A Character grid

In an earlier article from The Fiction Editor, The Novel, and The Novelist, we were introduced to the interaction between the characters as circuitry. McCormack went on to tell us how to know if there might be a character missing from the situation. Going on from there,

The Fiction Editor, the novel and the novelist

The editor should possess some tools to check on the elements within the situation and see if a given element might be causing an undesirable reaction in the reader. Let's talk about a character grid.

First, let's distinguish the character grid from the character profile. The character profile starts with basic data like age and appearance, education and employment, up through the character's hobbies, what he reads, what makes him angry or ashamed or relaxed, what makes him laugh, what his deepest secret is, what he does on Thursday nights and Sunday afternoons. To question a character's circuitry—the way he's wired into the other characters and setting elements—is to concentrate less on the character's profile than on his story value. That's where the grid comes in.

How does the character fit into the story?

Suppose sensibility registers that something is not right with Ben in the story. 0h, he's vivid enough, and he feels authentic; he doesn't disappear for long stretches or do incredible things. But still sensibility has suspicions. What might be wrong with him?

Put his name on the left-hand side of a piece of paper, and across the top write these questions:

  • What does he want or promise?
  • What does he do to make it happen?
  • What effect does he have?
  • Do we care strongly for (or against) him as a person?
  • Do we care about his goal?
  • Does he braid or conflict with others in the cast
  • Is he 'resolved'?

The first question can be restated: What in his situation—his circuitry or setting (always remembering that setting includes the other characters around him)—does he want to change or save from change? (Or what impact does he threaten to have, regardless of wanting it—like, say, Typhoid Mary?)

So the third question can be rephrased to ask: Do his acts change circuitry or setting? 'Resolution', in these terms, means: Does he either change the situation or have his attitude toward it changed? (Or have his threat/promise defused, or detonated?)

Using the grid

Don't demand that each query be matched by a ringing answer that would bring game-show applause from the College of Cardinals, but know that if there are enough negative answers to these queries, there's a chance that the trouble with vivid, believable Ben is that he doesn't belong in the book at all.

One of the values of this coldly clinical grid is this: If Ben is loud, bright, and ubiquitous enough, his stage-center posture may deflect us from ever entertaining the notion that, as currently endowed, he may be superfluous. We won't even ask if he goes after anything or affects another character. But a character can be loud and ubiquitous and still be a drag on the novel's momentum. The grid forces us to review Ben.

And the character grid can ensure that we don't overlook the flaw in the eleven-year-old boy who plays with matches. He's a minor figure in the book, but he can qualify as a lesser lesion if he goes undiagnosed because, in the emergency-room heat, the editor confines all his attention to arresting the blatant hemorrhages. The first question in the character grid would start to focus right on the ailment in the boy. He promises a flaming crisis. He doesn't deliver. Craft would ensure that even minor internals such as this are treated.

What the grid can do for us

Thus the grid can help expose a party-crasher—a character who right from the beginning never had a justifiable function in the novel. Or it can save a character who came into the novel with promise—he did want something, and he even started to do something about it—but the author in effect forgot about him mid-passage. The novelist should either complete the character or show him the door. I once worked with a writer of vivid, witty and sophisticated "romances", always set in the Mediterranean though she herself was British. In an early draft of on of her novels she had such a character—call him 'Mario'—who was abruptly abandoned in the middle of the book. The writer looked a bit embarrassed as she confessed that her original intention was to have her heroine end up marrying Mario, but during the writing the roguish Vittorio proved too irresistible—to both the heroine and the imaginative author. It is often encouraging and exciting to a novelist when a character revolts against his originally assigned role and begins to dictate his own engagements. Unfortunately—just as in "real life"—such a vibrant fling does not justify permanently ignoring all prudent, crafty considerations thereafter in the story. It is all right to change your mind about Mario as the hero, but you're not allowed simply to walk out on him mid-sentence, so to speak. (Postscript: Several drafts later Mario is revealed to be married already, and Vittorio is caught trying to make off with our heroine's small Picasso. Enter the gorgeous Gino . . .)

I should quickly say several things. The first is to repeat that craft proves nothing. It's only an aid to sensibility in identifying the cause of reader malaise if there is reader malaise. Jordan Baker in The Great Gatsby would pull a 'no' to six of the seven grid questions. And sensibility would say, "I don't care; she's fine and the book's fine. Get away from it with that grid." (The one she gets a "yes" on saves her; she does braid, with Nick, and with the Buchanans, making a needed fourth. She's not a goad, she's a connection, but a necessary one, as tendon is to muscle. It's also true that she fits and contributes in another way: She allegedly cheats at golf, but Nick accepts her anyway, which promotes Fitzgerald's aim of conveying Nick as a non-judgmental man.)

It's true that if you wrote the whole roster of major characters down that left-hand column, and the crossboxes all came up negative, I bet you'd have a dreary reading experience on your hands. But it's not dreary because it fails the grid; both the flunk and the dreariness are caused by flaws in the novel—weakness of circuitry, lack of compelling jolt-sources, drive-less characters, and so no slope anywhere in the situation, nothing to precipitate motion.

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