“Character is action,” the instructor said, seated at the head of the table. “You are what you do.”
It’s been years since that undergraduate fiction workshop, but those epigrams have stuck with me. In fact, as a teacher of creative writing myself, I’ve stolen them. There’s a certain brand of story, common in undergraduate workshops, to which they readily pertain. In these stories—“stories,” my instructor might have said, pronouncing the word so we could hear the quotation marks—character is rumination. A single character, usually alone, fills the page with his thoughts. Perhaps he moves from room to room; occasionally, he even puts on a coat and ventures forth. Outside, he might interact—briefly, elliptically, without discernible result—with another character. More often, he talks to himself.
It’s not that these stories lack a central problem. The narrator is almost always unhappy, and he’s willing to reflect on the sources of his unhappiness at length. What these stories lack is conflict—sustained action in the face of these problems. Conflict is friction, the friction of action against problem. It generates a narrative heat, bringing a story and the people in it to life.
“Character is action,” I say, seated at the front of the room. “Characters reveal themselves through what they do.”
But it’s impossible to say this without a twinge of guilt.
Character is action. You are what you do. These adages are behaviorist: they imply that identity is reducible to externally observable data. They argue that the question of who we are—always the topic, in some sense, of literary fiction—is answerable in terms of the impact our actions have on the world around us. Like the ubiquitous Show, don’t tell, they take a common problem and offers an overcorrection. They advise us to steer into the skid of interiority, bringing the story out of a character’s mind and into the external narrative world.
Such thinking is corrosive to the very moments in literature I find most compelling, moving, and meaningful. They repress the particular species of felt experience I hunger for as a reader, and which I seek to capture in my own work.
* * *
Consider, for example, Tobias Wolff’s story “The Chain,” which is often discussed in terms of its perfectly paced, kinetic opening scene. What’s truly remarkable about the story, however, occurs afterward. When Brian Gold’s cousin proposes to kill the dog that attacked Gold’s daughter, Gold doesn’t go along right away. Instead, he thinks about it.
For paragraphs on end—more than fifteen percent of the story.
Throughout this passage of rumination, Wolff only occasionally references the external fictional world. For the most part, we are deep inside Gold’s head, listening as he talks himself into a bad action that will have worse consequences.
Perhaps, “The Chain” argues, you are both what you do and also why you do it.
Many of Amy Hempel’s stories go further, arguing for the primacy of cogitation. Hempel’s characters rarely have epiphanies. Epiphanies are reactive, epiphenomenal, induced by external events. Instead, in story after story, Hempel’s characters think proactively; they ruminate not as a response to the story’s climactic event, but as the story’s climactic event.
Her most famous work, “In the Cemetery where Al Jolson Is Buried,” illustrates this. “I think of the chimp, the one with the talking hands,” the narrator tells us at the beginning of the story’s final section. I think. And the emotional crescendo that follows is a consequence of the act of having that thought. This is no epiphany—the narrator’s known the story of the chimp from the beginning. It’s thought as climax, thought driving narrative.
Opening our stories to the possibilities of thought also opens us to the possibility of storytelling as a dynamic, shaping force, particularly when we write in the first-person. Alice Munro is a master of this, as is Peter Taylor. Taylor’s “1939” is full of moments in which the act of storytelling guides the narrator: “I have said that I somehow felt obliged to include everything I have about our car’s last real owner. And now I know why I felt so.”
Or consider Raymond Carver’s narrator in “Where I’m Calling From”: “I’m thinking about chimney sweeps—all that stuff I heard from J.P.—when for some reason I start to think about a house my wife and I once lived in. That house didn’t even have a chimney, so I don’t know what makes me remember it now.”
The act of storytelling asserts the primacy of fictional thought as it shapes and defines the relationships between past events, allowing for digressions that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that it makes essential what would otherwise be digressive by building a narrative from the mind’s capacity for connections. Doesn’t the very title of Mary Gordon’s wonderful “I Need to Tell Three Stories and to Speak of Love and Death” say it all? The real narrative isn’t in the events of the three stories being retold, it’s in the narrator’s need. Here, character is thought and feeling. The narrator is defined by how she thinks her way toward an understanding of her storytelling impulse.
Furthermore, when the sculpting presence of the storyteller is abandoned, a story can skid wildly—movingly, hilariously, gloriously—through a character’s mental terrain. Thought, thickly rendered on the page, becomes the stuff of narrative. Consider the stories of Deborah Eisenberg: start with “Some Other, Better Otto” or “The Girl Who Left Her Sock on the Floor” and travel from there in whichever direction you please. Or read John Edgar Wideman in stories such as “What We Cannot Speak About We Must Pass Over in Silence.” Or—and now we’ve moved far beyond the realm of effects I can reasonably hope to reproduce in my own fiction—marvel at that long, sublime, and nearly indescribable final paragraph of Mavis Gallant’s “The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street.”
All of these stories defend the idea that how we think is at least as essential to who we are as anything that we do.
* * *
“What shall I say, then?” the writing teacher in me asks. “What do I tell the student whose characters sit and think, and think, and think, but never do?”
Really, though, the problem in such stories isn’t that the characters think too much; rather, it’s that their thoughts don’t rub against their problems in a meaningful way. We’re back to the idea of narrative heat here. When a ruminating character merely describes his problems to himself (and to the reader), his thoughts simply take the shape of her problems. There’s no friction there, no drama. Other lines of thought, however, can grind away at a problem, causing sparks. Don’t believe me? Take a look at any of the stories I’ve mentioned above.
Physical action, likewise, is not inherently dramatic. If the character turned on the television, or went out for groceries, or took a nap, he’d be doing something, but it might not generate that vital friction. Only certain actions will attach meaningfully to the problem, creating conflict. Action and thought are no different in this regard.
Perhaps, in fact, they’re no different at all.
Say character is action; say you are what you do—as long as you acknowledge that when a character thinks, she’s doing something. She’s taking mental action, and as with any narrative event, it’s incumbent upon the author to make that action meaningful.
To think is a verb, after all. To understand is a desire as powerful as any.