How To Write A Likeable Main Character

George Bernard O'Neill - Stolen Fruit is the Sweetest

Must characters in stories be likeable? No. Are unlikeable characters popular with audiences? Yes. But they’re harder to write. What if you want to create a genuinely likeable main character who appeals to the broadest base? Here are some tips and tricks.

Make your hero OR your main opponent a ‘rogue charmer’, ‘prankster’ or ‘trickster’

Trickster is one of the fundamental character archetypes. Other examples are the magician, the wise old man, the lover and so on. But of all the characters and character types, the trickster is the most popular with audiences worldwide. It goes back thousands of years:

  • Odysseus/Ulysses – Ulysses is the Latin name for Odysseus, a hero in ancient Greek literature. Odysseus is renowned for his brilliance, guile, and versatility, and is hence known by the epithet Odysseus the Cunning (mētis, or “cunning intelligence”).
  • Hermes – the Greek god. According to prominent folklorist Yeleazar Meletinsky, Hermes is a deified trickster.
  • Merlin – from the Arthurian legend, perhaps based on 6th-century Druid living in southern Scotland. He causes trouble at his former wife’s wedding, for instance.

In Children’s Literature, instead of the ‘rogue charmers’ per se, we often see child protagonists who get into trouble despite their best intentions, and who always maintain a positive attitude against all odds.

  • Anne ShirleyAnne 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
How TO execute the trickster technique
  • Create a character with extreme confidence.
  • This person also has a way with words.
  • Think con-man. (Con man is short for confidence man.)
  • The audience just wants to do whatever this character suggests.
  • Make them fun-loving. When they are the hero of the story, a big part of their function is to show other people how to enjoy life.
  • Whatever goal you give your trickster, have them involved in a plan that involves deception. This is crucial. The more deception the better the story.
  • This character is very likeable even when they’re being bad. They’re often a complete liar. Problematically, perhaps, an audience forgives this so long as the above criteria are fulfilled.

Or you can make the trickster the main opponent because of their ability to attack the hero. This is handy because it will give the hero a lot of trouble (and therefore a lot of story to work with).

Avoid ‘Whiny’

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. She 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
  • recognisability (identification)

Bravery, confidence and self-motivation are important for child protagonists as they are for the ‘con-man’ archetype described by Truby:

  • 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

Give Your Character Positive Energy

  • 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 Give Them Interesting Negative Energy

Likeable characters may be pessimistic and sardonic.

  • 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.

 

Header painting: George Bernard O’Neill – Stolen Fruit is the Sweetest

How To Write Like Alice Munro

Alice_Munro

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

Continue reading “How To Write Like Alice Munro”

Secrets and Scams in Storytelling

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.

There’s a specific kind of plan which, as screenwriting guru John Truby has pointed out, audiences really go for. The scam. In her Watching email, NYT writer Margaret Lyons shares her own passion for the scam:

Dear Watchers,
My passion for scams and hoaxes continues unabated, and I’m not alone. I finally had 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.
If you would like to sing “oh my scammy, whammy mammy,” now is the time to rewatch “Mr. Show.”

We hate scammers in real life, but we love to read about scamming plans in our fiction. Perhaps this is wish-fulfilment. We like to fantasise about getting our own back on the those who have wronged us.

The scam is closely related to two other storytelling terms/techniques:

Here’s what Truby says about scams.

Audiences love to be fooled, so make use of plans and scams to extend your plot.

  • The average writer doesn’t realise one of the first keys to plot is your hero’s plan.
  • Plan is a set of guidelines the hero is going to use to beat the opponent and reach the goal.
  • In really good [stories], this plan is often a scam. A scam is simply a plan that involves deception.

A scam isn’t just a single trick that the hero plays on the opponent. A scam is actually a campaign of trickery. It’s a complex sequence of tricks that surprises not only the opposition, it surprises the audience.

When you use a scam, it gives you more plot. A scam involves deception. The scam ties in with the trickster character, in turn tying in with the surprises you get from your opponent. All of these provide a substantial plot. Plot is the area where most writers are weakest.

Films that make use of the scam are varied. Some are serious films:

  • The Dark Knight
  • The Godfather
  • The Bourne Ultimatum
  • Die Hard
  • The Usual Suspects
  • But scam is even more important in comedy genres:
  • Wedding Crashers
  • Beverly Hills Cop
  • Tootsie

The main characters in Orphan Black and The Killing regularly use scams to achieve their goals, by dressing up, telling lies — but the audience knows that it’s all to a worthy end.

WILL ANY SCAM DO?

An audience accepts scams from some characters more than others, and your typical, conservative audience has little tolerance for certain kinds of scams.

In Breaking Bad, Skylar uses a scam to get Ted out of trouble, which many (sexist?) viewers interpret as an ‘unworthy cause’, since she’s married to Walt, and therefore should be loyal only to Walt.’

Children tend to have a higher tolerance for scammer heroes than gatekeeper adults, many of whom believe storybook heroes need to model good behaviour.

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 absoluetely 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 Woman of 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.
    • The Story Of The Little Mole Who Knew It Was None Of His Business is basically a revenge story in which a mole gets his own back by shitting on someone else.
    • Wolf Comes To Town is all about a wicked wolf who dresses up as respectable people in order to do very bad things. (Truby calls these plots ‘switch stories’.) 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.

SECRETS

In children’s literature, think in terms of ‘secrets’ rather than ‘scams’.

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.

 

How To Write Like Katherine Mansfield

How To Write Like Katherine Mansfield

When writing short stories you’ll want to develop your own style, not ape the style of anyone else. Nonetheless, I have collected a number of pointers from a short story great. Mansfield borrowed from those who came before her and we may do the same. In fact, it’s inevitable. It pays to know our own influences, if only so we don’t mimic them too closely.

Overall, Mansfield was a modernist writer. And of the modernist writers, she was at the highly aesthetic and visual end of the spectrum. She wasn’t big into verisimilitude.

Mansfield was also an Impressionist writer and wrote lyrical short stories (rather than ‘plotted’ ones).

SUBJECT MATTER

  • Mansfield sought to subvert convention, sometimes even while appearing to use it. How does one subvert convention? See here. What exactly did Mansfield subvert? She had a distaste for bourgeois life. She hated the stuffier sides of Victorian and Edwardian life. She also targeted the (German) greedy preoccupation with food. In earlier stories she rejected a stuffy, stereotyped ideal of domesticity. Other things she despised: man-chasing, admiration for numbers of babies, the work-a-day aspects of marriage.
  • Mansfield’s stories are sometimes about the terrors of childbirth, known as Fear of Engulfment (“The Child Who Was Tired“, “Prelude“, “At The Bay“).
  • The family circle is generally presented unfavourably. Some of her fictional families got the gross, satirical treatment. Others are presented directly and harshly (“The Child Who Was Tired“). The family in “A Picnic” gets less harsh treatment. The Burnell family are presented harshly but are not treated satirically at all.
  • Related to her Fear of Engulfment, Mansfield liked to explore the theme of retaining one’s individuality. Characters seem terrified of losing themselves, of being subsumed by the roles expected of them. They wish for individuality. Stories show that there are many pitfalls in love. Take the emotional variability in “The Swing of the Pendulum“, “Psychology“, “Taking The Veil” and “The Singing Lesson“.
  • Mansfield had no time for sycophancy or chauvinism. (She was woke.)
  • She wrote of childhood joys, of adolescent pleasures and pains, of adult aspirations and frustrations, and of the memories and final knowledge of the aged.
  • As characters she chose children exploring the world alone, children reacting to adults, lonely or isolated women in a hostile world, overbearing businessmen, fathers.
  • Mansfield afforded legitimacy to the emotional lives of children, with the idea that children feel as keenly as adults. She was ahead of her time in this. Early psychologists grouped infants with ‘primitive peoples’. Civilised intellects were considered of a higher order, and privileged in literature as well.
  • Many of Mansfield’s characters are in the early years of life, in some kind of transition. The transition might be from the infant’s purely affective sensory world to the adult’s world, where emotion and thought are entwined. The child is often learning how to contend with or express emotion. Children have a physical reaction before realising what happened. (“The Little Girl”, “How Pearl Button Was Kidnapped”)
  • To convey her characters’ constricted view of the world, Mansfield used isolation, delusion, cognitive restrictions, fantasies, hallucinations, dreams and fears as well as the difficulties of apprehensive youth.
  • It is often difficult to pinpoint an exact theme in her work, though a story like “The Doll’s House” is said to be accessible because of its clear theme and message.
  • One of her recurring themes is Proustian — to do with the shift and flux of time. No human relationship remains unchanged. At the moment of its consummation the relationship is being altered, lost until it is reanimated from the past.
  • Mansfield is also known for depicting the world of the child. After 1915 there is no bitterness or criticism in her work — young people are instead presented sympathetically, perhaps with humour (“Her First Ball“, “The Voyage“, “At The Bay“, “The Garden Party“, “The Doll’s House“, “The Young Girl“, “Taking The Veil“).
  • One of Mansfield’s major themes is the theme of illusion, of a faulty interpretation of an experience. Illusion is central to Literary Impressionist fiction. It’s hard to talk about in Mansfield’s work because it is pervasive. Every character exists somewhere on the Continuum of Imaginative Powers, whether they’re indulging in fantasy or are accidentally deluded.
  • Mansfield quite often changed the titles of her stories. It pays not to read too much into the significance of a title — just because “Prelude” was originally named “The Aloe” doesn’t necessarily mean the aloe is the central symbol. “The Man Without A Temperament” was earlier named “The Exile” and “The Doll’s House” was earlier named “The Washerwoman’s Children”. A setting frequently leads to the final choice of a title, or Mansfield uses the name of the main character. But also, an ironic twist in a main character’s perception of reality may also serve as a title.

HOW TO NARRATE LIKE MANSFIELD

Mansfield is known as the one of the first to bring modernist short stories to the West. She took her cues from Chekhov (who was Russian). She read early English translations of his work. Biographers don’t know if she first encountered Chekhov in Wellington. She may have, because she loved to spend many hours at the Wellington library. Or she may have read him later in England. In any case, he was clearly influential.

(If you want to narrate like Katherine Mansfield, you’re also narrating like Chekhov, and many other stylists who came after.)

  • Mansfield was a pioneer in interior monologue.
  • Mansfield generally makes use of shifting viewpoints, never settling on one character in particular. Because the ‘camera’ never settles, we expect her to shift viewpoints. That means you can’t settle in one head for too long. “Prelude” and “The Doll’s House” are examples of this. Other stories remain with a single character, in close third person narration. Examples are “The Tiredness of Rosabel” (until the final sentence, considered by some to be a writing mistake), “Miss Brill” and “The Wind Blows“.
  • To finish off a story, Mansfield sometimes switches point of view to that of another character who hasn’t had much airtime until now. (“The Escape”, “The Doll’s House”)
  • A technique called ‘narrative irony’ is present in Mansfield’s work right from “In a Cafe”, written at the age of 19. See also “In A German Pension“. Characters in her stories often continue to believe certain things even though experience tells them they shouldn’t. For example, a character describes something as ‘it seems’. Or the narrator might present wrong interpretations without any judgement.
  • This technique has been called narrative parallax.
  • Parallax is a part of a wider movement known as Literary Impressionism, in which a (homodiegetic) narrator tells a story which is fragmentary, seemingly objective, dramatic and indirectly suggestive, as well as parallactic. Characters are conditioned by their environment and prone to distortion and misinterpretation. Unreliable, in other words. But not because they’re being deliberately deceitful — because they don’t quite understand themselves or their relationship to their world. This is how the character genuinely perceives reality. The central issues of Literary Impressionism are ‘Who am I?’ and ‘What is happening now?’ It is up to the reader to piece together fragments and come to our own conclusion about who this person is and what’s happening in the story. The character can’t see the full picture because they are stuck within the storyworld.
  • Characters are usually unable to comprehend much beyond their own personal world, however beautiful the natural surroundings and its ‘Stimmung’ (mood) and however strong the impulse to resist a passive outlook upon life.
  • A character’s view of life is necessarily subjective, solipsistic, tentative and qualified by preoccupation. Mansfield’s reality is arbitrary, fragmentary, momentary, ambivalent and complex.
  • Characters are reflected in each other’s thoughts. They’d hardly recognise themselves as they are presented, coloured and changed by different points of view. In “Prelude“, Stanley is seen by his wife by turns as a turkey or a Newfoundland dog.
  • The constantly shifting perspective gives the reader a series of shocks, as one perspective shifts to another. (Look for windows and mirrors in stories with shifting perspectives — “Prelude” as well as To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf.
  • The narrator in Mansfield’s stories is often perceptive but has no prior knowledge of characters or of the situation or the meaning of events. The in medias res beginning of many of her stories allows for no extra information. The narrator attempts to capture impressions in statu nascendi (in a state of being born). This narrator depicts the outer world not as it is, but as it appears, via the senses rather than the intellect. If that’s all we’re using, what have we got? Commentary on: appearance, size, age, voice. This will require a healthy number of adjectives and adverbs.
Katherine_Mansfield

STORYWORLDS OF KATHERINE MANSFIELD

  • Mansfield created fictional impressions of real life around her. She gave her themes a fictional expression that attempted to define reality as viewed by one or more central characters.
  • Though Mansfield expressed disdain for her home country of New Zealand, as she approached death, her thoughts returned to her homeland and her last, most accomplished stories are all set in and around Wellington.
  • Some of her settings are ambiguous, such as “A Dill Pickle”, which is almost certainly London, but set in a cosmopolitan cafe which could be many places.
  • Mansfield lived in France and is now buried there. A number of her stories are set in France.
  • Others are set in Germany. Her collection In A German Pension is set in Germany, though Mansfield later said she didn’t like those stories.
  • Mansfield wrote contemporary tales, which means they’re all set in the late 1800s, early 1900s.
  • World War One (and events leading up to it) makes an appearance in some of her stories, if only to underscore how unimportant world events are to her characters, who must go on with their own small lives regardless. (“A Dill Pickle”, “The Fly”.)
  • Mansfield knew how a well-to-do, moneyed household worked. Her New Zealand natal family went by that exact description, and because English immigrants were still very English in their custom, she knew how that class of English people lived, too. Bertha of “Bliss” is presumably English born, but she’s no more English in character than the young fictional women who grew up in New Zealand.
  • Many critics talk about ‘the snail underneath the leaf’ in Mansfield’s worlds. John Truby calls this The Apparent Utopia, referring to the corruption of the world or ‘The Ugliness of Leaf’, which exists just below the surface. The ‘snail under the leaf’ theme also has a more general aspect in its emphasis on the evil of the universe, the basic cruelty of life, as a part of the general make-up of humanity. In Mansfield’s later stories the handling of theme grows darker and more despairing. ‘The snail underneath the leaf’ is also about people’s delusion — we may think everything is hunky dory, but only because we’re not looking under the rotten surface layer.
  • Mansfield liked to juxtapose life with death. From early 1920 onwards the death theme is either directly or indirectly present in many of her stories.
  • Related to this, time is brief. After 1917 Mansfield’s stories show nostalgia for New Zealand. Enough time had elapsed to allow her to look back on her childhood with fond memories, though while actually living there she felt stifled. She seems sorrowful to be separated from it and also feels joy and remembers its beauty.
  • What does it all mean? This is another question Mansfield asks over and over again, starting with a more satirical view that there is no point. Later she blends this theme with the beauty of nature. (There may be no point apart from living in the moment and enjoying life’s beauty.) When this is done she’s often describing trees e.g. “Bliss”, “The Escape”, “Weak Heart”, “Prelude”, “At The Bay”.
  • Mansfield’s symbol web often involves whirling, clusters, chains and patterns and these groups evoke a variety of effects.
  • Reliable data are difficult to find in Mansfield’s short stories and reliable interpretations of data are even more rare. Her reality is elusive, shifting and impenetrable.
  • The class system stands in the way of friendship and romance (“The Doll’s House“, “The Garden Party“.)
  • What is Mansfield’s relationship to nature? Nature is seen as a beautiful and serene phenomenon amid the calamities of human strife. It juxtaposes the corruption of human action. Nature is often used to evoke a special atmosphere in order to create an Impressionistic Stimmung (mood).
  • Katherine Mansfield is often called a modernist writer. The modernist movement happened from about 1900 until mid 20th century. One feature of modernist stories: the slightly unusual treatment of time. Critics have talked about ‘the temporal unconscious’. This refers to how time manifests itself subliminally in literary works. In the antipodes (including New Zealand), it worked slightly differently. The modernist works that came from New Zealand and Australia and surrounds have been called ‘micromodernism’ (by Tim Armstrong). It’s to do with the sense of distance we have, growing up so far away from the imaginative ‘home land’, which back then, was England.

HOW TO STRUCTURE YOUR STORY

Tiny, quotidian moments make for sufficient plot:

  • Being late for a train then losing your parasol off the cart (“The Escape”)
  • Going home after work to fantasise about a brief encounter you had with another young woman’s beau (“The Tiredness of Rosabel”)
  • Sitting on a park bench at the gardens, voyeuristically listening in to other people’s conversations (“Miss Brill”)
  • Riding the Picton Ferry with your grandmother, in charge of looking after her umbrella (“The Voyage”)
  • Preparing for a party (“Bliss”, “The Garden Party”, “Sun and Moon”)
  • Killing an irritating fly in your office after a former employee drops in with some news (“The Fly”)
  • Showing two classmates your new doll’s house even though those girls aren’t allowed in the yard (The Doll’s House)

However ambiguous Mansfield’s stories seem after a first reading, they’ll make sense to the careful reader after a second read-through. Symbolism is King. In common with writers like Joseph Conrad and Annie Proulx, Mansfield’s stories are about ‘delayed decoding‘. That’s a fancy way of saying the reader doesn’t know what’s happening until later, and often not until after a second read.

WEAKNESS/NEED

Get the mood first, and focus on the psychology of the characters. Some of your stories will require a cast of characters who are all equal as ‘main’ characters, because the themes are about the problems in a community:

  • Families, especially those with lots of money, are nicely dysfunctional for narrative purposes (Prelude)
  • Isolated women such as Beryl of the “Prelude” trilogy, “Miss Brill” and Rosabel from “The Tiredness of Rosabel“. These women tend to be fantasists, escaping regularly into their own fantasy worlds to compensate for lack of affection in real life. Many of the female characters don’t speak, or do not respond to speech. It’s as though they’re silenced by the power of the voices around them. But we shouldn’t read these women as conventionally ‘weak’. When these characters avoid words as the ‘natural’ medium of communication they not only circumvent the limits of conventional ‘meaning’ but also implicitly question the conventional association between male speech and authority (exemplified by the verbose Stanley from “At The Bay”.)
  • Overbearing businessmen fathers (“The Fly”,  the Comical Stanley Burnell from the “Prelude” trilogy)
  • Adolescents or women young beyond their years (“The Wind Blows”, The Tiredness of Rosabel)
  • In stories which include children, there’s a division between the adults and the children, with emphasis on how the adults’ behaviour is affecting the children as easily influenced little people, with reader empathy lying firmly with the children. We also realise these children will turn out exactly like their parents.
  • And where there are young children there is often an elderly character who Mansfield aligns them with. (“The Voyage”, “Sun and Moon”.) This has the effect of making the reader view a lifetime as a package all at once, and a life in terms of snapshots in a photo album, rather than viewing the very old and the very young as completely different creatures.
  • Older women tend to live with their younger, extended families and although they play an important role in the household, they are without much power. (“New Dresses,” the “Prelude” trilogy)
  • Young women have been taught that the most important thing about them is the way they look. They’ll probably love the way they look, aesthetically, when trying on a new hat in the mirror, but judge others harshly for their imperfections, especially imperfections of skin. This will lead some readers to conclude narcissism, but we are reminded that narcissism is borne of deep insecurity.
  • A common weakness of many Mansfield characters is that they absolutely love party preparation and even the parties themselves, but that after party clean up period (even though there are usually maids to do it) tends to remind them of death and decay. They can’t bear the flip side of carefully managed perfection. (“The Garden Party“, “Sun and Moon“)
  • Many of Mansfield’s characters have trouble with the falseness, ostentation and the sterility of modern life — especially characters from the upper classes.
  • Though Mansfield isn’t well known as a ground-breaking feminist writer, women in her stories are often at a disadvantage due to gender roles of the time. (New Dresses, “Her First Ball”, “The Daughters of the Late Colonel”.) “A Dill Pickle” is an obvious display of white male privilege, and the tough decision a white woman must make — does she marry an ass and gain some social status, or does she continue life as a middle-aged single woman?
  • Mansfield created characters with weaknesses designed to explore ‘the irreconcilable cleavage between the rich potentialities of live and the inescapable brutalities of human experience which must evoke despair.’ – Berkman
  • In many of Mansfield’s stories she’ll compare a character to a bird at some point. She uses quite a wide range of birds, though. The Kelvey girls are chickens in The Doll’s House, to underscore the motherly nature of the older Kelvey girl. “The Birdcage” is the ultimate example of a character as bird.
  • If you really want to immerse yourself in how Katherine Mansfield viewed people, you probably want to read Principles of Psychology by William James (brother of Henry James). James was what psychologists call a ‘vitalist’ (alongside Henri Bergson). James believed that behaviour influences emotion, whereas previously it was thought that a person’s emotion influences their behaviour. We now know that it’s more of cycle than a cause and effect kind of thing. James also came up with the phrase ‘stream of consciousness’, which describes modernist authors (a phrase which had entered literary criticism by 1918). Vitalism affected how modernist writers viewed ‘character’. Beforehand, the self had been understood in terms of a single transcendent ego, but modernists put it to their readers that ‘self’ was not only multiple, but also mutable. The self is not one single, never-changing thing. We change from moment to moment, as situations change. (Bergson added to this theory by making a distinction between superficial personality and deeper consciousness, which is exactly how storytelling gurus tell writers to create characters today.) This is partly what made Mansfield feel so modern. She challenged the ideology of the one true self (which we still see in much children’s literature today, as in ‘Be yourself’ stories). What does it mean to be yourself?
  • Vitalism also probably encouraged Mansfield to question the nature of time. She does all sorts of interesting things with time in her stories. She achieves The Overview Effect in “Prelude” and links children to the elderly. She picks symbols (e.g. the aloe in “Prelude“) for their interesting relationships with time. According to Henri Bergson, these separate selves don’t begin and end (I guess the would make it dissociative identity disorder), but each personality extends into another. It’s impossible to respond in exactly the same way to a single thing twice in succession. That’s because you’ve already had one reaction, and that will inevitably influence all subsequent reactions. It’s impossible to remain the same person, even from moment to moment. This is why so often Mansfield’s characters seem to be high on something one moment — the next downcast. e.g. Beryl in “At The Bay“, first viewing herself as a ‘lovely, fascinating girl’, then ‘All that excitement and so on has a way of suddenly leaving you’. (She has become aware of a nearby ‘sorrowful bush’.)
  • Mansfield’s diaries and letters show that when she felt down she experienced this as a kind of tiredness, though she knew the difference between lack of sleep and low mood. Similarly, when Mansfield’s characters feel tired, it’s often because they feel low affect. e.g. in “Something Childish But Very Natural” thinks he’ll never again see the girl on the train and ‘felt very tired—he only wanted to sit down and shut his eyes—she was not coming—a forlorn relief breathed in the words.’
  • Mansfield writes adolescents whose feelings are subject to confusion and whose mental processes are at their most restless. She mixes childlike savagery and adolescent purity with idealism. They can be irresponsible and passive. (Yvonne of “A Little Episode“, Henry and Edna of “Something Childish But Very Natural“.)
  • Nearly every main character suffers from the reality-illusion-disparity problem due to limited experience. This affects both matters of fact and matters of judgement.
  • Illusion is especially evident in the stories about children, who are often playing out their own interpretation of adult behaviour. The children reveal the social pretensions of their parents through their imitative fantasy but also portray the common illusions of adult life.
  • Many characters are described from the outside only. Unless they are moulded into a narrative focus, the characters are barely sketched in. Many characters make only brief appearances. We barely know their names.
  • ‘Positive’ characters are generally those who grow and develop new ideas. This is why there are many young people and children in Mansfield’s work, or interest to her because they still have the potential for change.

DESIRE

Characters must all have a surface desire which connects to a deeper one. The surface desires tend to be quite shallow, such as getting from point A to point B, or finding a hat suitable for a party, but the deeper desires include:

OPPONENT

Characters don’t necessarily even know who their opponents are. Opposition a Mansfield story is very low grade (compared to a war battle), but has devastating consequences for the main character.

  • Mother and daughter form opponents in New Dresses to the point where the adults are causing their daughter serious psychological damage. And all because the mother wants her daughter to look clean and tidy and presentable.
  • Rich and poor make for natural opponents. Both rich and poor have already learned their place, even when the characters are children, as in The Doll’s House. No one’s trying to climb outside their designated social rank. They’re trying to live within it, as best they can. The Tiredness of Rosabel is another example.
  • In stories about couples, lovers make for natural opponents, because they are in and out of love with each other at different times. (Bliss, Prelude) In the Prelude trilogy, Linda both loves and hates her husband at the same time.
  • Sometimes the object of one’s affection doesn’t even know it. (“The Wind Blows”, “Bliss”.)
  • An emotionally mature character is a natural opponent for an emotionally immature character. (For Mansfield, maturity has nothing to do with age in years.) (New Dresses, “The Fly”.)
  • Mansfield liked the technique of counterposing one character with another. In the same way, excited and searching Bertha is counterposed to the calm and contained Pearl Fulton in “Bliss“. Sabina is counterposed next to the pregnant woman in “At Lehmann’s“. In the “Prelude” trilogy Kezia is set next to Linda, Beryl and Mrs Fairfield. This method of juxtaposing characters’ attitudes and moods give structural unity to stories.

BATTLE

  • The battles in Mansfield short stories are very subtle and often entirely inside a character’s head. The kitchen girl in Prelude regularly has arguments with her employers which take place only inside her head. Her witty (unsaid) comebacks make her feel much better.
  • Mansfield would often make use of the language of battle as proxy for an actual fight. “The Wind Blows” is an excellent example of that, in which the language of a fight is used to describe the adolescent brother and sister’s evening walk down to the seaside, where they will see the boat.

SELF-REVELATION

The experience of an epiphany is a key aspect of modernist writing: Virginia Woolf and James Joyce also tried to articulate flashes of realisation, revelation, insight and understanding. Woolf described these as ‘moments of being’.

  • Epiphanies are experienced in many of Mansfield’s stories, although they do not necessarily lead to complete comprehension. Rather there is awareness, intimation and possibly just a glimpse of something beyond a character’s everyday perceptions. Miss Brill thinks she’s realised something amazing as she sits on her park bench — that everyone is an important character in some kind of play. But her real realisation, though she doesn’t fully understand the reason behind her sudden downcast mood, is that she is old.
  • Quite often Mansfield refuses to express a character’s epiphany in words. The epiphany might actually take place in the ‘break’ between scenes (often divided by three asterisks).
  • Mansfield makes much use of symbolism and imagery in helping the reader to understand more about the character than the character knows about themselves. The fox fur in “Miss Brill” is a great example of that.
  • Mansfield’s stories are all about how no one has a full grip on ‘reality’. Everyone’s interpretation of reality is different.
  • Her stories tend to follow a regular pattern with the ‘positive’ theme dominant until the climax (the Battle). Then it comes into decisive conflict and is superseded by the negative theme. In other words, the story often takes a turn for the depressing at this point.
  • Although reality is elusive, shifting and impenetrable, it is at this point in the story when a character often experiences a moment of awareness. That said, there’s very little accurate ‘interpretation of reality’ in Mansfield’s stories, which on either side of the brief Self-revelation are all about misinterpretation, distortion, misplaced emphasis and illusion.
  • Apperception is a dated word in psychology which indicates the mental process by which a person makes sense of an idea by assimilating it to the body of ideas he or she already possesses. Mansfield’s characters are often like this.
  • Nature images often help convey an epiphany.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

  • In the end, the individual is alone and insignificant.
  • Some of Mansfield’s characters seem to have a revelation then we’re told they’ve forgotten all about it. This is partly why Mansfield’s work is referred to as ‘Freudian’, drawing upon Freud’s theories of suppression and repression. (Her First Ball, The Doll’s House)
  • This repression might be provoked by something trivial which causes some glimmer of hope. (“Daughters of the Late Colonel”)
  • Mansfield’s images often encapsulate the full impact of a short story, especially in a concluding or ironic paragraph.
  • A quiet day’s end is rarely as peaceful as illusion suggests.

IMAGERY & SYMBOLISM

  • There’s a lot of imagery! “At the Bay” is 40 pages long and contains 101 comparisons and 88 metaphors. (It wasn’t me who counted.)
  • Sometimes images are a standalone metaphor. Other times she creates a complex imagistic pattern, combining several forms of imagery.
  • Mansfield varies the intensity of her images. She is able to weaken or enlarge a pictorial image. The narrator wants to leave a gap between a subjective impression and an objective presentation of the experience to be described and compared. This can leave the reader with a deliberately fostered feeling of vagueness, indirection or insufficiency. (e.g. something which is like longing, and yet it is not longing. Or regret — it is more like regret — “The Canary“.)
  • Some images have purely narrative function but other imagistic patterns indirectly emphasise a character-trait which the reader has seen via their dialogue and action.
  • Mansfield makes heavy use of pathetic fallacy — whatever a character feels, everything around them will seem to feel like that, too. An aloe tree or a pear tree (“Bliss”) might make a character feel buoyantly happy, but for another character (“The Escape”), a beech tree will make him feel suffocated. (Nothing inherently to do with the tree.) Miss Brill feels sad and lonely, so her fur fox (or stoat, or whatever it is) also looks sad to her.
  • Hats in Mansfield’s stories are repeatedly associated with systems of authority. (This is not stated but unarticulated) e.g. “The Tiredness of Rosabel“. In “Something Childish But Very Natural“, Henry’s story begins with him becoming separated from his hat in a different train carriage. This seems to relieve him of inhibitions. In “The Garden Party” the images of hats are incorporated in the action of the story not only because people wore hats in those days and put a lot of thought into them, but also because they are related to moral values.
  • Contrasting patterns of images often generate a thematic layer of meaning.
  • The birds, trees, insects and objects are often introduced by means of a precise comparison e.g. the pear tree in “Bliss“: ‘At the far end, against the wall, there was a tall slender pear tree in fullest, richest bloom; it stood perfect, as though becalmed against the jade-green sky’.
  • Grown-up people are often compared with children and children with grown-ups. This reveals contrasting joyful or painful emotions.
  • Sad tones often dominate the scene, sometimes conveying a feeling of claustrophobia, when characters feel as if they are in prison or hospital, or like actors performing on a stage. People appear like actors, wearing masks.
  • Mansfield sometimes personifies material objects. These objects share a character’s emotions in a fused emotional atmosphere.
  • When Mansfield compares people to animals, beasts, insects, water-creatures or birds, unpleasant emotions are revealed. Insects are helpless, snakes are cunning, spiders are hunting for prey. Rabbits are escaping. They all represent a cruel or suffering aspect of humankind.
  • Mansfield especially likes bird images. Bird comparisons comprise almost half of all the animal imagery. In some stories, birds represent freedom or happiness (because they fly and seem to sing joyfully). But this is not how Mansfield makes use of birds.
  • Acoustic images are important, too.  Often sounds are distant or muted.
  • Visual and acoustic imagery fuses in an almost synaesthesic way, creating a dreamlike atmosphere.
  • Characters themselves are either highly aware of these images or not so much — this places them within a scene and tells us how they relate to their storyworld.
  • Colour is emphasised, and relates to character mood. Colour is used for more than simply describing something. Colour images fall into two basic categories: [1] Images related to the visual experience of the character who sees it and [2] images which express in colour the atmospheric mood or their mental state. Some commentators have said that Mansfield’s technique of describing colour maps directly onto pointillism, in which artists use short brush strokes to create a lot of dots, and avoid blending, instead requiring the viewer to stand back in order to make out a scene. (Stand too close and all you’ll see are the dots.)
  • Though this is a stretch, there is a painterly quality to Mansfield’s prose. She uses purple, green and gentle colours such as mild yellows, greys, blues and variations of light. This paints tones and creates atmosphere.
  • One of Mansfield’s ways of expressing emotion was to find a set of objects, a situation or a chain of events which conveyed the formula of the particular emotion.
  • Mansfield’s figurative language and images are often ironic, projecting a character’s wrong interpretation of events.
  • Here’s what she doesn’t do. In common with the Realists of the late 1800s, Mansfield avoided figurative language that would draw on spiritual and supernatural worlds for their meaning. She doesn’t refer to mythology either.
  • Mansfield often tries to arrest the reader’s attention through an unexpected, rare or even bizarre image, so that the impression will strike home. The image may create an illusion of objectivity, but the reader is nevertheless aware of the particular manner in which the illusion is created.

AT A LINE LEVEL

The value of language is one of the most pervasive motifs in Mansfield’s writing, and she clearly was interested in words and sentences.

  • Mansfield created meaningful silence in her stories. Silence is a form of communication in its own right. When her characters don’t speak or refuse to respond, this highlights other symbolic nuance — the reader is trusted to read the signs: irony, puns, negation, intertextual allusion, metaphor.
  • She made much use of spatial breaks (three asterisks) e.g. in “Die Einsame”, “In a Cafe”, “Old Cockatoo Curl”, “Something Childish But Very Natural“, “An Indiscreet Journey“, “Six Years After” and in some of the German Pension sketches. These divisions affect the pacing of the stories, speeding the narrative up or slowing it down as required. Feel free to use the three dot ellipsis when ‘ending’ a sentence.
  • Mansfield repeats words, partly to make the rhythm of the prose work more like poetry.
  • Language is succinct, both at a sentence level and at a scene level. The prose is akin to lyric poetry with much thought given to prosody and scansion.
  • She often opens stories grounding us in time, telling us the season or the day of the week or the time.
  • There are many qualifying terms of uncertainty: ‘as if’, ‘in a kind of’, ‘rather like’ etc. This often indicates the illusion of proximity or a variable intensity. This is Mansfield stressing the deluding tricks of the eye. Visual phenomena are thereby presented as problematic. An example of this can be found in “At The Bay”, in which Mansfield describes an early foggy morning at sea. She distorts proximity by merging the hills, the bungalows, the paddocks, the dew drops, the birds, the sea — distorted when seen from a distance.
  • Little touches are placed side by side and concatenation prevails in Katherine Mansfield’s imagery. One of her methods is to heighten the pictorial atmosphere by accumulations of comparisons for the same object. The images are swollen and blown up by extra additions. ‘Every note was a sigh, a sob, a groan of awful mournfulness.’ ‘How extraordinary shell-like we are as we are — little creatures, peering out of the sentry-box, ogling through our glass case at the entry, wan little servants, who never can say for certain, even, if the master is out or in’