The Character Study

     “Cynthia lived in a large, two bedroom apartment on the top floor of a skyscraper on the upper east side of Manhattan.  From her living room window she had a view of the East River and whatever was on the other side of it, and from her bedroom she could see all the way downtown to the financial district, if she bothered to look.  The views only interested her when there was someone else in the room to admire them. 

     “The furnishings purposely reflected her tastes. A firm bed, a dark leather couch, neither overly large nor plush, a genuine Oriental rug.  Subtle light came from floor lamps which were never too bright, and on the walls hung original works of art by obscure, foreign, and frightfully poor artists.  It was not a comfortable living space, more a group of perfectly staged rooms that no one, not even Cynthia, actually lived in. 

     “[…] but many people thought Cynthia could use a few extra pounds on her slender frame. She only ate at restaurants, and she didn’t like to eat alone. She didn’t keep anything in her refrigerator except cream for her coffee. She liked the look of an empty refrigerator: a clean, white space in cold light. She kept the cream on the door.”

About ten years ago I shopped a finished manuscript around half a dozen New York City literary agencies and received half a dozen rejection letters in return.  They were well deserved.  With the hindsight of ten years of haphazard writing practice, and ten years of life experience, I can tell you my first complete attempt at writing a book sucked.

Today, with the creation of my new fiction only blog, I thought maybe I’d dust off that old manuscript and give it new life.  Then I started reading it…. SNORE.  Seriously, it is really boring (and I am one of those writers who really likes to read her own words.  I go back and read (and edit!) my old posts all the time, for fun. )

However… I did enjoy re-discovering my old characters.  If there are any gems to pluck from this pile before I set it on fire – they might be the scattered character studies I did for a few of the supporting cast.

This got me to thinking – are there any books out there that are purely made of character studies?  No real plot or action… just the thoughts and quirky personality traits that make for fascinating, and readable, people?   I thought of Jennifer Egan’s book, A Visit from the Goon Squad. Because while things do happen in that book, her characters do interact with each other, what you gain from the book isn’t a bunch of exciting ‘whats,’ it is a bunch of fascinating ‘whos.’

I also thought of some of my favorite short stories, from authors like Pam Houston, which are less short stories than they are long, inner monologues. Like the story, Janus by Ann Beattie.  A woman places a bowl inside a house she is selling – the story is in the thoughts and memories and feelings she has that surround the bowl.  It is, really, just a character sketch. Told so well that I knew this fictional person, inside and out, after only ten or so minutes of moving eyes across lines of words on paper.

This is a "thought bubble". It is an...
The inner monologue of an amnesiac. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

To me, character development is the most important part of a story.  It is that part that I remember the best later on.  It is the part I put the most effort into in my own work.  It is probably why I haven’t actually finished another full-length manuscript in the last ten years.  Plot? What plot? Look at the clever way I described her aversion to eyelash hair! Who needs plot?!?

I lifted that bit of a character sketch at the top of this page from my old, dusty manuscript.  Of course I tweaked it a bit, but it is still the same person I created all those years ago, and I still find her fascinating, if not quite likeable.  I’m wondering what I might do with her…  I might just pull all the bits that have her in it from the manuscript and see what comes of it.

It won’t be a novel, but it might be something worth reading…

3 thoughts on “The Character Study

  1. I agree characters are essential and the most vital ingredient in a book. My current project (all be it incredibly slow, due to myalgic encephalomyelitis) is all about the characters, im thinking of it as a novella because to stretch it to a novel will kill it, or maybe it will be between a short story and novella, the numbers don’t matter to me, But it will be character filled. I love people, they are fascinating and I believe readers love their characters more they/we often think they/we do!


  2. Have you read Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout? It came to mind immediately when you asked about books that focus on character development. It’s a series of short stories, all of which revolve around the character Olive Kitteridge. Each story does contain plot and action, but the overall impression of the book is of a celebration of the central character.


    1. Yes – I did read that – I’d forgotten. Actually, after I posted this yesterday – I started thinking that a lot of so-called ‘literary’ fiction is often long character studies – with a bit of plot thrown in here and there – as much to help further define the character as to keep the more plot-minded readers awake. =)


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