Ethnographic Characters

Warning: well-read but entirely amateur philosophy ahead. Stay alert and proceed with caution.

I said yesterday that I feel a sense of responsibility to my characters, fictional though they may be. Let me work my way toward understanding why I think that.

1. In Z.D. Gurevitch’s discussion of discourse ethics, he claims that discourse entails three obligations: the responsibility to speak, to listen, and to respond. That’s a pretty decent description of how I write. I speak, through imagining a character and a circumstance. But then I listen. I take the character seriously enough to be attentive to how she or he engages that situation and the other people likely to be involved in it. I try to take all of those other people seriously, too, listen to what they want. And then I respond, which doesn’t mean merely speaking again but rather speaking in a way that is responsive, that is modified by what I’ve heard while listening.

Novelist and medical ethicist Alexander McCall Smith has said that he writes fiction from a place of “mild dissociation,” meaning that he has taken leave of his sense of identity; he’s no longer invested in his own thoughts. We think of dissociation as a form of mental illness, but of course, it’s also what happens when we’re fully absorbed in what’s around us, facing entirely outward. It’s a negative term for what Czikszentmihalyi more positively calls “flow,” and what Gurevitch might call dialogue: the setting aside of ego in favor of authentic engagement. We become dissociated from ourselves, attuned entirely to the other.

2. We’re all familiar with real-life conversations that don’t rise to the level of discourse. The arrogant person who lets you talk once in a while, but doesn’t actually change anything about what he was already going to say. The salesman or evangelist whose only interest in “listening” is in moving us closer to his position. The supervisor who just tells an employee how to reach a predetermined outcome, and the employee who only tells his boss what he wants to hear.

Authors can be equally closed-minded, never actually responding to what’s happening in front of them, just tracking the path they’d already determined. Zadie Smith talks about two general camps of writers. The first she describes as Macro Planners, creating the plot and the scenes long before any details arise. “I know Macro Planners who obsessively exchange possible endings for each other, who take characters out and put them back in, reverse the order of chapters, and perform frequent—for me, unthinkable—radical surgery on their novels: moving the setting of a book from London to Berlin, for example, or changing the title.” This is a deductive form of writing, starting from principles and moving to the specific case. Writing as an exercise of will.

The inductive form of writing, starting from the specific and figuring out what it all means, is the mode that Smith calls the Micro Manager. “I start at the first sentence of a novel and I finish at the last. It would never occur to me to choose between three different endings because I haven’t the slightest idea what the ending is until I get to it, a fact that will surprise no one who has read my novels.”

3. If we work in the inductive Micro Manager way, in dialogue with our characters, then we enter into what Carol Gilligan has called an ethics of care, in which our primary responsibility is not toward rules or a desired end state but to the needs of the people involved. The core ethical question is not “what is right,” but “how to respond.” It is an ethics grounded in dialogue, in mutuality. We speak. We listen. We respond.

Inasmuch as we choose to be Micro Managers—and I don’t think that I ever made that choice, it’s just how I do my work—we also adopt a particular ethic to guide our work.  Having given my allegiance to an ethnographic method of writing in which I try to understand the unspoken rules behind what I see, I’m then asked to take responsibility for everything I learn, and for those from whom I’ve learned it.

Readers, of course, always take characters as real, if the book is any good. Neal Gaiman has called the book “a little empathy machine. It puts you inside somebody else’s head. You see out at the world through somebody else’s eyes.” I think that alternative life we experience is the life of those characters, not of their author. If readers can so easily and readily welcome the reality of those we read, so can the writer.