Robert Boswell

Robert Boswell's Twelve Methods of Characterization, from his essay "How I Met My Wife" (Tin House Issue #56)

1. Meaningful Sensory Deprivation

“This kind of blindness is a means by which one may reveal character, as it has no physiological source… but exists as a product of desire or some other equally revealing emotional or psychological state… Productive blindness is often found in unreliable narrators, including those who have done unspeakable things they find impossible to examine, and, of course, you see it in people in love.”

2. How a Character Approaches the Inscrutable

“The manner in which characters approach the inscrutable—especially an inscrutable person—tends to define them. The inscrutable person becomes a kind of mirror.”

3. Characters Defined by a Single Trait

“Think of the grandmother in ‘A Good Man Is Hard to Find,’ Julian in 'Everything that Rises Must Converge,’ or Hulga in 'Good Country People.’ These characters are not only defined by a dominant trait, each has the same dominant trait: hubris. They are not the same character because O’Connor inflects the trait, making Hulga an intellectual snob and the grandmother a class snob, while Julian is an intellectual snob who is hung up on his mother’s class and race snobbery, but in each case they feel superior to others before coming to the painful realization that such feeling is an error. They do not seem like overly constricted characters because O’Connor does not let the trait be too narrowly defined, but each, I would argue, is defined by a single trait from which every significant act grows.”

4. Compare and Contrast Two Characters

“It is a method that encourages compression, and many writers use it to great effect.”

5. The Wheel

“To summarize the wheel, take some locale or activity and then wheel each of your characters through it, contrasting their uses of it. For example, have Character A at the dentist’s office, and he is dealing with his anxiety by imagining how B and C routinely handle going to the dentist. A finds, though, that he cannot imagine how D would handle the visit, though he takes a few stabs at it. Fifty pages later we’re with D and he’s at the dentist. The reader will feel a specific little delight at this return, and D’s behavior should surprise the reader in a revelatory manner—simultaneously revealing who D is and how A fails to understand him.”

6. Point-of-View Intimacy

“Having an intimate point of view means that the sentences describing the thoughts and actions of the main character reveal something about the character’s sensibility… by imaginative verb choice, overstatement, dynamic specificity, exaggeration, evocative noun choice, and extended metaphor.”

7. Tonal Dissonance

“The difference between the experience of the characters and the experience of the readers is enormous… use of tonal dissonance makes the characters unforgettable by emphasizing the disparity between the world they inhabit and the world of the reader.”

8. The Character Who Says What Most People Know Not to Say

“Take a draft of a story that isn’t yet working and add a character defined by a single trait—the knack for saying what should not be said—and see if that story doesn’t get more lively, see if the main character doesn’t suddenly take off.”

9. Investigate the Fictions to Which a Character Clings

“For example, let a character create or believe a fiction about another character, a fiction that others see through. The gap between what the character thinks and reality will be revealing. Or let the character disbelieve a story that everyone else accepts.”

10. The Forced Choice

“In fiction, the forced choice is often presented in terms of a moral dilemma; the character must take action but all of the choices are unhappy ones… Put your character in a situation in which she must act but her choices are all disturbing. Or put her through a series of forced choices and see how quickly she is revealed.”

11. An Objective Correlative

“A practical way for a writer to think about the objective correlative: it’s a means of avoiding some line that merely states a feeling.”

12. Say the Hardest Thing

“Push to get at the darkest or ugliest motivation you might honestly credit to your character’s actions. This final method… has the power to turn ordinary characters into extraordinary ones.”


[I originally had this post linked to the essay itself, which was published on the Tin House website as part of Issue 56’s preview. It no longer seems to be there, but if I find it I’ll provide a direct link. But you can still read it in the print edition of Issue 56, which is well worth picking up.]

From that point forward I changed the way I wrote my reports and how I made recommendations. I hid scores or failed to report them if I thought they might carry too much weight with counselors. Or I might include the scores sheets from one of the measurements, but I’d omit the score from my report. Understand, all of my evasions worked to the client’s advantage, but in trying to correct one problem I almost certainly created another. I became a spin-doctor, more of agent for the client than an evaluator. If the reports were initially a problem because the tests were treated as they were omniscient, now the reports became even more unreliable because I was fiddling with them to avoid repeating mistakes. And the reports were still treated as if the deity Science was speaking through my oracular pages. My reports were a form of unreliable omniscience.
I’ve experimented with the omniscient voice for a long time. About eight years into this novel I realized that I needed a new kind of omniscience. Here’s why: as a counselor, I gave tests to clients—much like the character in Tumbledown, James Candler. I worked with people for periods ranging from a couple days to as long as three weeks. These were very thorough examinations. I’d administer a battery of tests and assign simulated workstations, assess the results, and write a report that I’d send to the client’s counselor. Imagine that you’re a counselor with a client who spent his adult life in construction and now has injured his back. He needs a new profession. Is he college ready? Can he physically tolerate a desk job? It was my job to evaluate each client and write recommendations that addressed all those issues. The reports were incredibly valuable to the counselors, but a few of the counselors took the test results to be the voice of god. They treated the scores as if the tests were infallible.
—  The unreliable narrator is a bit of a cliche, but it’s still possible to write a good story that features one. At The RumpusAlex Dueben talks with Robert Boswell about his new book, which uses a technique Boswell calls “unreliable omniscience.”
What to Learn about Writing from: "Escape from Spiderhead" and Robert Boswell and (sort of) Bread Loaf

Context and dramatic context.

Or, context that establishes the rules of the story and context that establishes the drama of the story.

Has everyone read “Escape from Spiderhead”? There might be some spoilers, so keep that in mind, I guess, if you’re into surprises.

I teach “Escape from Spiderhead” as a way to talk about agency, and how to give a protagonist agency even when your protagonist is in a position of almost no power, even when he’s a cog in a greater satirized machine. The narrator of the story is in a special jail where they do drug experiments on him, with drugs such as Darkenfloxx, which gives you despair, or Verbaluce, which gives you eloquence. The only agency the protagonist has here, since he is a prisoner, is that he has to say “Acknowledge” for the higher ups (in this case a scientist named Abnesti) to be able to test a drug on him, or at least for them to do so without jumping through additional hoops. The protagonist has this one little piece of agency, but it’s crucial to the story. As the story goes on, and the morality is more and more complicated, the narrator takes longer and longer to say “Acknowledge,” and finally refuses, and when Abnesti decides to go to the extra lengths, the narrator Darkenfloxxes himself and escapes. It’s a hell of a story.

But what I want to talk about here is context. There’s a lot of context to be filled in here, in order to tell us where our narrator is and what kind of world he is in and what responsibilities and roles he has/can have. There’s also dramatic context to be filled in, like why it’s so hard for him–personally–to say “Acknowledge” to Abnesti’s request to Darkenfloxx a woman in front of him. It’s not just that Darkenfloxx will send the woman into despair and maybe kill her, it’s that the narrator is a killer and has worked hard to come to terms with himself, and so on and so forth.

I am taking the term dramatic context from a talk by Robert Boswell, which you can find on iTunes U–he gave it at Bread Loaf last year, and all of the BL talks are on iTunes (a good resource, I’d add). Boswell talks about how more dramatic context is needed in some situations than in others, for example, a woman wearing the same hat in “Everything that Rises Must Converge” versus someone kissing a stranger in the dark. One is inherently more dramatic than the other. In the first instance, the story needs to tell/show the reader why this moment matters so much. In the second instance, though, dramatic context is still important. We want to know why this moment matters to our protagonist. 

Obviously, whether or not to send someone else into despair, in the Saunders story, has its own drama. But again, we need to know why our narrator and not another of the prisoners, and what makes it so hard for our narrator as an individual. Dramatic context, it seems to me, is tied to the protagonist, in a way that the general context of the story–that we are in this special jail, with drug testing, in the future, and the ability to say Acknowledge–is not necessarily. But what I really truly actually want to talk about is when to give us the dramatic context and the general context, and how, and why.

I often get to the point, when I’m teaching a workshop, where I need to sit everyone down and talk a little about context, mainly because I get a lot of stories where, at the beginning, I can’t figure out what’s going on, and that seems to be treated as a way to get a reader invested in the story. It’s true that this creates mystery, but the mystery is not an engaging mystery, it’s a disengaging mystery. I need to know the rules of the story right away. I don’t need to know, for example, what crime the narrator of “Escape from Spiderhead” committed, or what crime the other prisoners committed. I do need to know that they’re being drug tested, and that the drugs can affect the language, and that we’re in a different world than our own, so on. If I don’t know these things right away, I would be too disoriented, and I would focus on trying to figure out the logistics rather than the heart of the story, whether this guy can overcome his crime and how–or whatever you think it is, my point is that it is not: where is he and what kind of world is this?

I do want mystery, but I want the mystery that matters, the mystery where, if I knew two people were going to run into each other, wearing the same hat, and that it would matter, I would want to read on to know why. I wouldn’t want to read on to know what social class they were from, or what the hat looked like, or who’s talking to whom, or what kind of job the main character has, or so on–general context.

The general context gives us a sense of grounding, a word I hate but that I will use here anyway.

How do we give this context of where they are and who they are and what world they’re in and when they are without being completely boring? When I look at the Saunders story, the entire first section of the story is pretty much just this context, and it’s a routine, it’s something that happens between the narrator and Abnesti often. They know the situation and how it works. But we don’t. We don’t, however, want to hear about their routines or for someone to simply tell us the rules, or to get a long description of the prison. Or I don’t. Saunders manages a way around how boring all this context would be: he uses humor and language. He's funny. That pretty much distracts us long enough not to notice that the story really parts after section one. And he doesn’t give us a breakdown of the routine, he shows us a scene and implies that it is something regular. We get a singular action that also encompasses recurring action. That’s far more interesting.

We get the context in the details, too, like how in the first sentence, Abnest is speaking “over the P.A.” That tells us a lot, nothing too exact, but that they’re in differing positions, a certain kind of place, and one person has the ability to make himself heard or not.

When Saunders gives the dramatic context is also instructive. We don’t find out the context about our narrator being a criminal and how he got out of the regular jail and into this special jail, or many details about his and Abnesti’s personal lives, until we need to: that is, until Abnesti asks the narrator to Acknowledge Darkenfloxxing a woman named Heather.

At first, the narrator does not Acknowledge. Then Abnesti brings up all this dramatic context in order to put pressure on the narrator’s decision. It seems to me that’s exactly when dramatic context can be most useful, that it should come in at the point where it adds the most pressure/stakes to the protagonist’s action and agency. When do we need to know? Story-wise, we need to know these things when they create conflict and action.

On the page, there’s a whole column of text now (context) between when Abnesti asks, “Drip on?” and the narrator at last says, “Acknowledge,” and something in the story has changed in that space.

Context is a tricky thing, and it can often seem to work against a story, to be kind of boring but also very necessary, and I’m always looking for ways to get it in so that it serves the momentum of the story, rather than slowing it.

*note: in the photo, the red is the context and the black is the agency.

"To make something fully known is to make it unreal."

External image

Having our expectations almost perfectly met makes us feel knowing, possessively fond, and calm. These are our rewards for watching. After just a few episodes, the sitcom world is fully known. A character may have a secret, but it will be revealed before the half hour expires, and it will not change the way you think of him. The TV sitcom is an explicit medium: nothing that is under the surface can remain there for long.
    While the sitcom is perhaps the clearest example of a fully known world, television dramas and most Hollywood movies are nearly its equal. Popular films work to give you the sense that you are being shown everything. As a result, character motivations tend to come from the big categories, such as “They killed my family, so I will get them,” or “He saved my life, so I like him.” Every action is motivated by something that you witness firsthand or that is explained to you.
    To make something fully known is to make it unreal. Think of Disneyland, think of the speeches of politicians, think of McDonald’s, Burger King, Kentucky Fried Chicken. The fast-food goal is not to give you a great meal but to give you exactly what you expect. There is comfort in this, especially for children, for people traveling abroad, and for people whose lives are in upheaval. People in a crisis long for KFC and Seinfeld, McDonald’s and Arnold Schwarzenegger, Pizza Hut and a president who says, “We are good, they are evil.”
    It should be no surprise that the fully known worlds presented on television and in commercial movies are populated by stereotypes. To call a character a type is to say that he’s so true to a group of characters that he is distinguishable from all the others in that group. Here’s another definition of a stereotype: any character that is fully known.

—Robert Boswell, The Half-known World

I don’t write to polish, but to permit the narrative to move away from my initial intentions, to become complex and strange—or at least not boring. I call each of these changing versions a transitional draft, and I don’t quit until the story stands on its own hooves and turns around to glower—meaning that it’s fully alive and no longer mine.
—  Robert Boswell
I have to write my way inside [my characters]. Some writers may have a genius for this that I don’t possess, but I have to write a lot more pages than ultimately wind up in the book. I write my way into their way of seeing the world, and I work to determine the gaps between what they understand and the extent to which they’re able to express it… At some point while doing this I’ll find a hook by which I’m able to pull myself into a character and see the world as she sees it.
—  Robert Boswell

“Sometimes in a novel (or in a play) characters appear first as types. As the novel progresses, the writer works to make the character an individual. This work entails, I am arguing, the unknowing of the character. You can measure how successfully you’ve revealed a character by the extent to which his acts, words, history, and thoughts fail to explain him, creating instead a character that is, at once, identifiable and unknowable.”

The Half-Known World by Robert Boswell

Character Motivations, via Aimee Bender and Robert Boswell, Batman and the Joker

In her essay “Character Motivations” from Tin House’s The Writer’s Notebook, Aimee Bender says that in her own workshop stories, “a character would be behaving a certain way, and the other students would want to know why. It makes sense that people want to know why. We all have a psychological acuity that we’ve learned from our culture, whether or not we are aware of it—the desire to say, "Well, this,” and plug it into the story. But the thing I worry about when we tack on a reason is that this approach reduces fiction and it reduces the human mind. It also demeans the character.“ Instead, she argues, writers should endeavor to leave some of the mystery intact. She says, "You can explore an avenue of your character—something about your character’s past, or something in your character’s present—and you don’t know how the reader is going to connect it to what’s going on in the story. That gives the reader a wonderful job to do, which is try to make the links.”

As an example of how differently-rendered motivations and backstories can change our reading of characters, consider the different origin stories of the Joker, as shown in Tim Burton’s Batman and Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, and what they can tell us about the motivations of the Joker in both films.

As the Burton film opens, Jack Nicholson’s Jack Napier is “accidentally” knocked into a vat of chemical waste by MIchael Keaton’s Batman, which causes Napier to be horribly disfigured and driven insane. He returns as the “Joker,” returning to make the same chemical plant his base of operations and planning to take down Batman. His entire personality is tied up in this origin: Batman made him who he is, and so Batman has to pay. He gets disfigured, and so he tries to disfigure the citizens of Gotham with Smilex. Nicholson’s fun to watch in his purple suit, but he doesn’t get to inhabit a particularly complex villain.

In the Nolan, there are two origin stories for Heath Ledger’s Joker, neither of which is shown. Both are told by the Joker—who begins the movie already himself—and both contradict each other, so they can’t both be true. We also never find out the real series of events that preceded his entry into the movie: He arrives fully formed, and exits the movie still the same character, without any meaningful change occurring to him—everything he does seems to affect others, not himself. All of this means that we cannot know why the Joker is the way he is, and so have to supply our own guesses as to his motivations, ultimate goals, and so on. For me, this makes him an infinitely more interesting character, because I have to fill in the gaps created by Nolan’s purposeful obscuring of the Joker’s origin story and his subsequent motivations. Ledger’s Joker is much more captivating and terrifying than Nicholson’s, in part because violent or evil actions that we can’t explain away with simple psychological cause and effect have the capacity to haunt us and continue to bother us long after the story ends. The actions Ledger’s Joker takes in the film complicate his character, but they never explain him: His mystery is not destroyed by additional screen time, and his defeat does not include the answers to his motivations. He says that he’s an “agent of chaos,” but that never answers why. Which might be part of the reason the effects of his villainy lives on in the next film, infecting Christian Bale’s Batman and (especially) Gary Oldman’s Commissioner Gordon, whereas the Joker in Burton’s universe might as well never have existed by the time Batman Returns begins.

Bonus video: In the Burton film, Batman’s parents’ murder—the inciting incident behind Bruce Wayne becoming Batman in nearly every incarnation—is committed by a young Jack Napier, who will later become the Joker, at Batman’s hands. So they’re perfectly (and improbably) matched, and just as psychologically simple: The Joker kills Batman’s parents, so Batman seeks to defeat the Joker, then Batman “kills” Jack Napier and leaves behind the Joker, so the Joker wants to kill Batman for revenge. So simple, so boring, so little for the viewer to do or feel or add.

Finally, consider the advice of Robert Boswell, in his essay “The Half-Known World”: “Sometimes characters appear first as types. As the novel progresses, the writer works to make the character an individual. This work entails, I am arguing, the unknowing of the character. You can measure how successfully you’ve revealed a character by the extend to which his acts, words, history, and thoughts fail to explain him, creating instead a character that is, at once, identifiable and unknowable.” I’d argue that it’s these kind of characters—identifiable and unknowable—that inhabit the best kinds of stories, the kind that last long past the final page. We keep trying to “make the links,” as Bender suggests, and so these characters and their actions continue to haunt and affect us. 

The main thing is this: I don’t want to repeat myself. I’m trying to be a literary artist. And, really, who knows what that means? But I’m pretty sure that it means at least this: you don’t settle for anything but the very best you’re capable of doing. For me, that means pushing my narratives to be different, insisting that I try something new, working to explore familiar territories in new ways and to invent new forms each time I sit down to write.
—  Robert Boswell