The Delicate Art of Character Folding

May 13, 2016

You probably knew, when you started writing, that you’d signed on for murder. I was warned well in advance: One of my favorite childhood books was Lois Lowry’s The One Hundredth Thing About Caroline, in which the title character finds the notebook of the man her mother is dating. “Eliminate the kids,” one note says. She and her brother swing into crime-fighting mode, only to discover in the end that this man, a writer, was talking about editing characters out of his work-in-progress.

Later, as I studied writing, I’d hear authors lament the characters they’d had to erase from draft two, the ones who “felt like real people” to them. Or they’d talk about the ones they kept around because, despite the fact that they served no real purpose in the narrative, they’d become old friends.

In fact, our first drafts are often overpopulated. There’s a reason: Your character needs a boss, so you invent a boss. He’s a typical boss. He wears a suit and does boss-like things. “Get me those numbers, Stan!” he says. You need someone to overhear the nighttime argument, so you invent the nosy neighbor. She’s always trimming her azaleas, of course. Naturally, she’s a widow in her sixties. Your character can’t get over someone, so you invent the ex. A cruel, beautiful ex who appears only in flashback, saying belittling things about your guy’s manhood. By halfway through a novel, you’ve got enough fictional characters to fill a cruise ship.

And how could you possibly cut any of them? If you lose the boss, you lose the whole storyline at work. You lose the neighbor, and all the pressure goes out of the fight scene. So you keep them all—which is often the wrong answer. Or you bite the bullet and have a stiff drink and sit down to cut those people, cut those scenes. Which is quite possibly the wrong answer too, and almost definitely unnecessary.

I faced this dilemma in my second novel, The Hundred-Year House. The last third of the book was vastly overpopulated. (It was set at an artists’ colony in 1929, so I needed lots of eccentrics running around. Did I need twenty of them? No.) I realized, with horror, that three characters served largely the same function. I had two celebrities there (the painter Georgia O’Keeffe and the poet Marianne Moore) and a fictional artist named Zilla Silverman. All were serene, charismatic. All spent their days working, their nights socializing with the other artists. There were differences, certainly. Moore was a baseball fan and only wore black. O’Keeffe’s husband, Alfred Stieglitz, was jealously waiting for her back in New York. Zilla was in love with a choreographer staying at the colony. I’d spent months researching O’Keeffe’s and Moore’s lives. I’d read an enormous volume of O’Keeffe’s correspondence, just to get her voice right. “Yes yes yes yes yes,” she’d written to her husband in one ecstatic overflow—and I’d put those words in her mouth in my book.

But they couldn’t all stay. Nor could they all go. I mourned for a few hours. I went for a very long walk around the grounds of the retreat where I was staying. If I’d been home, I’d have ignored the problem for days; there, I had to make a decision. I came back inside and saved my document with the date, and then I began outlining (on a scrap of notepaper) what the story would look like if these women weren’t cut, but combined. Folded carefully together like egg whites and cake batter. What would a Georgia-Marianne-Zilla hybrid look like? What would she do? Well, for starters, the fact that she’d have a jealous husband would make the relationship with the choreographer much more interesting. And of course she could dress in black. Why not? She could share Moore’s wicked sense of humor. I’d name her Zilla (I was a little worried all along about O’Keeffe or Moore feeling like superfluous cameos), but the painting she’d be working on that summer on would recognizably, to O’Keefe fans, be Oak Leaves, Pink and Gray. She could be famous. Everyone could know about the nude portraits her photographer husband had exhibited of her. She could say “Yes yes yes yes yes.”

And suddenly I had, instead of three characters each serving one function, one character with complexities and contradictions and nuance. I had a human being more three-dimensional than any of my original characters had been.

That particular instance of character-folding—my first—was a necessity. But afterwards, I started looking for opportunities to fold characters together even in less-populated stories.

Think of it as economy of character. And think of it as a challenge, something you go into your manuscript looking for. Because let’s face it, characters aren’t going to jump up and nominate themselves for the slaughter.

Last fall, I took a big sheet of butcher paper and made a character chart for my current novel-in-progress, The Great Believers. My main character, Yale, was in a bubble at the center, and people from different facets of his life spread out around him in clumps, like bunches of balloons. Work people over here, friends on the left, family on the bottom. There was some color-coding too, an excuse to use my fancy pens. I instantly saw that Yale had too many friends, that a few of them were redundant. I saw some easy combinations, the only real ensuing quandaries being along the lines of whose name would win out. (Rodney or Carlos? And would this guy be a teacher, like Rodney, or a dancer, like Carlos?) I saw that the dead friend one of my characters is mourning could easily be the same person as the dead brother another woman mourns. Duh.

But then came the connections that weren’t so obvious. Could the man one character stays with in Paris in 2015 be the same guy who threw that party back in 1985? Could the latchkey-kid son of a 1985 character grow up into the controlling, cult-member husband of a young woman in 2015? Maybe, as long as it wasn’t pure coincidence. They were raised in the same circles, after all… Surely an introduction could be arranged.

From these connections, new plot points magically grew, helpful new pressures. I’d been stuck, and suddenly things were crackling. My story had momentum. I wasn’t walking the dog anymore; it was walking me.

You know who’s great at this stuff? Television writers. With a limited cast and a limited budget, and with certain actors’ contracts stipulating the number of episodes in which they’ll have significant arcs, TV writers are forced to use, again and again, the same characters in different capacities. Granted, at its worst this gives us the soap opera character with a thirty-year arc who’s been married sixteen times, committed two murders, switched places with her twin, been both the mayor and a convict, and had an affair with her own brother. But at its best, we get Mad Men or The Sopranos, shows that knew how to add layer after layer to a character. Shows that knew how to bring a character back after a long absence—changed, charged, and ready to shake up the world.

I was always fascinated, in college sociology class, by the distinctions between societies in which we know everyone in one capacity (think of the modern city, where your mail carrier is just your mail character) and ones with multiple connections (say, a small Midwestern town in 1952, where your mail carrier is married to your sister, went to high school with your brother, sold you your dog, runs the lemonade stand every summer at the 4th of July parade, is widely known to be the town peeping Tom).

I happen to live in the second type of situation (minus the peeping Tom). Contrary to everything I thought about the way my life would turn out, despite the fact that I’m very much a city girl, I moved back to the relatively small town where I grew up; my husband teaches at the boarding school I attended, and we live on campus. I’m looking out the window right now across the quad at the house of my former drama teacher, whose son I went to school with. This man also directed me in my first play, when I was five. His wife works at the frame shop in town and frames our pictures. My kids are terrified of his dog. When he retires this June, we’re moving into his apartment.

And that’s the tip of the iceberg, a fairly simple connection compared to some of the decades-long sagas around here. I love these people, which is why I’m saving my campus novel for sometime in the late 2040s.

Granted, my life is odd. You’re probably not about to inherit your old drama teacher’s home. And maybe your life experience has been entirely one of unilateral relationships. But there are some situations that just don’t transfer easily to the page (the workday of a tax attorney, a five-hour committee meeting), and the one-sided relationships of modern urban society fall in that category. Better instead to shrink the walls around your world, to push your characters together and then push them together again and then again and then again.

We don’t need to trap our characters at a boarding school, or even in a small town. But we can all find ways to weave their threads more closely together, ways these people can reappear throughout each other’s lives. It’s likely that we already have everything we need—just spread out over many different characters. Characters ripe for harvesting, for smooshing together.

Listen: Maybe the boss in your story is the same person as the ex.

(But the boss I had in mind was male!)

Nope, her name is Sheila. She broke your guy’s heart, but three years later she hired him. Is he still in love with her? A little bit. And guess what: She’s his nosy neighbor, too.

(How is that even possible?)

Because her mother’s ill, and she moved in to take care of her. So now she’s going to be the one to overhear the fight.

(But this complicates things so much. I mean, when he goes into work the next day…)

Isn’t complication what you were looking for? Isn’t complication the whole point?

(Damn you.)

I know, I know, I know.

auth.-ph.-13-cropped-jpeg1-352x352Rebecca Makkai is the Chicago-based author of the short story collection Music for Wartime, which appeared in 2015, and of the novels The Hundred-Year House, winner of the Chicago Writers Association’s Novel of the Year award, and The Borrower, a Booklist Top Ten Debut which has been translated into eight languages. Her short fiction was chosen for The Best American Short Stories for four consecutive years (2011, 2010, 2009 and 2008), and appears regularly in journals like Harper’s, Tin House, and New England Review. The recipient of a 2014 NEA fellowship, Makkai has taught at the Iowa Writers Workshop, Tin House, and Northwestern University.

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