Tuesday, December 7, 2010

It's In The Details

Nothing in life demands closer attention than the things which seem natural.

Honore de Balzac
I am currently reading, among other things, "The Black Sheep" by Balzac. If Balzac isn't the greatest French novelist, he is certainly high on the nomination list. One of his great gifts is in character descriptions. Before any action you know so much about the characters that you feel as if you know them personally.

It's an enviable ability. As a writer I tend to be more concerned with thoughts and actions than in my descriptions of characters. I suppose that is because I spent so many years as an actor where most of what I read were plays. Playwrights spend very little time on character descriptions. There is dialogue and speeches. From those the actor learns about the character and depicts him on the stage rather than in writing.

In both cases however great attention must be paid to details. An actor makes so many decisions from his imagination and intuition about the role he plays that would seem unimportant and useless to playing the role, and they are things the audience may never see, but they add dimensions to the life of the character that makes him more believable and therefore fuller and richer for his participation in the story. And as Balzac says these are often natural things that one would take for granted and not think about, such as which shoe does he put on first when dressing, what does he have for breakfast, what's his favorite music, does he bite his fingernails, what does he do that he's embarrassed about, does he like cats or not.

Each of the things the actor finds about the role he plays are tucked back into a sack of characteristics that he carries with him into the role. Some are more important than others, but all are useful.

In my current novel "The Savior" I have avoided character descriptions so far, as I concentrate on the plot, I am planning to go back and fill in the descriptions of the main characters. Balzac shows me that I better do it soon.

Then there's the matter of our personal characters. Could you write an honest, objective, third person description of yourself that would convince anyone of who you are? What would you leave out? What would you forget? And what is there to you that you don't even know about? Maybe there are habits you have, simple quirks of behavior that you consider perfectly natural (Doesn't everyone eat there peas with a knife?) but which other people might find strange and unnatural. How closely do you pay attention to your behavior and your life? The more natural it seems the more it needs to be observed.


(This is not a contest.)

At what event of the past do you wish you could be present? Why?

Only 8 responses so far.


Thank you.


Gerry said...

My first introduction to Balzac was "Droll Tales" which my mother purchased through a book club of some sort. It is kind of risque, so I would spend afternoons as a teen dipping into a droll tale which might be as racy as about any book I could get hold of. I don't think my mother ever read any of them so did not know what the book contained. She bought tales by O'Henry, Mark Twain, but none of those short stories ever stayed in my mind like Droll Tales. To this day when I think of Balzac I think of Droll Tales.

Gerry said...

Another comment on writing novels or short stories vs plays. From childhood I got in the habit of writing in dialogue. I would write my novels in dialogue first and then I would try to turn the dialogue into prose. It felt so unnatural to me at first. But I knew people weren't going to read a novel that was in dialogue, so I persisted until writing prose years later comes natural to me.

Anonymous said...

Could you write an honest, objective, third person description of yourself that would convince anyone of who you are?

I probably could, but probably wouldn't :-0.

Bucko (a.k.a., Ken) said...

Interesting question, if you were to write about yourself, would it match how others perceive you? I think the answer would be no at work, yes otherwise.