I’m reading Windward Passage by Jim Nisbet and it’s got me thinking about character traits. In it there is a character names Quentin Asche. You get to know this character through some description but mainly action and dialog — the usual means.
You get many, many pages into the book when it is almost casually dropped that he is black. Then many more pages go by and you find out he is gay. Many more still and it turns out he is in his 70’s too.
This got me thinking about how characters are introduced to readers and the effect that the type of introduction plays in our perception of the character.
Most writers probably would have put any or all of those character traits up front, at the beginning of the book, but Nisbet chose different. If a character’s traits are given up front do the traits then dominate our perception of him/her? I think they probably do.
Let me say as a quick aside that I am not trying to reduce race, age and sexuality to traits but I think it can be an accurate word when talking about fictional characters.
By letting the traits drop as they may, after you’ve already met and are familiar with the character they cease to be a big deal — the character isn’t defined by them. And they shouldn’t be defined by them because people are ultimately more then just any one thing. Quentin isn’t the old character or the gay one or the black one.
So here’s a question. If it is a technique that creates a more fully developed character then how come it isn’t used more? It feels almost brave that the development was handled in this way but it shouldn’t.
It actually reminds me of that scene in the movie Serpico, when he tells her before the dinner party to not tell anyone he was a cop, that he would do it. Later, at the party, he danced, laughed, talked, drank and eventually told people he was a cop. They didn’t believe him because it challenged their preconceived notions of what and who a cop was and consequentially his job didn’t define him and it wasn’t a big deal.