Writing 2017-12-23

Book Notes – How Fiction Works, Ch. 5

How Fiction Works is a book written by critic James Wood and is an examination of the techniques that fiction utilizes to immerse the reader and create an experience. This is the fourth of a series of write-ups of notes that I have taken while reading the book.

Chapter 5: Character

Wood points out that a minor character can be just as compelling as a major character. A good minor character need only surprise the reader once before disappearing to be memorable. This is because for characters in general very little personality detail is needed. What is required is just enough detail to highlight important personality traits. This gives the reader something to latch on to and build a personal narrative about without hitting the reader over the head.

The particular detail, however, should be related to how the character interacts with other characters, or the world in general. Sometimes an author can get away with a line on what the character is thinking. New writers tend to make the mistake of rendering this detail as if the character were the subject of a photograph. Rendering the character in motion is a much better alternative so that the reader doesn’t feel like the story has paused.

Another point is to make sure not to explain everything. Wood points out that author Muriel Sparks has the motto of “never apologize, never explain”. Character-defining behavior does not have to be explained or justified. This forces the reader to ask why the character is behaving in a particular way, which can lead to a reader imagining a narrative about that character. This is also important because the character involved may not be one that adheres to current moral standards or tastes. Spending time explaining the character’s motivations with an unsavory trait weakens the character and diminishes the reader’s incentive to think about the character.

Finally, it’s important that characters be determined to be themselves. Everybody in real life has a personal fiction that they tell themselves to put life into perspective. A framework of dealing with reality, if you will. Fictional characters are no different. In Wood’s estimation, good characters aren’t just determined to be themselves, they are determined to be themselves in a theatrical manner. They create a fiction all their own about who they are and how others should, or will, treat them or what their place in the world is. They then enact that personal fiction as definitively has possible in the given situation.


Admittedly, I never really thought about portraying a character in static or in motion, but I think Wood’s arguments are compelling in this area. The reader doesn’t want to pause. I’m also a bit relieved about the ideas regarding character details. Having to spend coming up with a high-detail description of a character is exhausting and never seemed completely necessary to me. Leaving a bit of mystery makes sense from a reader-investment perspective.

About the author

Erik Hentell: I started out in theater before moving to graphic design. I eventually moved into web design while trying to expand my knowledge on software development. I currently work for a media company helping with their digital assets such as source code archives and ebooks.