UK Poet, Philosopher & Artist Ivor Griffiths' Official Website

Characterisation – Inducing the Fictive Dream

Writing a Novel or Short Story – Part Three

James Frey says that “A transported reader is dreaming the fictive dream.” He supports this idea by quoting John Gardner, in The Art of Fiction (1984), in which he argues that “this [the fictive dream], no matter the genre, is the way fiction does its work.” For Frey the fictive dream is created by the power of suggestion. By this he means that the prose must be full of vivid detail and close observation to pull the reader in to the story. If the prose becomes too telling the reader will be pushed out. Once the reader is seeing the scene then emotional engagement with the main character is required. To achieve this use the technique of garnering sympathy, so, for example, in Mario Puzo’s The Godfather we find ourselves sympathising with the old man whose daughter has been raped. He seeks the help of Don Corleone, the sympathy we feel for the old man is transferred to the protagonist. In your story it could be a man or woman down on their luck, lost a child, lost a leg, whatever. We feel sorry for him or her. Once we have the reader’s sympathy we need to have them identify with the protagonist. So, our protagonist needs a noble cause. In The Godfather Don Corleone’s cause is to punish the rapist, we can identify with that.
Once the reader has identified with our protagonist we need to draw them further in, so that they empathise, they feel what the protagonist feels and can understand why he feels the way he does (from identifying with him or her in the first place). In order to do this we need to carefully incorporate sensuous detail into the prose. This suggests to the reader what it is like to be him or her. We want the reader to feel the anger, shame, hope, love, lust or whatever. The details and emotions must be linked, the use of similes or metaphors will enhance the experience for the reader. The details and the action that evokes the emotion must also be linked, with good use of simile and metaphor to enhance the experience.
Once the reader is transported they must be kept there. This is achieved by the use of conflict; this can be both internal and external. The conflict could be between the character and the environment, an innocent Aristocrat sent to prison for rape offers possibilities, or an irony, a lawyer who loathes the law, a doctor who wants to join the SAS.
The characters must of course have a motivation or drive that informs everything they do. Carrie, in Stephen King’s novel of the same name is driven by her desire to be like the other girls. In our earlier example the Dad’s driving force would be to make it up with is son. So, a main character needs to be driven and dynamic. He must want something desperately, so much so that it pushes him into actions that are out of the ordinary for him and the reader.
James Frey, in How to Write a Damn Good Novel II, puts it his way,
“Dynamic characters have conflicting emotions and desires and are torn apart by strong emotions, such as ambition and love, or fear and patriotism, or faith and lust, or whatever.”
The characters are riven by internally conflicting forces and desires. They resolve these inner conflicts with action that leads to story conflict and more inner turmoil. Frey quotes Edwin Peebles, who writes, in A Professional Storywriter’s Handbook, that characters “must have the uniqueness of real people. They must have the contrasts of inconsistent behaviour common to individuals…contrasts make character.”
Contrasts Bring Characters to Life
Aristotle said, in the Poetics, that readers like an “effective” character, by which he meant competent, in other words good at what they do, whatever that may be. This will ensure identification of the reader. So, the protagonist in a novel should be interesting, in that they are unusual, they may have unusual hobbies, vices, or have done an amazing thing that they keep secret. They will have considered life carefully; this may extend to areas of philosophy, jurisprudence, ethics, and morality, and so on. They may have strong and unusual opinions, but such that the reader will sympathise with him or her. It is likely that they will be a little wacky; Frey’s advice is to exaggerate a characteristic. Think of Colombo, the detective, shambolic, untidy, but effective. A good contrast heightens curiosity and can stimulate an affection for the character and thus increase sympathy and so the menacing circumstance, in which the the character will be placed. In turn, as we know from the essay on suspense, this means that the need to know will continue the fictive dream. And remember this kind of juxtaposition makes literature. The character may have a distorted morality, stealing is okay, for example. But don’t go too far or the reader will not believe in them. Characters are of course involved in the story conflict that is created by the dynamic action that the protagonist engages in to overcome an internal conflict that in turn leads to more inner conflict, and so more story conflict, until there is a climax followed by the obligatory resolution.
Characters must be interesting is a simple way of putting it. One way to know a character is to write a detailed biography of him or her. Write ten or fifteen thousand words about your protagonist, make him interesting in every way, and know his speech, his attitudes, motivation, driving force, loves hates, and so on. Frey gives a great range of advice in his first How to Write a Damn Good Novel.
A character may have a ruling passion in your biography, and at the beginning of the story, it could be as simple as wanting to win the eight ball pool competition at the local bar. This will be overtaken by a new ruling passion if his wife is killed: to bring her killer to justice. His old values may be distorted by the new driving force; this will create inner conflict and lead to story conflict and action. The ruling passion of the protagonist, or any character, is not immutable, it can change temporarily, and may change back at the resolution stage. All of this creates the dramatic tension in a dynamic character driven novel. Whilst the main character may revert to his original ruling passion at the climax and resolution stage he will still have undergone a change, because of his experiences, and his character may have undergone change because of the action. If his ruling passion is reverted to it is usually accompanied by a change in his perspective on life, and a renewed understanding of something, using our earlier story as an example, Dad is reunited with son, but his experiences are such that he values relationships more than money now. This kind of transformation, as long as not an obvious cheesy cliché, will add to the drama of the story.
If your main character has multiple personalities, which are probably the most interesting, a character who has a secret exciting life as gambler, or some such, may get in to all kinds of scrapes. Frey suggests that we consider such characters as ego states. Treat them as separtate characters with the same identity.
“According to the psychological theory of transactional analysis popularized by Eric Byrne in Games People Play, the ego exists in three ego states, the parent, the adult, and the child.” (Frey, p.43)
Consider these ego states as separate characters, so they say and do things in a different way dependant upon the character they are in.
If the scenes that have been created, or indeed the story as a whole, needs to be rewritten, try writing it from an earlier time, and give the characters different objectives. This will help the visualisation of the whole scene in a fresh light.

How to Write a Damned Good Novel, James N Frey, 1987, St Martins Press: New York.
How to Write a Damn Good Novel II, James N Frey, 1994, St Martins Press: New York
Solutions for Novelists, Sol Stein, 1999, St Martins Press: New York

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.