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On Characters: FATE

A Craft Short

from:

Bruce Machart

A FATEful Lesson

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My mentor, Lee K. Abbot, once suggested that all “round” characters should be “fat” characters. This was in 1997 in Columbus, Ohio—Denney Hall—and we, his graduate students at The Ohio State University, didn’t know what the hell he meant. But we trusted him—he had earned this trust and more—so we sat rapt while Lee stood at the board and appeared to create, extemporaneously, one of the most memorable lessons of craft I’ve ever learned. I remember the steam on the windows of the classroom, the snow swirling itself dizzy outside. I remember Lee’s burr-cut hair and the vein above his temple that announced his level of concentration. He wrote the following on the board, improvising a new mnemonic:

F
A
T

Over the course of perhaps fifteen minutes, Lee spoke and wrote and cajoled and testified. As was often the case, it took some flushing out (and some flushing of cheeks via cheap beer and invaluable camaraderie) before I was fully able to comprehend how profoundly my understanding of narrative craft had been altered.

Even today, fourteen years later, I have, scribbled in a scarlet three-ring binder bearing The Ohio State University insignia, my notes from this lecture, and they look like this:

Feelings (sensory and emotional)
Action (including dialogue)
Thought (direct, indirect, hopes, aspirations, fears)

Beneath these notes, in green ink, I have added the supposition that all scenic narrative can be broken down into one of these three components. Assuming that we are writing in subjective point-of-view, in stories that allow the reader access to the interior life of the protagonist, then the above “modes” of narrative are very nearly exhaustive. If we write description, we are writing “Feelings” as “sensed” by the protagonist. Likewise, if we show the emotional reactions of the characters, these are also “Feelings.” All action and dialogue fall into the mode of “Action,” and all the things we “hear” going on between the character’s temples are “Thoughts.”

For years now, I have found that, in terms of craft lessons, I need only one other thing.

While it’s true that narrative values “showing” over “telling,” scene over exposition, it has never been true that good stories show to the exclusion of telling. Rather, they show and tell just as surely as kindergarteners do, and I have added this mode to my notebook, riffing on the quote from Heraclitus that “A man’s fate is his character.”

Other than description rendered objectively by a third-person (or, I suppose, second-person) narrator, both of which are storytelling entities rather than “people,” there is no mode of narrative writing that isn’t incorporated by this idea that character (and good character work) is FATE:

Feelings
Action
Thought
Exposition

~

Bruce Machart is the author of Men in the Making, published last month, and The Wake of Forgiveness, his first novel published in 2010. Bruce has received numerous awards and fellowships, and currently serves as Assistant Professor of English at Bridgewater State University. 

More Machart at
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