All Characters, Great and Small.
Outside books, we avoid colorful characters.
Today I thought to talk not about heroes and villains – the archetypes that form the moral (or immoral) heart of a tale – but about the supporting and cameo players who are like diamond chips, reflecting all about them.
More than short stories, novels lend themselves to these flashes of light and color. The scope of a novel, even if not epic, almost demands supernumeraries as flesh upon bones. Think of the multitudes inhabiting Shakespeare, Dickens, Hugo, Austen, and Twain – each so alive you could pick them out in Grand Central Station at rush hour.
“Hamlet”’s gravedigger, the porter in “Macbeth,” Bumble the Beadle, Wilkins Micawber, Mr. and Mrs. Palmer, Azelma Threnardier, Sid Sawyer, Mrs. Loftus – you could populate a kingdom with them and never be bored. (Some might say that Huck Finn was a minor character in Tom Sawyer but so full of life that he just demanded his own story.)
So how is it that, in a line or turn of phrase, the reader knows these characters like a member of their own family? They are not simple placeholders. They are blood and sinew imbued with humor, malice, courage, and pathos, and each, in their small way, moves the story forward. If there is a trick to this it is in treating them with the same deference we do our heroes and villains. Don’t make them cardboard cutouts or stereotypes. Give them histories, kids and exes, quirks and foibles.
Does the reader need to know all this? No, but we do. And when we do, when we see the cabby or the neighbor or the goblin in a teller’s cage at Gringotts clearly, then we can pick one or two of those specifics, bring them to the fore and we’re suddenly dealing with individuals. Mustardseed is not Moth; and Isis and Charmian, while both handmaids, are not pod people.
No matter how long such characters are on the page, they will live and breathe. They will get big movie stars clambering to play them.
They will be remembered.
This is a work of fiction. All the characters in it, human and otherwise, are imaginary, excepting only certain of the fairy folk, whom it might be unwise to offend by casting doubts on their existence. Or lack thereof.
Neil is one of the more original and delightful minds of our generation. I first read this speech weeks ago – thank you John Goodrich – and it made me smile. His commencement advice embodies all of that and more. Enjoy.
Make Good Art
Neil Gaiman Speaks
Post Created by Jk the secret keeper
Illustrated by j. kiley
Created Post June 9th 2013
Posted June 30th 2013
Philadelphia University of the Arts — 134th Commencement Speech — May 17th 2012 — Neil Gaiman — Make Good Art — Fantastic Mistakes
I never really expected to find myself giving advice to people graduating from an establishment of higher education. I never graduated from any such establishment. I never even started at one. I escaped from school as soon as I could, when the prospect of four more years of enforced learning before I’d become the writer I wanted to be was stifling.
I got out into the world, I wrote, and I became a better writer the more I wrote, and I wrote some more, and nobody ever seemed to mind that I was…
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Another Thanksgiving has come and gone here in the States. For better or worse, gatherings large and small are surely rich fodder for creative imaginations.
Still, all us writers out in the wilds of Cyberia can use writerly advice now and then. Courtesy of The Guardian, I offer up some words on our craft from one far wiser than I: Neil Gaiman.
Enjoy (and definitely follow #1).
- Put one word after another. Find the right word, put it down.
- Finish what you’re writing. Whatever you have to do to finish it, finish it.
- Put it aside. Read it pretending you’ve never read it before. Show it to friends whose opinion you respect and who like the kind of thing that this is.
- Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.
- Fix it. Remember that, sooner or later, before it ever reaches perfection, you will have to let it go and move on and start to write the next thing. Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.
- Laugh at your own jokes.
- The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.
If you are interested in following Neil’s work, blog/journal, etc – and who wouldn’t be! – by all means check out his site.