Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

“A solitary figure stood near the basketball courts…”

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"A solitary figure stood near the basketball courts..."

(Note: This post is the forty-third installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 42. You can read the earlier installments here.)

In theory, a writer can get to know the characters in his fiction better than anyone in his own life, himself included. I’m often struck by how little information I really have about people—even close friends—I’ve known for years: I’ve generally only spent time with them in one particular context, and I have a hunch that I’d be startled to see what they’re like at the office, say, or with their own families. Go a little further back, to childhood or adolescence, and the picture is even less clear. In fiction, by contrast, we can learn everything about a person, at least in principle. A quick search online turns up countless forms and questionnaires designed to help authors brainstorm every detail of their characters’ appearance, habits, past, and inner life, from their eye color to their favorite hobbies to how they really feel about their parents. It’s more scrutiny than many of us even devote to ourselves, at least at any one time, and the question of how much of this material an author requires to invent fictional but convincing men and women is an issue that every writer needs to confront.

In my own case, I’ve been inclined leave many of these questions unanswered. Part of this is a practical consideration: as I’ve mentioned many times before, I’m not a fan of backstory, and although I spend a fair amount of time thinking about each character’s personal history before I start writing, I know that very little of this material will end up in the finished novel. Human beings, both in fiction and in real life, tend to be more vividly defined by their needs in the moment, and while what happened to them in the past can inform their present wants and decisions, we very rarely embody the full sum of our life stories: one quality tends to predominate over the next from one minute to another, and certain threads of our personality grow in importance while others wither away. As a result, I’ve never tried to create systematic backstories for my characters. Instead, I work out which elements bear most urgently on the present moment and leave the rest in shadow, which is why, for instance, I go into detail about Maddy’s failed attempt to start an art gallery, but still don’t know the names of her parents.

"Ilya's head gave an involuntary jerk..."

But there’s also a more intuitive aspect to this approach. Protagonists, as William Goldman observes in Which Lie Did I Tell?, must have mystery, and they’re often more interesting to the extent that the author withholds crucial information. Part of this has to do with the way we identify with characters in fiction: David Mamet has pointed out that it’s better to say “A hero on a white horse” than “A tall hero on a white horse,” because the more we add unnecessary detail, the harder it is for readers to imagine themselves in the protagonist’s place. (This is one reason why I’m especially resistant to detailed descriptions of a character’s appearance, to an extent that sometimes frustrates my circle of initial readers.) It’s possible, of course, for a writer to leave important elements to implication in the finished work, while privately knowing a great deal about the characters. But I’ve found that I’m happiest when certain aspects remain a mystery to me as well, even as I obsessively think about each character’s objectives from scene to scene.

In Chapter 42 of The Icon Thief, for instance, Ilya is standing near a playground in Brighton Beach, preparing to go after the men who betrayed him, when he sees a little boy and his mother:

“Daniel!” the boy’s mother shouted. At the sound of the name, Ilya’s head gave an involuntary jerk…Watching the boy rejoin his mother, Ilya thought of the many transformations that he had undergone since he had last referred to himself by that name.

This is the only indication in the entire novel, and in the two books that follow, that Ilya was once called something else, or that the name he goes by now is one that he chose for himself. There’s obviously a story here, and it’s possible that when I wrote this passage, I was laying in a hint for something I intended to develop later on. As it turns out, I never did. And if you were to ask me who Ilya was and what he was doing before he was thrown into Vladimir Prison, I’m not sure I could tell you, although there are clues scattered throughout the series. Keeping these details hidden, even to myself, turned out to be a kind of insurance policy: Ilya, I realized, grew more interesting the less he was shown, and by keeping his past deliberately undeveloped, there was no risk that I’d err in revealing too much. What really matters, far more than where he came from, is what he wants now. And at the moment, he wants revenge…

Written by nevalalee

April 12, 2013 at 9:43 am

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