Probing the Depths of Binky by Nicole Kimbering

nicole300As regular readers know, every other month I try to address problems I come across in various manuscripts. Many of these deal with pitfalls in characterization so dismal that I believe they constitute a form of abuse committed by authors against their poor creations. These crimes can include instances of neglect wherein an author deprives her characters of careers, interests, hobbies or intelligent thought. Other authorial actions are more subtle, such as arranging for her protagonists to become clueless plot-zombies or giving them limited reasoning ability, which renders them TSTL.

But there is another form of cruelty perpetrated by authors on their poor characters.

Observe:

Binky stood on his verandah, gazing out over the fine houses of Savannah. At the edge of the city he saw the blinking fires of the mass of General Sherman’s army. The Union general aimed to take his beautiful home town. Most likely Sherman would burn it to the ground as he’d laid waste to every other town and plantation that stood in his way.

Where did that leave Binky’s dance this evening? He’d invited Captain Brutus, but the handsome cavalryman wouldn’t be able to sneak through the picket line to attend. Damn Yankees—they ruined everything—even the social life of other damn Yankees like Brutus himself.

Binky scowled at the unfairness of it. He’d planned this Christmas cotillion specially to be able to showcase his skill at The Lancers Quadrille. Surely Brutus would have enjoyed the sight of Binky’s footwork, as he’d always excelled at dancing. Thinking on Brutus, he moved through the steps. Perhaps Brutus would come after all. Maybe they could slip away into the chill December night and he could give Brutus an early Christmas present.

Oh, Binky, no! How can you stand there with the Union Army on your doorstep and your lover in the direct line of fire and think of nothing but your Christmas party? What happened to the big picture?

And yet, I can see exactly how it all went down.

The author, infatuated by the idea of the American Civil War, decided to set a book during that time period. The costumes! The drama of brother against brother! The blue and the gray!

I know what you’re thinking—that I’m going to say Binky’s problems arise from being unjustly cast in a wallpaper historical. But that’s not so. Is it plausible that there existed in Civil War-era Savannah a gay guy as clueless as our Binky? Sure, why not? Realism isn’t the issue in this particular column. Even if every single detail of Binky’s historical foray were correct, he’d still be the victim of auctorial abuse. Why?

Because in giving Binky no thoughts or ideas that are unrelated to his own gratification, the author has unjustly created Binky shallow.

Oftentimes when people discuss this facet of writing, they talk about flat characters versus round characters. But that only addresses the issue of one-dimensional stereotypes, such as the Hardened Criminal or the Loving Mother. A character can be flat without being vapid. Because they are functionaries, rather than people, these characters just end up being predictable and therefore forgettable.

I suggest that a character can be perfectly rounded and still be shallow beyond all imagining because shallow people do exist. It’s just that nobody wants to spend hours with them on purpose because though they have emotions and an interior life, their relentless self-obsession keeps them from fully interacting with the world. It’s not that shallow characters (or shallow people) lack insight—they are very intimate with themselves—what they lack is perception.

That’s why creating shallow or vapid protagonists is a problem. Your protagonist is the lens through which every other aspect of the book is revealed. A character with no ability to perceive the feelings of others and no ability to notice larger events in his world can relate nothing to a reader beyond his own feelings. That lack of scope handicaps the author hoping to create a broad, compelling story.

So how does one give a character greater perception and therefore depth? First, you’ve got to figure out if he’s shallow in the first place. Here’s a little diagnostic exercise:

Does your character view the other players in his tale as valid individuals, or are other characters seen only as accessories or resources?

For example:

Binky gave Brutus the once-over. He had nice bones and an even nicer Jaguar key fob. In his mind’s eye, he saw himself riding in the passenger seat of that swell car driven by a handsome man.

VS

Binky gave Brutus the once-over. He had nice bones and a charming smile. Binky couldn’t help but notice that Brutus still carried his car keys, though he’d been at the barbecue for twenty minutes already. Was he trying to show off his Jaguar fob? Or was he just preparing to make a quick getaway?

Notice how in the second example we come away curious about Brutus’ character, whereas in the first we only know that Binky likes Jaguars at least as much as he likes men—possibly more.

In conclusion, I suggest that encouraging characters to expand their mental territory to include perception of others can make the author’s job a lot easier—and make the character a lot more likable.

With that in mind, let’s go back to Civil War Binky:

Binky stood on his verandah, gazing out over the fine houses of Savannah. At the edge of the city he saw the blinking fires of the mass of General Sherman’s army. The Union general aimed to take his beautiful hometown. Most likely Sherman would burn it to the ground as he’d laid waste to every other town and plantation that stood in his way.

He wondered if Captain Brutus was out there somewhere among those faint lights, wearing Union blue and riding the picket line on the other side. Much as he hated Sherman, he could feel nothing but ambivalence for the soldiers up on the ridge. When the war started, everyone had been called home. Whether those homes happened to be in New York or Georgia determined the color of a man’s coat. That was all.

Binky knew this more than anyone.

Unwanted memories welled up in Binky’s mind—visions of Binky’s medical school days. It was Boston in the wintertime when he met the young cavalry officer. Dr. Canby always hosted a fine Christmas dance that and as his student Binky was obliged to attend, though Binky had never much liked social dances. He was awkward with women and stilted with men, so he lingered near the drinks table waiting for a chance to abscond.

Captain Brutus hadn’t been a captain then, just the nephew of Canby and a student of law. He’d been easy to talk to and pleasant to drink with. Late in the night, he’d braved the bitter December cold to walk Binky back to his room near the Common. There he’d shown Binky the steps of The Lancer’s Quadrille and those of another more intimate dance.

Binky had hoped to show Brutus Savannah one day. And now it seemed that in a few days time there would be no Savannah left to show.

He closed his eyes and prayed for his city just as he prayed for Brutus and every soul caught up in this terrible war.

As we can see, Binky isn’t doing anything different. He’s standing around thinking about life, but this contemplation conveys so much more about every aspect of their story.

I urge all authors to go ahead and allow your characters to explore life outside of immediate gratification. You’ll be glad you did.

13 comments

  • I have just read a book of such irritating banality, I really wish the author had read your post and spared me.

    Thank you for such interesting and entertaining insights.

    Reply
    • Hi Raine!

      “I have just read a book of such irritating banality, I really wish the author had read your post and spared me.”

      Ha! I wish I had the power to stop banality in its tracks. I can only provide commentary, alas. 🙂

      “Thank you for such interesting and entertaining insights.”

      Thank you for continuing to read them!

      Reply
  • Well this is another article of yours I will print and put in my “how to be a better reviewer” folder. Thank you and yes characters who are incapable of self reflection are usually the characters I do not care for much. Thanks so much Nicole.

    Reply
    • Hey Sirius, always a pleasure to see you!

      “Well this is another article of yours I will print and put in my “how to be a better reviewer” folder. ”

      What an awesome compliment! I think the one thing that has hit home for me writing these articles is that disliking a protag can get in the way of thinking rationally about a story. By taking the blame away from the character (who is, after all, not real) helps in the diagnosis of what might be going wrong with a MS– or anyway, it helps me. 😀

      Reply
  • Enjoyed your article, as always. I imagine this can be a fine line sometimes. You do need some introspection to learn about the character. Every once in a while I read a book that’s all action and realize at the end I didn’t really know the MC. But yes, I’m pretty sure the MC’s I’ve come to despise are because of this.

    I would also think context matters. In your first example, it wasn’t just that Binky was all, me, me, me, but also that the me’s came right after a fairly dramatic description of war. It was a harsh transition.

    Reply
    • Greetings, Issa!

      ” Every once in a while I read a book that’s all action and realize at the end I didn’t really know the MC.”

      Yes, I’ve had this experience too. It’s weird to get to the end of 300 pages and realize you don’t have any strong feeling about the MC–that he’s kinda blank, in a way.

      “I would also think context matters. In your first example, it wasn’t just that Binky was all, me, me, me, but also that the me’s came right after a fairly dramatic description of war. It was a harsh transition.”

      Excellent observation. In that example I was going for “utterly clueless Binky” rather than “self-absorbed Binky.”

      Reply
  • Hi Nicole!
    I really enjoyed the article.
    In particular I was fascinated to see how much difference you made in characterization between the two Binkys at the Barbeque.

    Where the first seemed like a completely self-obsessed ditz whom I’d probably avoid, the second Binky struck me as not only observant but funny. #2 is the Binky I–and I think Brutus– would like to spend the duration of a book with!
    And you managed that with just a few tweaks to a couple sentence!

    Reply
    • Hi Ginn, welcome!

      I hope Brutus would choose Binky Mark II. He’s be a lot happier in his incipient long term relationship. 🙂

      Reply
  • This is an interesting conversation, thanks for starting it. I’m not an expert, I’m learning this craft and trying to write better every day, but it’s not easy. Please allow to share a few things I learned. Characterization is more effective if we show a character in motion, even if he is recalling the past. Having a character making things happen rather than having thing happening to him, makes a huge difference in characterization. At least, makes it easier for us as writers.
    You know, regardless of how shallow a character might be, what matters is what he does rather than what he thinks, even in deep POV. This is when we enter the famous showing versus telling. In a story like the one in the example, set against the backdrop of the American Civil war, and in a scene like the one Binky is, the issue is that he should be doing something to survive the night. By the time Atlanta burns, there are no supplies to waste in social gatherings, and nobody in their right mind could be planning such a thing.
    One can have a shallow character doing significant actions and all of the sudden, he’s not shallow anymore. Basically, don’t tell me how or what he thinks of himself, show me what he does according to the circumstances.
    The next thing that always saves the day is the tried and tested formula of goal, motivation and conflict. If one applies this technique to a character, the flaws come into light and we can’t help but fix them. The goals and motivation will change as the circumstances do, the external conflict too. The internal conflict is the one which probably will survive the whole story line. But it’s also the most difficult to pin point, however, the most useful tool for a writer to justify a plot line. In romance is what keep the couple apart in spite of their mutual attraction. I constantly asked, what and why? Because the answers are the strong hints behind a character’s true motivation.
    And finally, the ‘Unwanted memories welled up in Binky’s mind…’ if he is in the middle of a civil war that destroyed life as he knew it, wouldn’t those memories be precious rather than unwanted?

    Reply
    • Hi Naaju thank you so much for dropping by.

      I agree that having a character be active an involved and constantly moving though the story is much, much more entertaining than a character who is just hanging around thinking. But at some point the characters and the readers need a little bit of a break in the forward motion.

      That’s where the “pause for reflection” comes in–where a character kind of summarizes his interior state. This is particularly important to do a few times in a story because otherwise it’s very difficult to show that a character has made any substantial change by the end.

      The “pause for reflection” scene, like the “dark night of the soul” scene, communicates to the reader who the character is when he’s all alone inside his head. I’m not saying that that character can’t be shallow–I’m just saying he’ll be more popular and relatable to readers if he shows come genuine care for at least one fellow human being. 🙂

      “And finally, the ‘Unwanted memories welled up in Binky’s mind…’ if he is in the middle of a civil war that destroyed life as he knew it, wouldn’t those memories be precious rather than unwanted?”

      Well, I guess I was thinking that Dr. Binky is the kind of person who does not want to think about happier times while he’s still in the middle of a war because it would be too painful to return from his memories to his present situation. (Like Frodo in LOTR film.)

      But sure, the character could easily be the kind of guy who hangs on to happy memories as a motivation to stay strong. (Like Samwise Gamgee in LOTR film)

      Those are different kinds of characters, but both are really appealing.

      Reply
      • In a film, there are images to complement the narrative, but when we’re writing we only have words to aid in our storytelling. I guess it’s a matter of styles and voices, but even in the middle of a “pause for reflection” what took place needs to be explained.
        Why does Binky long for this man? What do they experience together that he can’t forget? Saying that he deeply cares it isn’t enough to convey a passion that engages the reader to also care for their fates.
        Without destroying the beautiful prose, some ‘action’ can be thread within the reflection. An example of what I meant would be this (I’m using the part where they go back to Binky’s room).

        As soon as they had closed the door, Binky raised both hands matching Brutus’ face to his own, eager welcoming his tongue inside his mouth. And later, he allowed Brutus to kiss and touch every inch of flesh in his sensitive body until they were both exhausted but sated.

        That’s only a quick example of what I tried to say before. Anyway, I said it wasn’t easy, because it is not. It takes years to master, and even more time to accept the need of showing the reader rather than telling what, or why a character feels. Well, these are my two cents, I’m back to my own writing now, which it is in need of so much polishing.

        Reply
        • “As soon as they had closed the door, Binky raised both hands matching Brutus’ face to his own, eager welcoming his tongue inside his mouth. And later, he allowed Brutus to kiss and touch every inch of flesh in his sensitive body until they were both exhausted but sated.”

          Nice! Very beautiful. I think you’ll do well in this genre. Keep up the good work. 🙂

          Reply

Please comment! We'd love to hear from you.

%d bloggers like this: