By Aaron Hamburger
When I was in high school, I had a deep, all-consuming crush on a young man we’ll call Austin. Bear in mind, this was high school. In suburban Detroit. In the late 1980’s. I had no hope of his returning—let alone recognizing—my affection.
So I learned to satisfy (and perhaps stoke) my longings by studying him from afar. I became especially knowledgeable about Austin’s scuffed shoes and socks, the hairs on the back of his neck, the door of his locker after he’d closed it and walked away… basically, anything I could learn about the guy without his noticing.
I savored each new tiny detail about his life that I believed or maybe hoped might illuminate larger truths about his existence, like the fact that he commuted to our school from Detroit’s “East Side,” or that he liked Smarties candies, or that he wished that instead of AP World History, we could just watch Mel Brooks’s History of the World Part I.
Little did I know that through my Austin-worship, I was building skills that would serve me well, later on, as a fiction writer. Novel readers encountering characters for the first time go through much the same process as a lovestruck teenager gazing from a distance at his love object. As we read, we’re constantly picking up on the tiniest of details about each character we meet, whether consciously or unconsciously. The difference is that while Austin never noticed or cared that I was studying him, readers are under the delusion that the author has chosen to sprinkle the narrative with purposefully chosen details as clues to suggest some larger and more significant patterns of personality.
Why do writers and readers go to all this elaborate bother?
Perhaps at a different time and in a different universe, I could have sat down with Austin and said, “Hello, I have a crush on you, so please tell me all the significant information about your life.” And he would have told it to me, as well as he could, because who among us is really capable of knowing what we are?
But I don’t think it would have been as interesting or as passionate as my experience of studying my crush from afar. Certainly, all the enchantment of mystery would have disappeared from the process. In fact, maybe after such an interview, I might have been completely cured of all my interest in Austin.
In much the same way, fiction readers don’t want psychological profiles on the page. We relish the challenge of piecing character together through searching for clues. It’s as if writers set up a game for readers to play, like a scavenger hunt. If the hunt is too difficult, readers get frustrated. Too easy, they get bored. Either way, they stop reading.
With Austin, not everything I studied about him taught me something of importance about his life. Did it really say so much about him that he had the dreamiest blue eyes, soft blond hair, or a cute snub nose? The fact that I noticed these things probably said more about my fascination as a Jew with what I perceived as the exotic Other of a Gentile than it did about Austin’s character.
And here is a classic case of substituting physical description for true characterization. When planting clues for the reader, we as fiction writers have to bear in mind that the details we choose need to reveal character, rather than betray our own foibles or even lack of insight.
At the same time, the puzzle pieces of character shouldn’t fit together too neatly. While it’s true that a major difference between life and art is that life is random and art is pattern, at the same time, when art is overly patterned, it feels contrived.
Here’s an exercise: when you’re feeling clueless about your characters, imagine yourself as someone who has a crush on them. What would you notice? Move slowly, carefully. What do you see? What do you hear? What do you smell? (God, how I would have killed to bury my nose in Austin’s neck all those years ago. In life, I couldn’t. But as a writer trying to tell the story of Austin, I am free to imagine the experience.)
And when you’re done working on your fiction, try the same exercise with the people in your life you dislike or don’t understand. Perhaps there too lie a few insights to be gained.
Aaron Hamburger is the author of The View from Stalin’s Head, winner of the Rome Prize in Literature, and Faith for Beginners. His writing has appeared in The Village Voice, Tin House, Michigan Quarterly Review, Boulevard, Poets and Writers, Out, Nerve, Time Out, Details, and The Forward. He has taught creative writing at Columbia University, New York University, and currently teaches at the Stonecoast MFA Program.