Monday Motivation: The secret’s in the specificity
George Sanders, winner of the Man Booker in 2017 for his Lincoln in the Bardo, and author of several books of astonishing short stories, makes an important point about detail in fiction in an essay published in that year in The Guardian.
Imagine, he says, that you’d written this about a character:
“Bob was an asshole.”
And then, feeling that this was a somewhat bland description, you amended this to:
“Bob snapped impatiently at the barista.”
Hmm. Well, that would be an improvement in terms of accuracy and specificity. But you might go one further, Sanders suggests. How about:
“Bob snapped impatiently at the young barista, who reminded him of his dead wife.”
Well, that adds an additional layer of meaning and significance. But you could go further still:
“Bob snapped impatiently at the young barista, who reminded him of his dead wife, who he missed so much, especially now, at Christmas.”
Sanders says that in making this series of amendments to that initial bald statement you would have been less moved by notions of compassion than by the need to be less lame.
And yet, he says, “it is more compassionate. Bob has gone from ‘pure asshole’ to ‘grieving widower, so overcome with grief that he has behaved ungraciously to a young person, to whom, normally, he would have been nice’. Bob has changed. He started out a cartoon, on which we could heap scorn, but now he is closer to ‘me, on a different day’.”
This is invariably the effect of being more specific about characters you have created. Your first approximation is the crude outline. But a crude outline – Bob, the asshole; Jenny the housewife; Anatole the mathematician – is unsatisfactory. If Bob, or Jenny, or Anatole had walked into a café in which you were reading The New Yorker over a cup of cappuccino, you might have glanced up and noted their presence. That initial impression would have superficial. Bob, slightly overweight, bit of a sad sack, didn’t look like anyone you’d care to spend more than a minute talking to. Jenny, carefully made up, with a bag of shopping from an expensive boutique; Anatole, with swept-back hair and inky fingers… All of these are stereotypes, right?
But go a little deeper, and you find that Bob was recently widowed; Jenny’s addicted to opioids; Anatole has an autistic child.
The more specific you become about your characters, the more human they become.
Remember what Hilary Mantel does when she’s developing a character? She invites them into her study, and interrogates them. When she was developing the character of a giant for her novel, The Giant O’Brien, he entered her study, ducking through the door to avoid braining himself on the lintel, and then, when she invited him to sit down, he first pressed his hand down experimentally on the chair to test its strength. He was, after all, a giant, and he moved gingerly through a world not built for him.
That specific observation – that sprang unbidden in her imagination – was enough for Mantel. It was, as I recall her writing somewhere, all she needed to know about O’Brien.
So don’t stop after you’ve sketched in a rough outline of your characters. Fill in the gaps with specific, detailed observations about their appearance, their fears, their reasons for grief or exultation.
It’s an act of compassion – but remember, it’s also a lot less lame.