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David Jauss and Knowing Too Much

Sometimes I come across an article about writing that I know I’m going to return to again and again. David Jauss writes just such an article in the March/April issue of The Writer’s Chronicle. (I’m clipping it out and saving it, AND making a link to the digital version of the story a permanent computer bookmark…)

In the article, Homo Sapiens vs. Homo Fictus, Jauss explores (deeply) the differences between “real people” and the characters that we bring to life in our fiction, and in doing so, he takes on some of the most well-seasoned writing advice most of us have received, either from fiction writing instructors, workshop participants, other writers, or books forever enshrined in the Creative Writing Instruction cannon.

Near the start of the article, Jauss says this:

But there are two other differences between Homo fictus and Homo sapiens that are far more important, and they are the differences we most need to keep in mind when we create our characters. First, unlike real people, fictional characters often have inner lives we can witness. And second, compared to actual human beings, fictional people are, as William Gass has said, “mostly empty canvas”—we know relatively little about their physical appearance, their behavior and relationships, their past histories, and so forth. Homo fictus, then, consists in large part of the presence of something that can’t be observed in real people—the inner life—and the relative absence of things that can be observed—the outer life. Paradoxically, these two patently unrealistic qualities of Homo fictus are largely responsible for creating the impression that a character is “real”—provided we don’t overdo or underdo them.

The rest of the article (sixteen pages of wisdom) examines that balance that we must strike between OVERDOING and UNDERDOING our characterizations.

Along the way, he pokes holes in some writing advice, or criticism, you may have received, or given yourself. It isn’t that Jauss is jettisoning these “pearls of writing wisdom”, but he DOES make a strong case that a bull-headed charge in one direction can be as limiting to our writing as a bull-headed stubbornness in the opposite direction.

Here is a partial list of items Jauss addresses:

  1. Characters should seem real to the reader, but HOW writers create that realism is not dependent on knowing every small detail of the character’s life: realism comes from picking and choosing the IMPORTANT bits and presenting THOSE to the reader. To do this, the writer can’t mistake the character for a real person, and he must understand the difference between how we perceive real people and how we, as writers, perceive and invent our characters.

  2. The main differences Jauss points to (the visible presence of the inner life, and the near exclusion of the hum-drum outer life) demonstrate just how “flat” even the most “well-rounded” fictional characters really are. To quote Jauss: “…compared to real people, literary characters are almost ludicrously simple, barely two-dimensional—far more flat than round. It may be that, as the old joke has it, deep down we’re all shallow, but even the shallowest human being is infinitely more complex than any fictional character.”

  3. The idea that we should know everything about our characters–every detail, every reaction, every habit, every failure, every triumph–before we start writing, in his words, “…causes far and away the most trouble…” Often, the opposite is true: the closer we come to knowing, and presenting, everything there is to know about a character, the further we are from a realistic expression of the character.

There are plenty of other ideas for Jauss to cover in the other thirteen pages of this essay, but hopefully this brief look at the piece will give you reason to find a copy for yourself (if you don’t already have one) and spend some time with it.

I’d love to hear any responses you have to his perspective. I know, for me, I’m letting some of these concepts sink in, still, but I find the points are resonating with my own work.

Have a great day, every one, and Happy Writing!

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