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Sunday, December 11, 2005

I've never been one much for physical descriptions of characters, except where they are story points. When I read novels, I usually blip over the block of text that novelists often put right after they introduce someone, where they say what they look like. In response, when I wrote my own novel, I made a point of mentioning each character trait three times, and on its own, so you couldn't miss it, ideally in relation to something the character was doing. If Anna's nanny was pudgy, I brought it up when she was moving, either with difficulty, or with surprising deftness for her weight.

I don't put much physical character description in scripts, either, because so much depends on casting. If a character's anorexic, and that's the story, you need to know it. But whether a character is tall or short isn't worth mentioning, especially since you may find the exact perfect actor with the exact wrong height. Or rather, you won't, because casting won't send him to you.

So I find it interesting that Neil Gaiman, in Anansi Boys, completely avoids mentioning race, in a novel in which almost all the characters are ethnic. After you realize that almost all the characters are West Indian, another character comes up with an ordinary English name, who fifty pages on turns out to be Chinese-Ethiopian. And that's not a spoiler, because race isn't the point in the novel.

Kinda neat. You can't do that in the movies.

(Of course, the revelation about the West Indies comes a lot faster when you experience the book in the brilliant audiobook version. The reader has the most amazing gift for voices. And you can download it as an mp3!)

That's the beauty of the different media. It's like the difference between meeting a girl in a pub and meeting her through Internet dating. In the latter, you don't know her voice or how she moves. But you know whether she can express herself on the page. For a writer, guess which is more crucial to future happiness. (For the record, I met the love of my life at a friend's house, when we were 16. But that's not much help to you guys, is it?)

Incidentally, while I'm on Anansi Boys, I have to say that I have never shared various writers' fascination with loser characters. I find these writers sort of hypocritical, since they, obviously, are not really losers, having made it as writers. Yet they like to write about their inner loser, rather than characters whose vision drives them. I feel that is a sort of intellectual laziness, like going to Las Vegas so you can laugh at how kitschy it is.

I wonder how successful we'll be getting rid of racism in the next 40 years?


Good old Lenny Henry, he's one of our national treasures, and a great comedian. And Mr Neil's preferred reader for this kind of book, apparently. I can't listen to audiobooks usually, I find my attention drifting, but having heard the first chapter, I'm very tempted to give this one a go.

By Blogger James Moran, at 8:39 AM  

Arthur C Clarke did the 'not revealing race until we'd already formed an opinion on the character' trick in 'A Fall of Moondust'.

Half way through the novel, he casually mentioned the fact that one of the astronauts was an Australian Aboriginal. A good technique, and one I tried to emulate in a script once by not having the character on screen at all until the reveal - but I suspect it will come across to viewers as a bit tacky.


By Blogger Mac, at 1:46 PM  

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