The Determination of Incident or What is Character?

Michael Cunningham

Fall 2018

I teach writing. One of the great things about teaching writing is that, in the process of figuring out how to teach your students, you find you teach yourself. I’m still surprised at how much I gain by taking what I feel I simply know about writing and breaking it down into its elements in an attempt to render it cogent and comprehensible to others. As it turns out, there’s nothing like being compelled to explain what you do to help clarify your own thinking about what you do.

I want to tell you about a method I’ve developed for talking to students about how to imagine and develop characters. But first, let’s acknowledge an often-posed question: “Can writing be taught?”

It can. I wouldn’t be teaching it if I believed otherwise.

That question has a parallel question, which may be the one most people are really asking: “Can you impart a gift to students who lack a gift?”

I can’t. I never pretend otherwise.

But gifts can be encouraged among those who are gifted. And genuine gifts—trust me about this—can sometimes arise from what may seem, initially, like merely the elusive intimation of promise.

What may be more important than the question of giftedness, though, is the fact that although most of my students won’t become writers—most people don’t become writers—they are all, and will continue to be, readers, and readers who have some idea about how writing works are generally more astute, insightful readers than those who don’t.

You could say, then, that I essentially teach readers, with the occasional appearance of an actual writer. It probably goes without saying that the world needs good readers every bit as urgently as it needs good writers. And it’s meaningful for readers and writers alike to think about what makes a voice compelling on the page, how complex but coherent characters are created, how stories are structured, and so on. I hope that all my students, whatever their futures, will better appreciate the miracle of good writing when they better understand the work required to pull that miracle down from the sky, haul it up from the bottom of the ocean, or from wherever else a writer seeks it.

The commonest complaint I hear from writing students is that they have trouble with plot. To this I generally reply, “There’s really no such thing as plot. What I think you’re saying is that you have trouble creating characters. Because fully formed characters always produce a plot.”

Here’s an exercise I’ve worked up by way of illustrating the above to my students. I’m going to give you a specific example from a class I taught to twelve undergraduates last spring. All one needs for this exercise is several blackboards, a piece of chalk, and a roomful of willing students.

We begin by devising a single character, together. I prefer to keep things somewhat chaotic, in that I simply ask the students to call out their answers, as opposed to raising their hands and waiting to be called on. Introducing a little raucousness into a classroom has always struck me as a good idea. Up to a point, anyway.

We start with the most fundamental qualities. I say, “Race?”

A student answers, “Latino.” I write Latino on the board.

“Age?”

“Thirty-eight.”

Michael Cunningham is the author of seven novels, including The Hours, winner of the Pen/Faulkner Award and the Pulitzer Prize, as well as a story collection and nonfiction book. A Senior Lecturer at Yale University, he lives in New York.

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