Pros: Detailed; widely applicable; enjoyable; refreshingly honest & open
Cons: Makes other writing books pale in comparison!
Rating: 6 out of 5
Review first posted 2/25/2003
“Character is plot.”
So said novelist Henry James, master of both, a hundred years ago. Unfortunately, in an uncharacteristic burst of taciturnity, James stopped there, leaving several crucial points unexplained.
This is the opening of “Dynamic Characters,” a book for fiction writers by Nancy Kress. It eloquently displays her attitude toward writing–that it need not be a mysterious art employed only by a select few; that it is something that in large part can be explained and taught and understood. It also shows you a touch of her irony and humor, traits that make this one of the most enjoyable writing books I’ve ever read.
Part One: Strong and Believable Characters: The Externals Here you’ll find information on choosing descriptive details for your characters, choosing a name, the interaction between setting and character, characters’ careers, characterization and dialogue, natural-sounding dialogue, pruning character descriptions down to something reasonable, and basing characters on real people.
As you can tell this covers a lot of ground, and not all of it stuff you’d expect to find in a book on characters. Certainly I was surprised to find so much information on dialogue in here. It makes sense, though: you can’t simply chisel a character out of the work of fiction it’s found in and deal with it as a separate entity. Character is intimately tied to the rest of a story. And that’s part of Ms. Kress’s point–that even while you’re writing dialogue, you should be thinking about how it impacts (and is impacted by) your characters.
This part of the book could have been very boring. Naming characters, coming up with the right descriptive details for your characters–these are generally very dry things. However, Ms. Kress interweaves enough wit and humor to keep things interesting, without using so much that it interferes with the actual useful information she’s trying to convey. In other words, she’s a great teacher!
Part Two: Creating Strong and Believable Characters: The Internals This part includes information on using characters’ thoughts to help characterize them; making it clear what your characters are thinking (and when, and how); being careful about your assumptions (and how they affect your characters); using dreams and newscasts with respect to characterization; making your villains as interesting as your heroes; creating an unsympathetic protagonist that won’t drive all of your readers away; and creating a “dossier” on your characters.
There are many cases in which authors who write about writing will simply tell you, “don’t do this,” or “this kind of book simply won’t sell.” Ms. Kress has a much more honest and detailed approach. She tells us what the pitfalls are of each approach, what risks you’re taking, why different things are considered trite or overused (and what you might try to make them fresh again), as well as why you still might want to try some methods in certain circumstances. She tells us how as well as why, and she even tells us when you’ll be doing something that will alienate some of your readers. For example, there are ways to write unsympathetic protagonists such that many readers will be okay with them. But Kress does point out that no matter what you do, you’ll probably still make a few of your readers unhappy by using an unlikeable protagonist. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it, but it does mean that you should know what it is you’re doing and go into it with eyes open.
Again, Ms. Kress’s humor and wit make this book interesting and enjoyable to read. The “intelligence dossier” (a character questionnaire) is quite long and detailed. Ms. Kress is very good about pointing out places where different writers simply like to do things in different ways; for example, many people feel uncomfortable pinning down all the little details of their characters in advance. In these cases, she suggests filling out the form after your first draft is done, to help you make sure that your details are consistent from chapter to chapter when you revise.
Part Three: Character and Plot This part covers “how to start anywhere and arrive at plot”; conflict and violence; point of view and its relationship to both character and plot; secondary characters and their relationship to plot; character change as an element of plot; how character change and plot intertwine; basing plots on real-life events; using archetypal plots in fresh new ways; the connections between characters, plot, and theme; and the relationship between characters and writer.
Ms. Kress provides plenty of helpful questions to ask yourself with each sort of plot she describes, as well as other useful information. For example, she provides a list of the various obstacle types that romance authors have thrown in the path of their characters over the years. She also points out that there are various preferred ways of breaking down different types of plots, and that you should use whatever means inspires you. I’ve mentioned when reviewing other writing books that most short chapters on point of view end up being poor summaries of basic information that fail to treat the book’s specific topic adequately. That isn’t the case here. All of Ms. Kress’s information on PoV will help you to understand how to use it within the context of characterization–yet it is still clear and easy to understand.
She’s also very good about putting her suggestions within the context of all sorts of types of writing: literary fiction, mysteries, romance, science fiction, fantasy, and so on. She uses numerous published examples from sources as disparate as Dickens and Stephen King.
One thing that impressed me is the ability of Ms. Kress’s tips to withstand the passage of time. In the last writing book I reviewed, Conflict, Action & Suspense, I noted that some of the useful tricks the author advocated have, since his book came out, become overused. All or most of Ms. Kress’s ideas are still valuable and useful. Perhaps that’s the difference between a “tip” and a “trick”–tricks tend to have a limited lifetime.
I don’t want you to think, however, that this means all of Ms. Kress’s suggestions are broad generalizations. There’s plenty of detail in here to get you through your writing, and plenty to inspire you. I strongly recommend reading this book while you’re starting work on a fiction project, rather than before-hand; I found that reading “Dynamic Characters” helped me to pinpoint places where I needed to put more thought into what I was doing. It also inspired me and made me even more eager to write.
This book stands the test of time, treats its subject matter extremely thoroughly, is inspiring and enjoyable, and could greatly improve your fiction. In fact, the only flaw I found is that it makes other writing books look less effective and interesting by comparison. What are you waiting for? If your fiction could use even a little bit of help, then read “Dynamic Characters.”