Thursday, October 3, 2019

Notes On Characterization: Learning From A Master

     I find it worthwhile to revisit old favorite books from time to time. I find it instructive to contemplate what it was about them that struck me most powerfully on my original acquaintance, and to ponder whether I feel the same after many years and writing adventures of my own. Sometimes the lessons are more powerful for having been so long delayed.

     Here’s the introductory passage of a novel that bowled me over in 1971, when I first read it. You might recognize it:

     “Pain is instructive,” Duncan Chalk wheezed.
     On crystal rungs he ascended the east wall of his office. Far on high was the burnished desk, title inlaid communicator box from which he controlled his empire. It would have been nothing for Chalk to sail up the wall on the staff of a gravitron. Yet each morning he imposed this climb on himself.
     A variety of hangers-on accompanied him. Leontes d’Amore, of the mobile chimpanzee lips; Bart Aoudad; Tom Nikolaides, notable for shoulders. And others. Yet Chalk, learning the lessons of pain once more, was the focus of the group.
     Flesh rippled and billowed on him. Within that great bulk were the white underpinnings of bone, yearning for release. Six hundred pounds of meat comprised Duncan Chalk. The vast leathery heart pumped desperately, flooding the massive limbs with life. Chalk climbed. The route zigged and backswitched up forty feet of wall to the throne at the top. Along the way blotches of thermoluminescent fungus glowed eagerly, yellow asters tipped with red, sending forth pulsations of warmth and brightness.
     Outside it was winter. Thin strands of new snow coiled in the streets. The leaden sky was just beginning to respond to the morning ionization poured into it by the great pylons of day. Chalk grunted. Chalk climbed.
     Aoudad said, “The idiot will be here in eleven minutes, sir. He’ll perform.”
     “Bores me now,” Chalk said. “I’ll see him anyway.”
     “We could try torturing him,” suggested the sly d’Amore in a feathery voice. “Perhaps then his gift of numbers would shine more brightly.”
     Chalk spat. Leontes d’Amore shrank back as though a stream of acid had come at him. The climb continued. Pale fleshy hands reached out to grasp the gleaming rods. Muscles snarled and throbbed beneath the slabs of fat. Chalk flowed up the wall, barely pausing to rest.
     The inner messages of pain dizzied and delighted him. Ordinarily he preferred to take his suffering the vicarious way, but this was morning, and the wall was his challenge. Up. Up. Toward the seat of power. He climbed, rung by rung by rung, heart protesting, intestines shifting position inside the sheath of meat, loins quivering, the very bones of him flexing and sagging with their burden.
     About him the bright-eyed jackals waited. What if he fell? It would take ten of them to lift him to the walkway again. What if the spasming heart ran away in wild fibrillation? What if he eyes glazed as they watched?
     Would they rejoice as his power bled away into the air?
     Would they know glee as his grip slipped and his iron grasp over their lives weakened?
     Of course. Of course. Chalk’s thin lips curved in a cool smile. He had the lips of a slender man, the lips of a Bedouin burned down to the bone by the sun. Why were his lips not thick and liquid?
     The sixteenth rung loomed. Chalk seized it. Sweat boiled from his pores. He hovered a moment, painstakingly shifting his weight from the ball of the left foot to the heel of the right. There was no reward and less delight in being a foot of Duncan Chalk. For an instant nearly incalculable stresses were exerted across Chalk’s right ankle. Then he eased forward, bringing his hand down across the last rung in a savage chopping motion, and his throne opened gladly to him.
     Chalk sank into the waiting seat and felt it minister to him. In the depths of the fabric the micropile hands stirred and squeezed, soothing him. Ghostly ropes of spongy wire slid into his clothes to sponge the perspiration from the valleys and mounds of his flesh. Hidden needles glided through epithelium, squirting beneficial fluids. The thunder of the overtaxed heart subsided to a steady murmur. Muscles that had been bunched and knotted with exertion went slack. Chalk smiled. The day had begun; all was well.
     Leontes d’Amore said, “It amazes me, sir, how easily you make that climb.”
     “You think I’m too fat to move?”
     “Sir, I—”
     “The fascination of what’s difficult,” said Chalk. “It spins the world on its bearings.”

     [Robert Silverberg, Thorns]

     That passage is about 750 words long. Consider the enormous amount we learn about Duncan Chalk and his associates from it:

  • We learn of Chalk’s enormous bulk;
  • He chooses to do something difficult, painful, and dangerous to start his day;
  • He revels in the pain of the ascent to his office;
  • He controls an “empire,” about which we’ll soon learn more;
  • His associates are vicious jackals;
  • They’re also sycophants;
  • However useful he finds them, he holds them in contempt;
  • Pain is exceedingly important to him.

     Though it describes only one event – Chalk’s climb to his office – the passage throbs with power. It shows the reader a creature of vast appetite, hints at his essential nature, outlines his emotional gestalt, makes clear his relationship to those around him, and underscores what’s most important of all things to him: pain.

     Duncan Chalk is a pain vampire. The suffering of others is his critical nourishment. His “empire,” an entertainment corporation, thrives by purveying curiosities and grotesqueries to a public ever hungry for more. He feeds on the agonies of his subjects as he vends them to the viewers.

     Robert Silverberg was only thirty-two years old when he wrote Thorns. At the time he was pumping out novels and stories at a rate that boggles the mind. According to some sources, he sometimes produced 10,000 words of fiction per day. He’s rumored to have released four novels in a single month, three of them under pseudonyms...and we can’t be certain we know of all the pseudonyms he’s used.

     On a good day I might manage a thousand words...much of which will later be rewritten. I’ve never produced anything as striking and evocative as the above passage from Thorns. I doubt I ever will.

     Thorns, an exploration of human suffering and the parasites who live on it, isn’t to everyone’s taste. Moreover, it was published at a time when science fiction was generally thought of as adventure fiction, “all rocket ships and ray guns,” unsuitable for consumption by sophisticates. It could easily have been overlooked by “traditional” science fiction readers...but it wasn’t. Its popularity resulted in a Hugo Award nomination and a second-place finish behind Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light. It was also nominated for the Nebula Award, which was won that year by Samuel R. Delany’s The Einstein Intersection.

     The success of Thorns underlines the most important aspect of effective storytelling: the importance of knowing what your reader is there for. The juvenile reader might be there for the “rocket ships and ray guns.” Indeed, that’s more often than not the case. But the adult reader is almost certainly there for an emotional experience. Such a journey is inseparable from good characterization.

     How did your Marquee characters arrive at the situations they’re in? Why are they doing what they’re doing? What’s the basis for their decisions? How do they relate to those around them? What’s their principal emotional need? What actuates them – and equally important, what inhibits or restrains them?

     The answers are your characters. Yet the ironclad rule to “show, don’t tell” commands that you reveal them without stating them baldly. You must show their characters acting and reacting, to developments and to one another. The reader’s emotional experience comes from inferring your characters’ desires, fears, convictions, and beliefs from what you put them through.

     Robert Silverberg outlined a monster in the cited passage. He gave the reader reasons to continue learning about Duncan Chalk, whose evil becomes more fascinating, and ever more vivid, as we watch him go about his business. And there were more characters to follow: Chalk’s chosen victims, mutilated spaceman Minner Burris and discarded experimental subject Lona Kelvin, from whose agonies Chalk contrives to feed.

     While the story told in Thorns is anything but pleasant, the novel is a master course in the delineation of character and its exposure through action. Few readers escape it without being deeply moved by its terrors and its pathos. It’s especially worth your time if you write.


HoundOfDoom said...

That was a compelling passage. Thorns has been added to my wishlist.

glasslass said...

The only one I know of that had that type of output was Harlan Ellison. He would go to a bookstore and sit in the window and people would come in with an idea for a story and on the spot he would write the story and hand it to them. He sometimes went on for hours doing this. In a big move I gave away most of his works which of course I now regret. Can't even seem to find them in used bookstores.