For a while, not a long one, I wrote reports on manuscripts for the Literary Consultancy. For a novel I’d write maybe 3,000 words, usually under suggested headings such as ‘structure’, ‘plot’, ‘characterisation’ – which were useful pegs but really had very little to do with whether I took to the book I was reading or not.
One of the stories I haven’t written involves meticulously building up a character, a ‘rounded’ character, in the usual ways, I guess – description, socio-economic background, habits, fears, desires, all tested out and demonstrated in how they behave in given situations – and then having that character act out of character.
I’ve just re-read the story ‘A Singular Occurrence’ by Machado de Assis – in which a polite, obliging woman becomes mistress to a married lawyer/politician, and they are ‘madly in love’ and he teaches her how to read and he decides to buy her a house and everything, allowing for a bit of bourgeois hypocrisy, is hunky-dory – until one night she goes out into the street and picks up a stranger (a self-confessed ‘good-for-nothing’) and has sex with him. And the lawyer/politician finds out.
Actually that’s not strictly an example of acting out of character, because the woman (‘she had quiet manners and never swore’) is presented entirely through a male narrator in conversation with another male, neither of whom is the author, so a distance is established and the reader hasn’t a direct hold on her character at all. But still, bafflement as to her motivation – ‘accident, God and devil rolled into one … Well, who knows?’ – is at the centre of the story.
[As I wrote this, the Guardian put up a piece on Hanif Kureishi, professor of creative writing at Kingston University, who apparently said on Sunday that creative writing courses are a ‘waste of time’; the Guardian piece recycled the quotes from the Independent piece of yesterday, added some soundbites from other writers opposing that view (‘Oh no it isn’t’) or defending it (‘Oh yes it is’), and threw it open to comment. This is one of the standard conventions of media coverage of bookish matters: seize upon something perceived to be a tad controversial and make out of it a binary yes/no conflict (and profit from any reduction of the issue to personalities). Character-stuff. Meanwhile, there are books to be read, and life.]