This article uses the cult classic Fight Club, as both a novel and a film, to dissect the complexities of modern character writing. If you have (by some bizarre chance) neither seen this film nor read the novel, you can read a synopsis here. Even without knowing the story in question, this article uses enough direct quotes to give the reader a very good feel for the subject and how it relates to writing gritty characters.
A Dissection Of One ‘Character’ Story In Both Print & Film
I felt like putting abullet between the eyes of every Panda that wouldn’t screw to save its species.I wanted to open the dump valves on oil tankers and smother all those Frenchbeaches I’d never see. I wanted to breathe smoke. I wanted to destroy somethingbeautiful. –Narrator,Fight Club
These few lines are a great example of compelling character writing. These lines say something valuable and meaningful about the narrator. More importantly, it’s said in a voice that demands attention and rings true on a level so full of human grit it’s as organic as sweat or semen. This character’s voice, in a matter of forty-eight words, resonates for the audience like pounding foot steps on pavement. The truth of a character should be like a glaring light to the readers’ eyes, something that stings the reader but is impossible to turn away from.
However, recognizing and accomplishing great character writing are two entirely different things. Let’s pull the wings off the insect and dissect it, shall we?
The first place to start when trying to establish a unique character is summarizing their most defining characteristic. A well-written character has many traits but there should be one that molds all others. Is he a cynic? Optimist? A nihilist? Pessimist? Christian? Satanist? Necrophiliac? This trait, the defining trait of the character, will shape every word the character chooses, every gesture they make, every stance they take both physically and mentally. All great characters are multi-layered and should have many pronounced attributes but there should be one that all others either stem from or work against.
Here are some observations, continuing to use Fight Club as an example.
- The narrator is nameless. This character’s world view is one of hopeless cynicism. He despises the daily grind, the plasticity all around him, the superficial quality of the world at large. He despises his own role in that world, his own preoccupation with material things. Therefore, he removes himself from it. He has no identity. Early in the story, even his posture seeks to avoid becoming enmeshed with those around him while still managing to blend in:I had it all. Even the glass dishes with tiny bubbles and imperfections, proof that they were crafted by the honest, simple, hard-working, indigenous peoples of . . . wherever.
2. The narrator uses specific language, which reflects this world view, shaping every thought he has and the way he presents it. Even a reference to his boss wearing a “cornflower blue” necktie on Mondays is an expression of his loathing; that he lives in a world where even a person’s wardrobe, down to the last shade of blue, is compartmentalized.
3. The narrator also uses specific language when referring to other characters. He consistently refers to Marla Singer as “Marla Singer,” not just “Marla.” His loathing of her is so total that using her full name is an extension of this. Complete. Whole.
4. The narrator has a psychological build as unique to him as any living, breathing person. Why does the Narrator despise Marla Singer so entirely when she does not represent, in any way, the world upon which he has turned his back? With a cigarette constantly clinging to her lips and a second-hand dress drooping from her lanky frame, she genuinely lacks the falsehood and unflinching denial that the narrator is rebelling against:Marla’s philosophy of life was that she might die at any moment. The tragedy, she said, was that she didn’t.
Isn’t she, to some degree, exactly what the narrator wishes to uphold and to realize? This is where “sub- traits” or “conflicting traits” come strongly into play. While, throughout this story, the Narrator seems to loathe everything outside of himself– he also loathes himself. Marla Singer represents something deeper to our character: she is a manifestation of his self-loathing. The two met as a result of the same sad obsession with sitting in on self-help groups for people with terminal and life-altering illnesses, both feeding off the pain of others in order to release their own pain, pretending to be truly afflicted while in reality nothing could be further from the truth. Marla is, in essence, a reflection of the narrators’ worst qualities: neediness, loneliness, misery.
5. The Narrator evolves throughout the story. He seeks an escape and he finds it, frees himself of all that he loathes. He walks away from the world at large and as he does so, his language, his posture, and his behavior reflects this: After a night in fight club, everything in the real world gets the volume turned down. Nothing can piss you off. Your word is law, and if other people break that law or question you, even that doesn’t piss you off.
He walks with his head held high and a beat to his step that mimics the beat to his words. He challenges the authorities, which once ruled his ordinary life.
6. Finally, this may be the most important aspect of it all: The narrator is not some random character living some random story. This is not some ordinary man overcoming extraordinary circumstances. This is a character whose task is to overcome himself, to choose between his most sinister desires and what he knows is “right.” The story is twisted and compelling, always, but it revolves around the character. The narrator’s personality shapes the events that unfold and he, in turn, is shaped by them. Integration is key.
This narrator creates an alter ego in order to escape what he considers to be his own flaws. He is deconstructed and resurrected all within his own psyche. He is his own nemesis: May I never be complete. May I never be content. May I never be perfect. Deliver me, Tyler, from being perfect and complete.
Your character has to live and breathe inside your imagination before he can make his way inside the reader’s mind. If you don’t know him inside and out, no one else ever will.
Fight Club’s narrator tells us:
I met God across his long walnut desk with his diplomas hanging on the wall behind him, and God asks me, ‘Why?’ Why did I cause so much pain? Didn’t I realize that each of us is a sacred, unique snowflake of special unique specialness? Can’t I see how we’re all manifestations of love? I look at God behind his desk, taking notes on a pad, but God’s got this all wrong. We are not special. We are not crap or trash, either. We just are. We just are, and what happens just happens. And God says, ‘No, that’s not right.’ Yeah. Well. Whatever. You can’t teach God anything
What would your character say if he or she were speaking with “God”?
Although many of us do not set out to write characters who are as outside the norm as the narrator in Fight Club, and we may not write absurdist, satirical or edgy pieces, we do need to make something of importance be at stake for our characters (and in nonfiction the “I” of our pieces). Answering this article’s closing question will give you a big boost for focusing your character and maintaining that focus, whether the character is in or outside the mainstream.
This article quotes from both the novel, Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk, and the screenplay adaptation written byJim Uhls. The article was previously published at Sheila Bender’s site, Writing It Real, along with an interview of N&GN founder, Harmoni McGlothlin . Sheila Bender has written many books on writing and her site, subscriber based, offers regular articles on writing as well as workshops and competitions for subscribers only.