The Instructor during A Relaxed Fiction Fluency Seminar Moment (Source: MK Martin.)
Reader Experience of Character; by Eric Witchey
First, an apology. I’ve been very busy working on consulting work and preparing a couple of classes, so I’m late on my volunteer, shared blogging commitment. Mea Culpa. To rectify that, I’m offering a few thoughts from the first class of a six month series I’ll be doing for WordCrafters in Eugene. A link to the class appears at the end of this little essay. The classes can be taken as stand-alone classes or as a coherent series at a discount. Regardless, they will be fun and applicable to both long and short form fiction.
Now, on to a few character concepts to consider. This is, essentially, the introduction to the first class and an invitation to join us.
Character exists in the mind/heart of the reader. Given the same text, no two readers have exactly the same character in their mind/heart. Reader perception of character is made of up of 1/3 literal text, 1/3 implication, and 1/3 projection. Once the reader has internalized an understanding of the interaction of the thirds, the writer violates the reader’s perceptions at great risk of losing the reader. I’m not saying it can’t be done to good effect. I’m saying it is rare, risky, and should only be done intentionally or if the writer believes they are a god of luck.
Figure 1 shows the components that the reader combines to create their experience of character/story: Text, Implication, and Projection.
Figure 1: The Reader Creates Character in Their Mind/Heart through Interaction of Three Mechanisms
While the reader derives their perception of character from the above mechanisms, the internalized construct that is the imagined character in their minds can be described as a different three part construct.
Thanks go out to James N. Frey for first introducing me to this consideration of character aspects.
From text, implication, and projection, the reader builds up an aggregation of beliefs about the character’s psychology, sociology, and physiology. Each of these is equal in weight in terms of interaction with one another and impact on the reader’s experience of the character.
Even though the text may not present them as equal by offering each equal real estate, the mind/heart of the reader will create the missing bits as needed (up to a point).
Figure 2 shows the components that the reader combines to create their sense of character: Psychology, Sociology, and Physiology.
Figure 2: The Reader Internalizes Three Character Components, which Are Inseparable from Story Thematics
Now, what I have said so far is pretty straight forward, albeit a little abstract. Even so, most writers can begin to see how they might build a catalog of physical character traits, how they might build up a backstory for each character, and how they might set both the backstory and the foreground story in a sociological milieu they have created. All good, and these are certainly things we will explore.
However, this is where it gets interesting and where many writers run into trouble, especially if they imagine story progressively in the same order readers read stories.
For a fully satisfying read, the reader’s perception of character must be loaded with elements that are either resonant with or in contrast to the thematics of the story. The nature of characters cannot be separated from the dramatics and thematics of the story. In a very real sense, character IS story.
One definition of story I’m very fond of is: Story is the demonstration of successful personal and social change as a result of stress.
In Figure 2, the three-part overlap at the center is labelled “thematics.” The reader’s perception of characters is critical in their eventual understanding of the themes of the story. If the characters are built with sufficient skill, the reader’s perception of them will be inseparable from the reader’s perception of the themes the story demonstrates.
The themes being demonstrated, or even just touched upon, by aspects of character may be explicit or implicit in the text, which is another way of saying the actual, literal textual representation of character may present or imply themes. Additionally, the reader will project their own life experience into the story and onto the character. Note that I said “will” and not “might.” No reader can divorce themselves completely from personal experience, and the writer must manage the reader’s projections by being very specific and appropriately vague. That last bit gets a lot of writing instructors a bit up in my face. It flies in the face of the “concrete details” and “show, don’t tell” adages. However, any selling fiction writer will likely agree that knowing how to let the reader’s imagination create a story is intertwined with knowing what words to put on the page and what words to leave off.
The first two classes in the six month series will explore the above theoretical interactions by practicing hands-on techniques for developing and managing characters in emotionally compelling fiction. The first class will focus primarily on how the reader builds their understanding of character, and hence story and theme, from what the character says and does. The second class will focus primarily on how the reader builds their understanding of character from the more subtle influences of the character’s social and psychological history as presented or implied in decision making and setting experience. Both classes will explore techniques for managing the reader’s contribution to character and story.
Here’s the link to the series. I hope we fill the room with highly creative, motivated writers who challenge the limits of techniques we play with. That is when the classes really sing for everyone involved.
Luck and skill to all who write and send.