements of the appropriate psychological mode and genre conventions. If you’re writing a magic realist novel within the realm of literary fiction, you’ll want to hew to the conventions of psychological realism within a fictive world that is subject to laws of nature quite other than the ones we are familiar with. You’d be after the dazzling profusion of meaningful detail that Elizabeth Tallent deploys to bring her characters to life, while also describing a rain of flowers falling from the sky.

If, on the other hand, you are writing a tight detective-chases-spies novel, a protagonist more in line with Bhānudatta’s nāyikas or Gally’s “characteristic writings” is who you want to bring alive with minimal strokes.

I’ve worked a bit in film in India, and growing up around the film industry has given me numerous opportunities to watch some of the country’s most successful filmmakers at work. I can tell you with absolute certainty that creating a vivid Bhānudatta/Gally-approved characteristic-mode person on the screen takes an incredible amount of skill and experience. In a dramatic medium, an actor with chops and charisma–think Gal Godot in Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman—can really help move your character towards fascination. But the writing is where it all begins—in this case, the story by Allan Heinberg, Zack Snyder, and Jason Fuchs, and Heinberg’s screenplay.

As for creating Sherlock Holmes—that’s a once-in-a-century lightning strike, where a writer’s instinct and technique come together at the perfect angle with the zeitgeist. We should all be so lucky.

BIBLIOGRAPHY (Click to expand)

Baron-Cohen, Simon. 1995. Mindblindness: An Essay on Autism and Theory of Mind. Learning, Development, and Conceptual Change. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

Bhānudatta. 2009. Bouquet of Rasa and River of Rasa. Translated by Sheldon I. Pollock. First edition edition. New York, NY: Clay Sanskrit.

Campbell-Kelly, Martin. 2008. “Professor Joseph Weizenbaum: Creator of the ‘Eliza’ Program.” The Independent. March 18, 2008.

Chandra, Vikram. 2014. Geek Sublime: The Beauty of Code, the Code of Beauty. Kindle book. Graywolf Press.

Conan Doyle, Arthur. 1984. “Sidelights on Sherlock Holmes.” In The Baker Street Reader: Cornerstone Writings about Sherlock Holmes, edited by Philip A. Shreffler. Greenwood Press.

Conrad, Joseph. 2000. Heart of Darkness and Selections from the Congo Diary (Modern Library Classics). Kindle book. Edited by Caryl Phillips. Kindle. Modern Library.

Forster, E. M. 1927. Aspects Of The Novel. Harcourt, Brace and Company.

Gally, Henry. 1725. “A Critical Essay on Characteristic-Writings.” In The Moral Characters of Theophrastus, 87. John Hooke.

Hemingway, Ernest. 1955. Death in the Afternoon. Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Keishin Armstrong, Jennifer. 2016. “How Sherlock Holmes Changed the World.” BBC Culture, January 6, 2016.

Lynch, Deidre. 1998. The Economy of Character: Novels, Market Culture, and the Business of Inner Meaning. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

McGrath, Charles. 2010. “Sherlock Holmes, Shapeshifter: Robert Downey Jr.’s Version.” The New York Times, January 5, 2010, sec. Books.

Miller, John J. 2009. “The Burden of Holmes.” Wall Street Journal, December 23, 2009, sec. Leisure & Arts.

Premack, David, and Guy Woodruff. 1978. “Does the Chimpanzee Have a Theory of Mind?” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 1 (4): 515–26.

Rājaśekhara. 2000. Kāvyamīmāṃsā of Rājaśekhara: Original Text in Sanskrit and Translation with Explanatory Notes. Translated by Sadhana Parashar. New Delhi: D.K. Printworld.

Saler, Michael. 2003. “‘Clap If You Believe in Sherlock Holmes’: Mass Culture and the Re-Enchantment of Modernity, c. 1890-c. 1940.” The Historical Journal 46 (3): 599–622.

Shreffler, Philip A., ed. 1984. The Baker Street Reader: Cornerstone Writings about Sherlock Holmes. Greenwood Press.

Viswanathan, Gauri. 1989. Masks of Conquest: Literary Study and British Rule in India. Columbia University Press.

Wellman, Henry M., David Cross, and Julanne Watson. 2001. “Meta-Analysis of Theory-of-Mind Development: The Truth about False Belief.” Child Development 72 (3): 655–84.

Wimmer, Heinz, and Josef Perner. 1983. “Beliefs About Beliefs: Representation and Constraining Function of Wrong Beliefs in Young Children’s Understanding of Deception.” Cognition 13 (1): 103–128.

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