Feb 222012

David Corbett

Harold Pinter once remarked that all of his plays were in truth about silence. Whether the characters stood there mute or let loose with a blistering torrent of words, the real issue was their nakedness before each other, their silence.

That idea has been haunting me lately, especially since seeing Wim Wenders’s Pina, his 3D tribute to the choreographer Pina Bausch. I was especially moved by the sequences from Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps:


I left the theater once again feeling in the core of my soul that there is always something words cannot get to, cannot touch, cannot reach, no matter how elegant or clear or savage or right.

Not the best feeling for a writer.

The next day I met with Rebecca Hunt, my editor at Penguin for my book on character that will come out next year. And as we worked out the various strategies for the first rewrite, I kept trying to ignore this nasty itch in the back of my mind, this sense that despite all the work I’d put in, all the examples from novels and stories and films and TV shows I’d analyzed, all the elements I’d broken down, all the techniques I’d explained—not to mention having written four novels, each praised for its characterization—I was still dealing with something essentially elusive, as though I was trying to grab onto a quivery thread of mercury.

When is the line is crossed, between a fully realized character and one not so fully realized? The answer remains as enigmatic to me now as ever—perhaps more so.

Recently, I told a writer friend that I’ve come to use music more and more in my characterizations, sometimes thinking like an opera composer, taking the first impression of a character from a chord or sequence of chords, building from that a musical theme, a melody or sequence of melodies, and allowing the density of those chords, the beauty or discord of the melody, the timbre of the instruments I hear in my head playing the piece to inspire an insight into the character’s inner life.

The advantage of this, over a mere pictorial image of the character, is that music can change its quality so readily—through chord progressions, melodic inversions, tempo, timbre, dynamics—and it moves through time. An image can easily be a trap, locking in my conception of what the character can or can’t do. A character I see in my mind’s eye as handsome or sanguine too often becomes a slave to that impression, and can’t become slovenly or sickly or rude or vile.

I don’t know what it is about images, but they seem to define a thing, in the most limiting sense of the word. Images suggest a soul, some essential essence that cannot be violated or betrayed without the character becoming “inconsistent.” But a character who can’t contradict himself is a trope, a type, a construct, an idea. No matter how cleverly portrayed, such a character dances on the edge of cliché. Denis Diderot likened the human character to a swarm of bees—and it’s that sort of shapeless but still coherent vibrancy I consider crucial.

Ironically, by using music, I get to what Pinter was suggesting by discussing silence. I get at that ineffable, insubstantial trickiness, the ghost in the machine that defies definition, that remains dynamic and free and contradictory.

In my most recent novel, Do They Know I’m Running?, I used a piano piece by Faure to conjure for me the gentle inner life of an otherwise rough, rustic, uneducated (but not unintelligent) Salvadoran truck driver. It was the contrast I was after, the greasy muscular thoughtful man, and the unpredictability it created. I was gratified when a reader told me it was this character, especially his decency, that gave the book its core of hope despite its harrowing sequences.

The sly, sensitive protagonist, a budding guitar phenom named Roque, needed a blistering Santana solo to create a sense of the hunger within him, of which even he is unaware as the story begins.

His aunt, Tía Lucha, is a thin, sad, scrappy woman who I pictured as a clarinet, an instrument which, even at its most playful or aggressive, retains a certain lamenting wistfulness in its tone.

And Godo, the marine who returns from Iraq damaged both psychologically and physically, found partial inspiration in the jarring, grinding, mocking intro to Control Machete’s Sí Señor.

But I’m a musical bird, and such formulations suit me. The trick is to conjure an impression that stirs to life, and the willingness not to define it, explain it, figure it out, but to let it assume shape and form and sense on its own—even to the point of defying that sense and shape. There’s no small bit of magic involved—like a melody that rises up in the mind seemingly from nowhere. Or, again, like mercury, quivering at the touch: shimmering, slippery, but substantial all the same.

Do you have any tricks to keep your characters from becoming types or otherwise over-defined? Does a mental image of a character feel limiting to you? Or is it helpful, clarifying? When do you know you understand a character well enough to begin writing? Have you ever felt you knew your character perfectly, only to realize what you had was a stereotype, a plot puppet—not a character?

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Jukebox Heroes of the Week: I’ve recently been turned on to a number of exceptional British acts by a friend from Manchester, Gordon Harries. One of the absolute standouts is Massive Attack, who create a kind of cinematic texture that would remind me of Pink Floyd if that band had ever been this good. (Caution: This is an eerie video):