Narrative Themes & Character Development

Narrative Themes & Character Development

September 10th, 2014 // 11:36 am @

I have been rereading Tama Janowitz’s 1980s collection of short stories, Slaves of New York recently. And what a brilliant book it is. If you haven’t read it then I thoroughly recommend it. Although the novel is explicitly set in the 1980s the writing is so vivid, and funny, that it continues to sound relevant and modern.

While I was reading I kept my eye on what it is that keeps Janowitz’s prose so alive and I realise that, as well as hilarious story lines, she keeps coming back to some recurring themes, like food and beasts and the gore of anatomy. The main narrator, Eleanor, cooks elaborate meals for her lover in the hopes that this might cement their awful relationship. There are women with animalistic features…one has nocturnal eyes like a Loris, while another is ‘blonde with bright eyes, like a llama’ (this really made me laugh). In one story the river – possibly the Hudson –  in the character’s shambolic mind, is full of primeval thrashing creatures, which neatly reflects his mental state. The meat-packing district in New York where another character lives comes in useful for a place where she can collect little tiny bones and skulls from the street to make her jewellery. In another, a feral cat occupies a bathroom. Animals, food, blood and guts are referenced everywhere.

It doesn’t have to be quite so gory though. Themes can be quieter but no less funny or endearing. In Kingsley Amis’ Girl, 20 the main narrator’s girlfriend has bad dress sense which is referred to during the novel. The clever thing about this is that it not only fills out both the character of the narrator and his girlfriend, but it also makes the reader smile because he feels in on the joke.

In Zadie Smith’s 2005 tragi-comic novel On Beauty we are kept in tune and in sympathy with the main female character, the maternal middle-aged Kiki, through her constant battle with her weight. Her weight is even mentioned during a sex scene, and the way in which she has to dress to accommodate her body and her bosoms again makes us feel like we know her, that we are intimate with her.

Recurring themes like the ones mentioned above can really colour a character and/or your prose. And they can help you write better too because they can help shape your character. So if you are stuck with character development one way of getting through it is thinking about what strange style or hobby could apply to your character that both you and your character weren’t expecting.

I have noticed when watching Mad Men re-runs recently that the creator and director Matthew Weiner quite often gives his characters something incongruous to do. For example we are used to Joanie being a va-va-voom babe in the bedroom, and (for the most part) a bit of a bitch with the girls at work. So it comes as a surprise when we see Joanie, at the tail end of hosting a party with her weak first husband in their flat, suddenly playing the accordion beautifully. We would never have expected her to play the accordion, and yet this little scene, where she plays with such accomplishment, suggests a whole side to Joanie that we didn’t know about. Characteristically Weiner gives no clue as where Joanie’s musical talent comes from but, for example, she could have learnt to play to please her parents; or to make a French boyfriend laugh; or because she was genuinely fascinated with the sound it made; or because she had a Romanian grandmother.

If you are stuck with your character throw a theme or hobby at them, and see where it leads you both.

Good luck!


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