On the Necessity of Turning Oneself into a Character

December 20, 2010 § 5 Comments

From the master of the essay form, Philip Lopate:

In personal essays, nothing is more commonly met than the letter I. I think it a perfectly good word, one no writer should be ashamed to use. Especially is first person legitimate for this form, so drawn to the particulars of character and voice. The problem with “I” is not that it is in bad taste, but that fledgling personal essayists may think they’ve said or conveyed more than they actually have with that one syllable. In their minds, that “I” is swarming with background and a lush, sticky past, and an almost too fatal specificity, whereas the reader, encountering it for the first time in a new piece, sees only a slender telephone pole standing in the sentence, trying to catch a few signals to send on. In truth, even the barest “I” holds a whisper of promised engagement, and can suggest a caress in the midst of more stolid language. What it doesn’t do, however, is give us a clear picture of who is speaking.

To do that, the writer needs to build herself into a character. And I use the word character much the same way the fiction writer does. E.M. Forster, in Aspects of the Novel, drew a famous distinction between “flat” and “round” characters — between those fictional personages seen from the outside who acted with the predictable consistency of caricatures, and those whose complexities or teeming inner lives we came to know. But whether the writer chooses to present characters as flat or round, or a combination, the people on the page — it scarcely matters whether they appear in fiction or nonfiction — will need to become knowable enough in their broad outlines to behave “believably,” at the same time as free willed enough to intrigue us with surprises. The art of characterization comes down to establishing a pattern of habits and actions for the person you are writing about and introducing variations into the system. In this respect, building a character is a pedagogic model, because you are teaching the reader what to expect.


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§ 5 Responses to On the Necessity of Turning Oneself into a Character

  • erica42285 says:

    This was one of my favorite things to teach my students when I was a graduate student at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. It’s a difficult thing to grasp, but certainly makes for much more meaningful essays. Cheers to you.

  • And so why don’t we? Are we afraid to appear arrogant? Egotistical? Self-absorbed? Well as John Barrymore would say, “This is a real problem, and there are real solutions!”

    Writing in the first person is a brave act for an ordinarly person, but a simple and honest strategy for a writer who writes well.

  • […] recent post on the website Brevity quotes the grandmaster essayist Philip Lopate on the creation of character […]

  • Leslie says:

    I use this essay in my composition and creative writing classes. The “slender telephone pole standing in the sentence” resonates with students. Bringing that “lush, sticky” past to the page is an accessible concept and a rewarding exercise.

    Thanks for posting!

  • […] and when you seem pushy, mousy or ridiculous,” says essayist Phillip Lopate in his craft essay, “On the Necessity of Turning Oneself into a Character.” Lopate believes it essential to “maximize that pitiful set of quirks, those small differences […]

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