Some characters in some stories shouldn’t be likeable.
But what if you want to create a genuinely likeable main character who appeals to the broadest base? What if your themes are nothing to do with a reality in which bad people don’t always get what they deserve?
In Children’s Literature, instead of the ‘rogue charmer’ type trickster archetypes per se, we often see child main characters who get into trouble despite their best intentions, and who always maintain a positive attitude against all odds.
Anne Shirley — Anne of Green Gables is a completely unrealistic character in that a child who’d been through such hardship would probably be suffering from PTSD and be irredeemably damaged by the time she reached Marilla and Matthew. This aspect is rendered more realistically in the recent re-visioning Anne With An E. Nut the fictional Anne is loveable because she tries her hardest to please, and we know why she does what she does.
Ramona Quimby — Likewise, Ramona is always getting into trouble despite her best intentions. Ramona is a granddaughter of Anne Shirley.
Amelia Bedelia — overcomes minor misunderstandings while maintaining her dignity and cheerful attitude
Editor Cheryl Klein urges children’s authors to avoid ‘whiny protagonists without charm or truth’. The worst thing you can do is have a main character sitting around contemplating things. This is why the Flaneur or the Sunday Wanderer archetype is so difficult to write, though you might try a successful post-modern flaneur a la Weetzie Bat.
But for contemporary child audiences it’s a hard sell. Klein sees a lot of scripts start like this when the character is about to move to a new place, so watch out for that especially if you’re writing one of those kinds of stories.
Give Your Character Authority
Klein writes that in children’s stories voices must have ‘authority’ — ‘a sense that the writer knows where he is going and what she is doing; the feeling that the reader is in good hands.’ She says that authority comes from three things:
specificity of language
not wasting the reader’s time
Bravery, confidence and self-motivation are important for child main characters as they are for the ‘con-man’ archetype:
Little Bear — illustrated by Maurice Sendak is sweet and plucky, friendly and adventurous
Nate Wright (a.k.a. Big Nate) — aspiring cartoonist and prankster, exhibits great confidence and creativity
Make Them Interesting In A Virtuous Way
Billy in Where The Red Fern Grows, who really wants a dog and works tirelessly until he’s saved enough to get one
Hermione of Harry Potter loves her school work and helps the reader to become interested in magic, too.
Or Make Them Interesting In A Morally Grey Way
Likeable characters may be pessimistic, sardonic, ironic…
Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games doesn’t have much hope for the future at the beginning of the story but she is soon propelled into action.
Bella Swan is a bit of a Debbie Downer, and also a blank Every Girl, but that doesn’t stop her from being interesting. She still has drive (except when she falls into depression — which the reader quickly skips over because the pages are blank except that they have the words for months on them) by seeking out the company of certain boys in a love triangle.
The Wimpy Kid has a good, pessimistic handle on his situation in life, and this series is an example of a funny kid with interesting pessimistic energy. This makes him likeable.
I think flawed characters are likeable, because people are flawed. It creates an instant sort of empathy. It’s like when you read Gone With the Wind and Scarlett thinks that the worst thing about the war is how boring it is to hear everyone talk about it. You realize that she’s selfish, and that makes her real.
Show The Readers Your Characters’ Secret Selves
We all have a public, private and secret self. When writers allow readers insight into a character’s secret self readers tend to understand, judge, forgive and then sympathise with the confessor.
This four step progression comes from the work of Dennis Foster who wrote Confession and Complicity in Narrative (1987). Though it applies to fictional characters, it applies in real life as well. This is the astounding power of fiction — when we learn that others have a secret self, and when we learn to empathise with fictional characters via this secret self, we tend to apply these skills to real people.
Give them a moral shortcoming
A likeable character treats others badly. This seems counterintuitive at first.
Julie Lythcott-Haims is talking about writing memoir when she offers the following advice, but it applies to your main fictional characters as well as it applies to your memoir:
You have to be okay with your flawed self, and all of the flawed selves in your story. You also have to be fair to everyone else. As my editor told me when I was writing my memoir, “Be the God of all characters,” by which she meant care about everyone equally. Look at every interaction from all angles. Make sure you’re not portraying yourself in rich complexity and everyone else as stereotype. My editor also meant I had to be realistic about myself. She told me, “Readers won’t trust you or root for you unless they know about some of the stupid, shitty, and shameful things you have done.” It felt like a paradox—how are they going to like me if I give them a reason to hate me? But I came to understand her point. All humans are flawed; a willingness to show your own flaws on the page makes you all the more relatable.
We identify most strongly with characters we feel sorry for, worry about, or like and admire.
Make them heroic.
“The hero doesn’t become a hero simply because he takes a stand against the villain; he becomes a hero because he stands for something. This can be justice, a cause, his family, friends, community, or nation. Invariably, while the villain stands for himself, the hero stands for something beyond himself.”
Howard Suber, The Power of Film
Make them pretty but not too sexually appealing
Howard Suber also says that although stars of films tend to have sex appeal, characters in films who use their sex appeal to get ahead usually end up dead in the end. In children’s stories, the main character is usually unremarkable in looks — the ‘every child’. Before Kristin Stewart came to represent the character of Bella from Twilight, she was described in very generic terms. She was The Every Girl, with defining qualities to speak of. As unpopular as Bella is among certain, more critical, readers, she is also widely loved.
I’m describing how to make a character widely ‘likeable’ for an inherently conservative audience, not how to tell a woke, inclusive, sex positive story. For a lengthy rumination on this very topic see my post: Female Beauty In Young Adult Literature
Make them smart but not too smart.
Main characters don’t tend to be super smart. Northrop Frye calls these empathetic main characters low-mimetic heroes. In children’s literature, the self-effacing Greg Heffley is an excellent example, as well as Big Nate and other (mostly boy) characters. Due to well-intentioned but slightly misplaced feminist efforts, girl characters are less often low mimetic heroes who do one dumb thing after another, though we do have Ramona Quimby archetype and granddaughters such as Junie B. Jones, liked for a wide-eyed sort of naivety.
Make their virtues personal achievements rather than privileges.
Education works the same way — a likeable main character doesn’t have to be highly educated. Education isn’t a personal achievement (it’s a luck thing, mostly), so films don’t reward characters simply for being educated.
Suber also points out that whereas people in real life aspire to being rich, in movies characters are punished for this. (Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard). Oskar Schindler is an example of a character who starts off wanting to be rich, but part of his character change is that by the end he’s no longer focused on riches. (He has therefore become a ‘better’ person.)
Make them self-sacrifice for the greater good.
The hero generally gains little or no reward for their sacrifice — it is the community that gains. To the extent the hero does personally gain from their sacrifice, they cease to be a hero and become simply a smart operator.
Sacrifice becomes sacred when it is truly selfless.
Howard Suber, The Power of Film
Put them in danger and make them experience pain and sorrow.
A lot of popular stories are pyrrhic victories, leaving the hero in a miserable state at the end. (It’s not true that Hollywood films all have happy endings.)
Make them loyal.
Likeable main characters subscribe to the ‘eye-for-an-eye’ policy. As Shakespeare meant it, “If someone takes your eye, you take one of theirs, not both.” (The line is frequently misinterpreted as “If someone takes your eye, you should definitely poke theirs out in retaliation.) Shakespeare was urging moderation in revenge. We don’t seem to mind revenge stories, but we despise characters who take revenge by going way too far.
Cater to Audience Prejudices.
Suber is upfront about the fact that Hollywood writers and producers cater very much to a conservative, particular kind of audience. It helps if your hero is young. And their values need to concord with those of the majority of the audience.
Many of us are ageists when it comes to heroes — we often think of heroes as people who are beyond childhood but not yet into middle age.
Howard Suber, The Power of Film
There is troubling and enduring audience prejudice when it comes to children’s book heroes: The white, middle-class boy as the ‘universal child’. The myth of the universal child must be based on the idea that there is an archetype with which young readers of all backgrounds can relate. We therefore have books disproportionately full of such types.
This is related to the idea that only white boys can be funny, and a lot of the most popular children’s literature is funny: Children of colour can star in tragic stories. Girls can’t be silly.
This state of affairs is changing, but slowly.
Make them a good mediator.
The hero is almost always an intermediary, someone who mediates between different social groups, between man and nature, man and God, or some other constellation of forces. […] Villains, by contrast, are usually well-integrated into their communities, and are often members of its power structure. They belong: heroes don’t. […] To be an intermediary is to always be lonely, because you never truly belong. One of the recurrent paradoxes of heroes is that they so often successfully mediate between contending cultures or value systems, but they often cannot mediate between contending forces within themselves.
Howard Suber, The Power of Film
Make them empathetic, not sympathetic.
Sympathetic means likeable. … We’d want them as friends, family members, or lovers. They have an innate likeability and evoke sympathy. Empathy, however, is a more profound response.
Empathetic means “like me”. Deep within the protagonist the audience recognizes a certain shared humanity. Character and audience are not alike in every fashion, of course; they may share only a single quality. But there’s something about the character that strikes a chord. In that moment of recognition, the audience suddenly and instinctively wants the protagonist to achieve whatever it is that he desires.
The unconscious logic of the audience runs like this: This character is like me. Therefore, I want him to have whatever it is he wants, because if I were he in those circumstances, I’d want the same thing for myself.” Hollywood has many synonymic expressions for this connection: “somebody to get behind,” “someone to root for,” All describe the empathetic connection that the audience strikes between itself and the protagonist. And audience may, if so moved, empathize with every character in your film, but it must empathize with your protagonist. If not, the audience/story bond is broken.
Robert McKee, Story
Okay, make them empathetic, but not too empathetic!
It’s counter intuitive, but audiences prefer that characters show a human failing. That’s why the Mary-Sue archetype no longer works. The Mary Sue probably never really worked for audiences, but was written in didactic stories for children under the belief that children required good modelling in their fictional characters.
Modern thinking is more like this: Children need to see that others have the same emotions and ‘bad feelings’ as they do in order to know that they are not alone in the world. The same applies to adults, actually.
Give them self control rather than power over others.
Self-control isn’t much talked about in comparison to other virtues but we value it highly in ourselves and in others. This is a relative modern phenomenon. We admire those who exert excellent control over themselves.
On the other hand, we revile those who try to exert control over others. We resist those people in real life, and the same is true in fiction.
Michel Foucault’s main legacy is his thoughts about power. He unpicked notions of progress and enlightenment in order to analyse their dark sides. But what he had to say about human sexuality is also interesting and relates to how we have historically considered self-control a virtue.
Foucault believed that sexuality only started to be policed in the 19th century, which (ironically) led to an explosion in people talking about sex, Havelock Ellis et al. Foucault was very interested in how we categorised things. He noticed that people started to be divided into taxonomies according to their sexuality: sadists, masochists, hysterical females, sexually promiscuous females and so on. These categories started to be medicalised. People started to think that by looking at your sexuality you would understand something deeper about yourself. Foucault critiqued that idea. He then studied old texts from antiquity to understand how people thought of sexuality in the past. He discovered that until Havelock Ellis et al came along, people were categorised not according to their sexual orientation, and not according to the type of sex they had, but along a simple binary: Could they control their urges? In the past, someone who could control their sexual urges was considered admirable, like someone who can control their finances — evidence of a person who’s got it all together. Who you slept with, their gender, your fantasies, none of that came into it.
It’s interesting to consider the extent to which we admire those with self-control today, versus how we (via our governments) punish people who do not exhibit self-control, be it over substance use, sex, or personal finances.
In fact, it’s difficult to think of an anti-hero who does not have self-control. This anti-hero may be morally wrong, but on some level we can still admire their great self-control when it comes to exacting revenge and evildoings.
Of course, no one but Alice Munro can write like Alice Munro. That is my disclaimer on each of my sporadic series of ‘How To Write Like…’ posts.
GENERAL NOTES ON ALICE MUNRO’S SHORT FICTION
Munro’s stories have grown more complex as she has grown older. Later stories are sometimes a more complex take on an earlier one.
Munro’s stories don’t cohere in the same way as chapters in a novel but together they form a unified work of art. Short stories may do a better job of highlighting certain aspects of her work than novels would have.
Something from page three will come and hit you on page thirty, but you had not registered the matter when you first read page three.
New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman
Munro reveals essential truths about ourselves in an unsentimental, yet deeply humane way.
Missed opportunities and lies are two themes that Munro approaches from many angles.
Consider Munro’s beginnings and endings as of a piece — the beginning will foreordain the ending.
Munro has said she sees stories architecturally, as a house whose various rooms one can roam in and out of, forgoing any prescribed order.
Munro has said that she admires writers of the American South, such as Eudora Welty and Carson McCullers.
Munro writes with black humour.
Julian Barnes states that Munro’s short stories ‘have the density and reach of other people’s novels’.
Some of her stories are unusually longer than typical short stories.
Munro stories show an interest in love and the often hidden intricacies of marriage.
A theme is often love, or perhaps romantic notions masquerading as love.
The complications and cruelties of age and time are other themes that Munro re-visits.
She reminds us that love and marriage never become unimportant as stories—that they remain the very shapers of life, rightly or wrongly. She does not overtly judge—especially human cruelty—but allows human encounters to speak for themselves. She honors mysteriousness and is a neutral beholder before the unpredictable. Her genius is in the strange detail that resurfaces, but it is also in the largeness of vision being brought to bear (and press on) a smaller genre or form that has few such wide-seeing practitioners. She is a short-story writer who is looking over and past every ostensible boundary, and has thus reshaped an idea of narrative brevity and reimagined what a story can do.
There is plenty of multivalent detail throughout Munro’s fiction, meaning a particular detail can be read at a literal as well as symbolic level. This is perhaps why Munro’s details seem, at first glance, ‘strange’.
Even when you are surprised by a shift in a character’s thoughts, it seems completely organic. We all make those kinds of transitions in our thinking processes, even though they don’t point to an end the way a story does.
The ‘real worlds’ of Munro’s stories have settings dotted around Canada, focusing on Southwestern Ontario, where Munro has spent the majority of her life. During her first married she lived in West Vancouver and Victoria, so she knows the other side of Canada as well.
Munro’s sense of irony is invariably directed at herself more than at her characters. She has always regarded herself as an anachronism: an old-style writer, writing about a rural world she once knew, which has been transformed. Except that, although society has changed, human nature hasn’t, and this is why Munro’s understanding of life is so compelling.
The landscape of a Munro short story has been described as a consanguinity between the fictional and the real. (Meaning they both come from a common ancestor.)
The setting of the real is portrayed as affectively meaningless to us. (The fictional is as important, on a psychological level, as the imagined, or the hoped for.)
There’s been a lot of critical interest around the realism of her work, with some people making reference to magical realism.
Munro often creates a world that has all the illusion of external reality, but she pulls the reader deeper and deeper into what becomes a hallucinatory inner world which may include mystery, secrecy, and deception.
In many of Munro’s stories the willing of a destiny is overtaken by a fatality that is unnervingly spectacular. Characters are driven by something they cannot resist because they are certain they are a part of it. Munro explores fatality in many different ways across many of her stories.
A common Munro device is to begin in the now and hurtle back to the then.
Much has been said about how Alice Munro can write a novel in the space of a short story.
Alice Munro can move characters through time in a way that no other writer can. You are not aware that time is passing, only that it has passed—in this, the reader resembles the characters, who also find that time has passed and that their lives have been changed, without their quite understanding how, when, and why. This rare ability partly explains why her short stories have the density and reach of other people’s novels. I have sometimes tried to work out how she does it but never succeeded, and I am happy in this failure, because no one else can—or should be allowed to—write like the great Alice Munro.
Alice Munro writes many stories about women in mid-life, caught between memory and reality. Throughout the narrative they reassess and reflect.
But occasionally she writes a child character, e.g. “Trespasses”, in which Lauren is a ten-year-old girl.
For Munro’s characters, to imagine something is to understand it.
Munro’s work is interested in men with menacing water, especially hoses. (Is this sexual?)
Munro’s women are perceptive guessers, quiet visionaries, fortuitous survivors.
Families are usually complicated in Alice Munro stories. Families aren’t nuclear; marriages aren’t lifelong/faithful. In later stories, the wider network is populated with LGBT characters. This is, of course, like life.
Alice Munro’s mothers have been likened to clowns: Mothers and Other Clowns: The Stories of Alice Munro by Magdalene Redekop (a feminist work).
Is Alice Munro feminist?
Like Chekhov, Alice Munro never sets out to make a political point. She isn’t sexist, she has no axe to grind. She’s simply bearing witness to the human experience, reporting from the front lines. Yet she is making a political point, one that’s radical because it’s so enormous and so unsettling. The point is that girls and women, even those who lead narrow and constricted lives, those who wield no influence, who have a limited experience in the world, are just as significant and important as boys and men, those who take drugs, ride across the border, drift down the river, or hunt whales. Women’s lives, too, are driven by the great forces that drive all important experience. As it turns out, all those forces are internal: rage, love, jealousy, spite, grief. These are the things that make our lives so wild and dramatic, whether the backdrops are harpoons or swing sets. The great experiences can be set anywhere: a dentist’s office, a neighbor’s living room, a country road at night. It’s those propulsive, breathtaking, suffocating forces inside us that make those moments so vivid and shocking, it’s what’s inside us that cracks the landscape open, shocking and illuminating like a streak of lightning. She showed us that, Alice Munro.
Characters are lacking in sentimentality. Alice Munro has said in an interview regarding the death of her own daughter, soon after giving birth, that she went home and barely talked about it with her first husband because they were not a sentimental couple. This reminds me of my grandparents, who were probably the same after their own stillbirth experience in the late 1950s.
FANTASIES BUT NOT FANTASISTS
It is reality that awakens possibilities, and nothing would be more perverse than to deny it.
The difficulty of authentic and complete reconstructions of events in Munro’s fiction is not, on the whole, a problem of history, and much less of an exuberant postmodern sensibility, but of a general conviction that life is comprised of “disconnected realities. […]
Though Munro’s characters are grounded in reality, characters have fallible memories. When Munro takes the reader along on remembrances of the past, at no point are we encouraged to believe every single word. (Wrong) memory can influence someone’s present as much as the past reality.
Memory, however, is fallible. It is incomplete. Munro does an excellent job of recreating how memory really works. Perhaps only older readers will appreciate this particular aspect of her stories; instead of remembering the ‘plots’ of past events, even big events, we tend to be left with resonant imagery. We forget people’s names, even if they were important to us. Minor characters become larger in hindsight. Significant characters can seem almost fictional in hindsight.
In creating a sense of imperfect memory, Alice Munro makes much use of a technique I’ve seen described as ‘side shadowing‘. It’s especially useful to the short story writer because the story seems so much more expansive. Side-shadowing is used in various ways, and Munro has numerous reasons for using it.
Munro’s fiction most often suggests that a determinate set of events lies behind the text, but that the conflicting self-justifications of her characters undermine narrative certainty. Familiar motives and shortcomings—the everyday dishonesty fostered by self-interest; the inclination to suppress what is ugly and disturbing; and the failure to exhibit a systematic sense of responsibility in our dealings with others—animate the accounts of Munro’s characters.
The Anagnorisis at the end of Munro’s stories tends to feature an event which offers a moment of release and an ‘epistemic certainty to the characters’ (Ulrica Skagert). Epistemic means ‘relating to knowledge’. Skagert argues that via this release and certainty the characters obtain a radical, audacious sense of freedom and intensity of life. So, more of an ‘epiphany’ than uninflected ‘anagnorisis’. Characters tend to move from entrapment to freedom.
Great stories are created by a nuanced sentence, a sudden realisation, a life-changing wrong choice; they are made in the description of a knowing glance, the angle of a character’s shoulders as they walk away, in the slow anger that destroys a love and shapes memory. Character, not plot, drives her art, which explores life as lived.
And here’s the difference between a good short story and an excellent one: In a great story, the reader also experiences a Anagnorisis. However, this is not spelled out for us. The reader must generally work for it. How does Munro lead us to our Anagnorisiss? Well, the trickery starts at the beginning:
As Munro brings conflicting interests and accounts to the fore, the desideratum of [desire for] factual accuracy loses authority as the reader focuses on ethical concerns and shapes a value- rather than event-based narrative account from the discrepancies. Not surprisingly, then, Munro’s preoccupation with accurate accounts is not merely thematic, but informs the structure of many of her stories, whose meandering beginnings challenge the reader’s basic efforts at orientation.
Munro includes details which prevent her stories from slipping into melodrama. The Irish Times describes her as a ‘coolly astute observer of the ordinary’. Alice Munro writes the opposite of melodrama. Instead, terrible and life-changing events happen alongside the mundane events, mostly. Instead, terrible and life-changing events happen alongside the mundane events, mostly. For instance, a husband dies suddenly while at the hardware store (in “Free Radicals”). Instead of the wife at home, wondering what’s happened to him, “She hadn’t had time to wonder about his being late.”
VOCATIONS OF CHARACTERS
Characters are often: teachers (especially music teachers), university lecturers (philandering), carpenters and doctors (often scoundrels, despite their social standing), pharmacists — not many people have really obscure sounding jobs, but maybe no one did last century?
Piano teachers, divorced professors, country doctors, solitary widows in the country—all those small and insignificant people lead lives of enormous drama. Women lead lives of enormous drama. She has made that into fact.
The women are shown performing emotional labour in a way you don’t tend to find in stories written by men, even when men are creating female characters. Most men simply don’t seem to get the extent to which women are acculturated in this area. The opening paragraph of “Free Radicals” is a perfect example of this:
At first, people kept phoning, to make sure that Nita was not too depressed, not too lonely, not eating too little or drinking too much. (She had been such a diligent wine drinker that many forgot that she was now forbidden to drink at all.) She held them off, without sounding nobly grief-stricken or unnaturally cheerful or absent-minded or confused. She said that she didn’t need groceries; she was working through what she had on hand. She had enough of her prescription pills and enough stamps for her thank-you notes.
If there’s drug use in her stories, it’ll be alcohol. When asked if she took drugs during the hippie era, Alice Munro replied maybe a little marijuana, but alcohol is the drug of her generation.
Munro has also talked about how women of her generation never developed their own personal desires until the hippie era hit them, and then it hit them with a force. Even at the age of 30, Alice Munro felt 18 again. Likewise, the younger versions of the women in her stories often seem quite passive. By the time these women are old ladies they’ve perhaps become a little more self-actuated, but young women are often propelled along by others, mostly men, who really did run that world. Women of Munro’s generation were expected to get married and have children. Any other kind of desire was considered unfeminine. Munro herself had exactly those desires. (Munro published her first book age 37, before her awakening. If she’d published earlier, we would’ve seen quite different work.)
YOUNG AND OLD TOGETHER
The cast of characters will most likely contain both young and old, and that’s aside from the narrator’s young and old self. For instance, a young woman will meet an old woman. This reminds her of her own mortality, perhaps, or the older lady from the past connects the main character’s older and younger self in a way that may not have been evident to the character herself. We are constantly reminded as readers that our age is not our identity; at some point we are young and, if we are lucky, at some point we are old.
CHARACTERS ARE SHAPED BY THEIR CIRCUMSTANCE
In this postI explain the difference between folk psychology and studied psychology: People do not have much in the way of enduring character — how we behave in any given situation depends largely on the situation.
A difference between genre fiction and good literary fiction — in literary fiction characters behave according to their circumstance, as people in real life would. Below, a reader explains this in a review of Munro’s collection, The Love Of A Good Woman:
Loving Munro is … easy because her ethics of care and compassion for others [is] embodied by these stories, for example by Enid, the protagonist of [“The Love Of A Good Woman”]. Yet Munro refuses to paint an icon for worship: Enid can live as she does only because of her enabling circumstances, she experiences poisoned fantasies, and her goodwill is not unconditional. The same is true for other characters: each person in the book is carefully drawn as an individual shaped by histories, enmeshed in social structures that influence, constrain, oppress, enable, direct, oppose and support them in interconnected ways. They are at least partly responsible for their fortunes and failings, but Munro never victim-blames or hero-worships.
Here’s the problem with thumbnail character descriptions and why I shy away from writing them myself: By simply describing someone, we are actively encouraging the reader to fall back on stereotypes. Without existing prejudice, character sketches can’t do their job and are useless. Why does a writer give us a character’s BMI? Is it simply to paint a picture in our mind? Or are we meant to map society’s view onto characters?
Yet if writers avoid describing characters altogether, readers may fail to paint a picture. Moreover, they’ll come up with their own picture. I once wrote a short story, put it through critique. Halfway through the story I mentioned the main character’s beard. A critique partner said that I’d ‘sprung the beard’ on them. I found the imagery of that funny, but the reason they felt that way? I hadn’t started with any thumbnail sketch.
How to write character sketches without the inevitable downsides?
Well, Munro doesn’t shy away from telling us someone’s BMI and we can easily deduce where they would fall on the beauty spectrum. (Should we avoid talking about fatness and thinness at all? That’s a whole different issue with arguments both ways.)
Such information is offset by the fact that many of Munro’s character descriptions include a line about how the person we see is not the real person at all.
Mr. Travers never told stories and had little to say at dinner, but if he came upon you looking, for instance, at the fieldstone fireplace he might say, “Are you interested in rocks?” and tell you how he had searched and searched for that particular pink granite, because Mrs. Travers had once exclaimed over a rock like that, glimpsed in a road cut. Or he might show you the not really unusual features that he personally had added to the house—the corner cupboard shelves swinging outward in the kitchen, the storage space under the window seats. He was a tall, stooped man with a soft voice and thin hair slicked over his scalp. He wore bathing shoes when he went into the water and, though he did not look fat in his clothes, a pancake fold of white flesh slopped over the top of his bathing trunks.
How he is different underneath (under his clothes)
Grace was wearing a dark-blue ballerina skirt, a white blouse, through whose eyelet frills the upper curve of her breasts was visible, and a wide rose-colored elasticized belt. There was a discrepancy, no doubt, between the way she presented herself and the way she wanted to be judged. But nothing about her was dainty or pert or polished, in the style of the time. A bit ragged around the edges, in fact. Giving herself Gypsy airs, with the very cheapest silver-painted bangles, and the long, wild-looking, curly dark hair that she had to put into a snood when she waited on tables.
How she is different underneath (she doesn’t feel as sexual as she dresses)
A description of her ‘falseness’, as viewed from a character’s POV rather than an objective narrator’s. (In the wider context, this would be how same-age men tend to see her.)
A detail of her clothing (the snood) which marks the earlier era
Mrs. Travers, however, was barely five feet tall, and under her bright muumuus seemed not fat but sturdily plump, like a child who hasn’t stretched up yet. And the shine, the intentness, of her eyes, the gaiety that was always ready to break out in them, had not been inherited. Nor had the rough red, almost a rash, on her cheeks, which was probably a result of going out in any weather without thinking about her complexion, and which, like her figure, like her muumuus, showed her independence.
There was a change in his voice—a crack in it, a rising pitch that made her think of a television comedian doing a rural whine. Under the kitchen skylight, she saw that he wasn’t as young as she’d thought. When she’d opened the door, she had been aware only of a skinny body, the face dark against the morning glare. The body, as she saw it now, was certainly skinny but more wasted than boyish, affecting a genial slouch. His face was long and rubbery, with prominent light-blue eyes. A jokey look, but a persistence, too, as if he generally got his way.
The way in which her appearance has been affected by her actions
She was a slim, suntanned woman in a purple dress, with a matching wide purple band holding back her dark hair. Handsome, but with little pouches of boredom or disapproval hiding the corners of her mouth. She left most of her dinner untouched on her plate, explaining that she had an allergy to curry.
Her allergy to curry, which the reader is encouraged not to take seriously
His hands didn’t feel drunk, and his eyes didn’t look it. Nor did he look like the jolly uncle he had impersonated when he talked to the children, or the purveyor of reassuring patter he had chosen to be with Grace. He had a high pale forehead, a crest of tight curly gray-black hair, bright gray but slightly sunken eyes, high cheekbones, and rather hollowed cheeks. If his face relaxed, he would look sombre and hungry.
How he is now different from how he presented at first
His duplicitous way of talking, which is simply a matter of changing register — we all do it, but here we are encouraged to suspect him of something sinister
The dimensions of his face
The colour of his hair (indicating middle age)
How the main character imagines his face might look different. She’s really observing him closely.
She is a lean eager-looking woman with a mop of pewter colored hair and a slight stoop which may come from coddling her large instrument, or simply from the habit of being an obliging listener and a ready talker.
two lifestyle possibilities about why she may have adopted that pose, together telling us all we need to know about this character
Munro writes third person narratives, usually focusing on a woman, moving in and out of her head from close third person to omniscient.
TIME AND SPATIAL ORGANISATION
Time often spans a lifetime, from the point of view of a woman near the end of her life. She looks back on long-ago events as an extradiegetic character. Her younger self seems like a different person to her. After a lifetime of reflection, she is often more forgiving of her younger trespasses, understands why things happened the way they did. The younger woman is often without any particular desire of her own in the story, propelled along by men and expectations.
In these narratives which can span a lifetime, Munro moves seamlessly from the present to the recent past to the long distant past. This requires knowing when to make use of three verb tenses in the English language:
Simple past tense: At first, people kept phoning, to make sure that Nita was not too depressed
Past perfect tense: Rich had told her that he was going to the village, to the hardware store.
Present tense: Rich died in June. Now here it is midsummer.
The reader doesn’t notice she’s even doing this. She does it so well. Native English speakers create these tenses naturally, yet when writing a story you do have to make a decision when to use which tense, at least at some point, perhaps as part of the revision process.
At first we might think, okay, the distant past would obviously be simple past. The recent past would obviously be the past perfect. And the switch from iterative to the singulative would obviously cue a switch to the present. But look closer; it’s a bit more tricky than that.
I find it helpful to think of Munro writing a series of vignettes, each with their own entire timeline filling out the space. So, a flashback might start with the simple past, then within that same flashback it’ll switch to past perfect, so the reader feels we’re not reading a flashback at all. This is important because a constant stream of flashbacks can otherwise frustrate the reader, who is naturally more interested in the present. (Reading a flashback can feel like reading something enclosed in parentheses — we tend to skip through it, keen to get back to the ‘real’ text. See what I’m doing here?)
There’s another important reason why Munro encourages us to feel the past is inextricably tied to the present. In an Alice Munro story, the present never exists in isolation. Every life event is connected to what came before — the end of life often mirrors the beginning of life — and memories of the past absolutely influence a character’s experience of the here and now, influencing decisions which might, to outsiders, seem wacky or illogical. Once we know the backstory that is affecting her, the reader understands why she behaves the way she does.
Stories unfold as if someone is speaking to us. If you’ve ever studied speech-making, you’ll know that an audience far prefers naturalistic speaking over a memorised script. Although you might falter, you might start a sentence then switch it for another, you add fillers… This is in fact easier for people to understand than a perfect stream of words. This is why conversations with friends are easier to follow than a literary audiobook. Munro absolutely has a sense of how humans grasp story, and she tells her stories as an oral storyteller might.
What is she actually doing, though? What does this mean and how do we replicate the technique?
We might say she’s making use of reveals and reversals. Going back to “Free Radicals”, the story opens with a woman in mourning. The reader naturally wonders: Why is she in mourning? Okay, we soon learn she’s lost her husband. The reader naturally wonders: How did he die? (I think we always wonder this, even if we have the courtesy not to ask, which we should not.) Munro then tells us how the husband dies.
Note that Munro could have completely inverted this in her storytelling. She could open with a man dying outside a hardware store. But she doesn’t, because she knows how reveals work. This is a term used by screenwriters, but it applies to everyday storytelling, as well, in a smaller way.
In the same story, we are told that Nita has buried her husband in a cardboard box. The reader wonders if the relationship was terrible. We are told that in fact they planned this together in advance. Reversal: Okay, so she didn’t bury him in a box because he was terrible. They are simply unsentimental. Further reveal: Nita had expected to die first because she has a cancer diagnosis. If she’s mad at her dead husband, it’s for ‘stealing her thunder’. See the minor reveals and reversals in there? It’s masterful. We think we know this character — we’re doing our best to understand her motivations. But small, unexpected pieces of information have us constantly on our toes, reevaluating our understanding of this character.
Alice Munro makes regular use of the writing technique of describing what is not as a way in to what is. The following is a description of recent bereavement:
She thought carefully, every morning when she first took her seat, of the places where Rich was not. He was not in the smaller bathroom, where his shaving things still were, along with the prescription pills for various troublesome but not serious ailments which he’d refused to throw out. Nor was he in the bedroom, which she had just tidied and left. Not in the larger bathroom, which he had entered only to take tub baths. Or in the kitchen, which had become mostly his domain in the last year. He was of course not out on the half-scraped deck, ready to peer jokingly in the window—through which she might, in earlier days, have pretended to be alarmed at the sight of a peeping tom.
lightness — When we see women depicted in gloomy circumstances caused by patriarchal systems of repression, there is still a recurring moment of a peculiar feeling of lightness or newness that does not fit directly or simply into the condition of their social realities.
sameness — Alice Munro’s fiction recognizes life as possibility in a moment when it shows itself in its own remarkable sameness.
absence — a focus not what is there but what is absent or delayed
possibility and fatality — Munro is fascinated by the surface reality of how things are.
liberation vs restraint
contingency and fatality
There are many trains — characters inside trains, train tracks going past a house, incidents on train tracks. This makes sense, as trains are a wonderful metaphor for the inevitable passing of time. Once you’re on a train there’s no stopping it — you’ll end up where you end up, and life often seems like this in hindsight.
Munro writes ‘character’ descriptions of houses, which depicts houses as characters in their own right, inextricably linked to their inhabitants. Houses remain even after the inhabitants have long since gone. A visit to a former house brings back many memories.
Like Annie Proulx, Alice Munro’s narratives are often about outsiders coming in to invade small towns. With Munro, an older character returns to former haunts to learn that everything has regrettably changed. Highways have been built, young people have moved in, often with their tacky play sets in the yards. There is regret on the part of the characters — why couldn’t things just stay the same? On the other hand, they don’t wish for that at all. Rather, their memories are rose-tinted. In a Munro story, reality and memory do not line up.
The house had a row of cedars on one side and a railway embankment on the other. The railway traffic had never amounted to much, and by now there were only a couple of trains a month. Weeds were lavish between the tracks. One time, when she was on the verge of menopause, Nita had teased Rich into making love up there—not on the ties, of course, but on the narrow grass verge beside them—and they had climbed down inordinately pleased with themselves.
Later, in the same story, the train tracks give the impression that once a terrible situation is set in motion, there’s no getting out of it. An intruder has tricked his way into her house. Not, Nita must wait for fate to play out: Train tracks as fate.
“I was only going to get the keys.” “You wait till I say. I walked the railway track. Never seen a train. I walked all the way to here and never seen a train.” “There’s hardly ever a train.”
An affinity between the inevitable and the possible is central to Munro’s writing.
As shown in ‘Train’, Munro expertly analyses those sudden, irreparable choices in life that lead us away from our original track. The metaphor of train is repeated in ‘To Reach Japan’, where Greta’s sudden impetuous sexual liaison with another traveller leads to the disappearance of her young daughter. She is travelling to Toronto to house-sit for a friend and is due to return to the comfortable tedium of her marriage. Yet, another impulsive gesture – the sending of a letter to a man she barely knows – may take Greta away from the familiar tracks of her life.
In many stories, a character has gone missing. Perhaps they’ve dropped off the face of the planet, or another character thinks they have (e.g. “Jakarta“). A child grows up and cuts their parents off. Another form of absence is when two or more characters knew each other when young, fall mostly out of contact for decades, then reconnect when they’re old.
Munro uses the full range of narrative pace in her stories. The pacing itself maps onto the emotions she evokes in the reader. She can skip over decades, then slow the pace down to a pause (freeze frame). She is an expert at summary. Here she summarises a long journey home:
Sally gets lost, then finds her way. The bank building again, the same or possibly a whole new regiment of loiterers. The subway ride, the car park, the keys, the highway, the traffic. Then the lesser highway, the early sunset, no snow yet, the bare trees, and the darkening fields.
When telling a story, the following is non-negotiable: Your character must have some kind of plan. There really are no exceptions to this rule.
There are some caveats, such as when your main character is a passive sort of character, in which case another character will make the plan which kicks them out of passivity. (Often it’s the opponent.)
But a story with no plan is not a story.
In her Watching email, NYT writer Margaret Lyons shares her passion for the scam:
a chance to watch both Fyre Festival docs last week — both flawed; both interesting — and I was also delighted to see that ABC News has a new podcast about Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos. And now, perhaps the best of all scams: A literary scam. This New Yorker piece about the novelist Dan Mallory’s “trail of deceptions” is going to power my whole week. My passion for scams and hoaxes continues unabated, and I’m not alone. I finally had If you would like to sing “oh my scammy, whammy mammy,” now is the time to rewatch “Mr. Show.”
Here’s why we don’t need to ‘like’ characters in the stories we enjoy: We wouldn’t want to be friends with a scammer (or trickster, or someone who wears a mask) but we really enjoy seeing their antics in fiction. Perhaps this is partly wish-fulfilment. We like revenge stories, and we like to watch fictional characters exacting revenge.
SCAMS AND PLANS IN CHILDREN’S STORIES
In children’s literature, baddies who plot evil are often foiled by a child or a childlike creature who saves the day. As in films for adults, some of these plots are serious and some are comical.
Almost every children’s story involves a scam scene, regardless of what we call it:
The entire Famous Five and Secret Seven series, and all of the child sleuth grandchild books, in which groups of children outwit smalltime crooks.
Matilda — Roald Dahl absolutely loved scams. Scams form the entire plot points of Matilda and the Twits. But every one of his books involves a scam of some kind, in which the young hero gets back at the opponent. David Walliams writes in the same tradition.
Ramona Quimby hides her report card in the freezer because her older sister Beezus’s is always perfect, showing her own school achievements up.
Jesse Aarons in The Bridge To Terabithia really wants to go with his music teacher to the museum, so when his mother is half asleep when he asks permission to go, he isn’t really concerned that she may not have even heard him.
Mildred Hubble from The Worst Witch series is constantly foiled in the second book in the series by a newcomer (Enid) who Mildred is supposed to be in charge of. This newcomer is full of mischief, which is interesting because she doesn’t really mean to cause trouble for Mildred, she is simply blundering her way through the strict rules of the boarding school for witches, breaking lots of rules.
The Pokey Little Puppy — Like Peter Rabbit, this is the character children fall in love with, even though he is doing exactly as his mother tells him not to. Perhaps we like these animals so much because they are justly punished.
Room On The Broom — through their own creativity, all of the passengers of the broom display great team work and fool the baddie to save the benevolent witch.
The Wee Wishy Womanof Nickety Nackety Noo-noo-noo by Joy Cowley saves her own bacon by fooling her captor into eating a stew made of glue. This is a classic fairytale ending — the clever trickster character gets away, similar to tales such as Hansel and Gretel, who fool the wicked witch by sticking out a chicken bone instead of a finger, and then by feigning ignorance about how to climb into an oven.
Holden Caulfield from Catcher In The Rye might be called the father of Ferris Bueller, taking off from school and doing his own thing.
Eleanor and Park each deceive themselves about how much they like each other, and then when they realise this, they must deceive certain adults in their lives. Is this the romance equivalent of a scam? I consider it as such.
The Fish in This Is Not My Hat has already stolen the hat at the beginning of the picture book, which shows initiative. In We Found A Hat, one tortoise fantasises about scamming his friend, but ultimately realises that this would ruin the friendship.
Wolf Comes To Town is all about a wicked wolf who dresses up as respectable people in order to do very bad things. This particular form of deception fails to go unpunished, though, which may explain why this children’s picture book went out of print.
Artemis Fowl behaves badly, stealing fairy gold, but is undeniably attractive as a character because he goes after what he wants even if it’s illegal. He’s also very proud of himself.
But children’s authors aren’t usually encouraged to make use of ‘scams’, as such. I haven’t seen the word used. But I have heard advice to make use of ‘secrets’, the close cousin of the scam.
Children’s book editor Cheryl Klein advises that child protagonists should have secrets:
Let the reader know there’s a secret, and then don’t tell them what it is until it absolutely serves your purpose to do so. …It could be a secret the narrator knows and is keeping from the reader…Or it could be a secret the characters have to find out.
Klein points out that the genre of mystery novels require secrets and offers the example of Lemony Snicket, an example of a narrator who has a secret but refuses to tell the reader what it is.
Other child(like) characters with secrets:
Claude the dog goes off on his adventures when his owners are at work, so they never know what he’s been up to.
The Secret Seven were called ‘secret’ because they never told their parents (or other children outside the club) exactly what went down in their crime-busting world.
The storyteller character of Looking For Alaska by John Green keeps a secret from the reader and the structure of the book lets the reader know that we are counting down to a big reveal.
Billy in Where The Red Fern Grows has a secret — he sneaks off to buy a puppy after saving up a lot of pocket money, even though his family needs it
Are secrets more common in chapter books (and up) than in picture books? It seems so, since it’s harder to find examples of picture book characters who keep secrets. Since toddlers and young children are completely reliant upon their caregivers, the degree to which child protagonists keep secrets will depend on the age of the ideal reader, with the deepest darkest secrets being kept by YA protagonists.
Klein offers a caution about secrets when crafting the plot:
The answer to the secret has to have a significance equal to the effort the reader has invested in it.
Header image is a peanut butter advertisement by American commercial illustrator, Norman Rockwell.
Chekhov’s gun is a storytelling technique to do with foreshadowing. The author places a gun in the story/picture and one of the characters uses it later. This is the general rule: If the gun has been placed, the author must make use of it. Otherwise the reader will wonder what on earth it was doing there. The reader will feel cheated. In this way, stories are very different from real life.
Obviously, when it comes to children’s literature, guns are a bit of a no-go. However, the Chekhov’s Gun technique is super useful for increasing tension and narrative drive. Children’s writers must be inventive when it comes to avoiding actual gun violence in stories for young readers, but do make use of this same technique.
I’m not sure if someone has already done this, but for children’s literature I’m inventing my own related terminology. The kidlit equivalent of Chekhov’s gun is…
CHEKHOV’S TOY GUN
Chekhov’s TOY Gun refers to an on-the-page gun which turns out to be a toy gun, not a gun at all, or something else similarly benign.
Here’s the difference between the Chekhov’s Gun vs Chekhov’s TOY Gun: The toy gun is never going to be used to inflict harm, even when we see it on the page as a threat. We know this because this is a rule of junior fiction. In Young Adult literature, anything can happen — I’m talking about middle grade and below. In MG stories, characters don’t shoot heroes. However, the reader won’t know that until after the Battle sequence of the story. Part of the Revelation part of the plot (coinciding with the Anagnorisis) part, will be, Oh! It wasn’t any threat at all! Just seemed totally threatening!
EXAMPLES OF CHEKHOV’S TOY GUN
R.L. Stine will often give his adult baddies a gun but these guns are never used to shoot our child heroes. In How I Got My Shrunken Head,the gun turns out to be a water pistol. Thanks to R.L. Stine, for inspiring me with a name for this concept.
In Pax, Sara Pennypacker suggests a character may be carrying a rifle by describing it through a naive animal’s point of view. The reader guesses a ‘long pole’ may be a rifle because the setting is a war situation. We soon learn that the ‘pole’ is actually the hero’s crutch (he has a broken leg), and this crutch is used as a weapon to scare off the attacking coyotes during the final big big struggle scene.
The examples I give are very literal examples, because the child character thinks there is an actual gun. Also very common in children’s literature: A character who looks very scary proves completely benign. For example, the gigantic man next door proves to be kind of heart when the child hero actually meets him in person. Or a rumour about a perceived opponent turns out not to be true.
To offer an extremely tangential example, in Monster House, McCracken is revealed to be a victim of the scary, enlivened, haunted house, despite being very scary to the children himself. The real opponent goes a long way back in history, with a version of intergenerational trauma being the real issue, requiring nothing more than understanding (symbolised by a massive, elongated Battle sequence) on the part of the adolescent heroes.
Apart from the big reveal that something is not so terrible after all, these stories by their nature tend to convey the following ideologies:
Things (and people) are not what they seem on the surface.
Don’t believe everything you hear.
Look closely and pay attention or you’ll perceive danger in the exact wrong places.
People who look like baddies are sometimes the goodies (and vice versa).
And even if they are bad, there’s probably a reason for that and we should extend understanding. Worse bad lurks behind bad.
Understanding to true nature of things, events and people will help us cope with the bad stuff we encounter in life.
Have you noticed examples of Chekhov’s Toy Gun in stories you’ve read lately?