A story is made up of an assembly line of decisions. With time and multiple revisions, you’ll work with, add, and subtract many pieces to your story. The process changes with the writer. For me, getting comfortable with my plot and my characters is of paramount importance. Usually that happens before I even begin writing. Those are the first decisions I make — what color hair my character will have, what goals they set for themselves, what their backgrounds look like, and so forth. Only after that can I begin to write.
I’m currently working on this project that I assigned myself. The hunt: Find a story I don’t like, but with a great deal of potential. The task: Rewrite said story. It’s a lengthy and time-sucking exercise to distract me from my main work-in-progress which, at its half point, hit a road bump and hasn’t been able to recover since.
Since the plot is written out for me and my character studies are almost done, I’m wondering how I could go about introducing my two characters? Right now, I have only two demands. 1) My main character is revealed in the beginning and 2) my supporting character is introduced later on.
I decided I would study, compare, and contrast some character introductions. Get myself inspired. I’m thinking I’ll do three studies. Consider this Story One, Day One:
1. Subtle, On-going, and Nameless: “Appetite” by Saïd Sayrafiezade is a short story recently published in the New Yorker that has a greater focus on character than on plot, so I figure it’d be fitting for this study. When plot is less than character, I find it harder to write out a synopsis, so I’ll refrain from doing so here. I recommend reading the story for yourself (word count: 5,995), although I’d stop reading right before the last line.
As much as I enjoyed this story, the last line (the character’s last words) infuriated me. It seemed so out of character. Considering that the story revolves around this character, that’s no small issue. His introduction and his development was coherent, cohesive, co-everything– but the damned last line is such an ugly stain on that story that it makes me wonder if anything can truly be all around wonderful.
But! In spite of the ugliness, it’s still quality writing. The reader never stops learning about the character, which is true of any good story. The beginning is testimony to the character’s misery. He can’t seem to verbalize what he wants and, thus, his demands (if they can even be called demands) aren’t met. As this short story is told in first person, the main character, whose name is never revealed, is the one to explain the cause to this effect. “Somewhere in my past, something had gone wrong for me.” Now, the reader not only knows the character but he knows why the character is who he is. Histories aren’t always necessary, but, now that I think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever run into a history that was pointless either.
The history seems to be the first sign of an old school, straight forward, introductory method. Before that, the character’s voice is weaved into the dialogue and narration, but not actually put forth in an explicit description. There are no adjectives to direct you to how the character feels. Still, the reader knows exactly what’s going on in his head.
The character is introduced through action. His short-lived, unsuccessful conversation with his boss is how we get know him and his reactions. The pressure of the situation exacerbates the character’s nature. We know that under pressure, the main character is unassertive, unsure, and unfocused. Nothing went according to plan — from the position of his feet, “one foot crossed uncomfortably in front of the other”, to the conversation itself, which took an ugly turn when his boss put him on the spot with an unexpected question. The fact that everything went wrong, and would continue to go wrong, refers back to the first sentence, “Things were not going as I had hoped”.
Action and history tell us a great deal about the character. We learn that the main character, twice, turned down opportunities to integrate himself into the world he wanted to belong to. Although he doesn’t seem to be aware of it, it’s that kind of self-destruction that caused his misery.
The supporting character, an anorexic waitress that works at the same restaurant as our main character, is introduced by her relation to the main character. “A few days after I was turned down for I raise, an anorexic waitress started working at the restaurant.” Immediately after that, the author jumps into how the main character feels about her, “She was pretty but had no breasts or ass” is the next sentence. Once again, we learn a little more about the character through his relationship with the world. It’s not about what the main character sees, but how he sees it. What is his perspective?
This story has reminded of one very important rule on character: Everything is relationship. And, so, I’ll end this post with a quote:
“We should approach fictional characters with the same concerns with which we approach people. We need to be alert for how we are to take them, for what we are to make of them, and we need to see how they may reflect our own experience. We need to observe their actions, to listen to what they say and how they say it, to notice how they relate to other characters and how other characters respond to them, especially to what they say about each other. To make inferences about characters, we look for connections, for links and clues to their function and significance in the story. In analyzing a character or character’s relationships, we relate one act, one speech, one physical detail to another until we understand the character.” Robert DiYanni