The Hollow Men – Negative Space and Characterisation in Existentialist Fiction

There are times when our critical vocabulary is all too shallow.  There are times when our critical vocabulary becomes so deep as to be impenetrable.  There are also times when our critical vocabulary is reduced to the status of the mantra; sentences and judgments, once meaningful, loose their potency through endless repetition.  First they move from insight to cliché and then they move from cliché to mantra.  Endlessly repeated.  Endlessly meaningless.

One such mantra is the assessment that a writer is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ at characterisation.  These sorts of evaluations pop up in all forms of criticism and yet they are seldom unpacked.  What makes a good character?  What makes a bad character?  When does a writer cross from one category to another?  What takes place when a writer fails to engage in ‘good’ characterisation?  Literary theory is frustratingly evasive on this question, all too often ‘good characterisation’ is defined in terms that offer little penetration and little insight beyond the obvious synonyms.  Consider, for example, the famous distinction drawn by E. M. Forster in his collection of lectures Aspects of the Novel (1927) :

The test of a round character is whether it is capable of surprising in a convincing way. If it never surprises, it is flat. If it does not convince, it is a flat pretending to be round. It has the incalculability of life about it—life within the pages of a book.

So a ‘round’ character is convincing while a ‘flat’ character is not.  This advances us precious little.  What makes some characters more convincing than others?  Which techniques reliably produce rounded characters?

One place to find inspiration is the visual arts.  One of the most important concepts to the analysis of visual composition is the idea of negative space.  Negative space can be described as the space that exists around the foregrounded object, but it can also be quite a bit more.  Indeed, when an untrained photographer takes a picture of something, they tend to see everything that is not a part of that something as mere background.  However, by focussing solely on the object itself, unskilled artists will frequently produce a picture that seems somehow wrong.  Aesthetically imbalanced.  Strangely ugly.  Frequently, this is because of a lack of attention to the space surrounding the foregrounded object.  Indeed, in order to force their students to take negative space into account, composition teachers will frequently ask them to draw not the object itself but the space surrounding that object.  It is only by balancing the use of positive space with the use of negative space that elegant composition can be achieved.

This principle also applies to characterisation.


Characters are defined in both negative and positive terms.  They are defined in positive terms by the active foregrounding of their characteristics.  Maybe they describe themselves.  Maybe they define themselves by their actions.  Maybe they are summed up by an angry lover who has reached the end of their tether and so is lashing out with a perfectly aimed and powerfully delivered assessment of their personal failings.  A positively defined character is picked out from the background.  But good characterisation is not limited to the active description of a character.  Indeed, characters can also acquire shape by virtue of the social and psychological spaces that they do not inhabit.  The great American film critic Manny Farber attempted to articulate this principle in the introduction to a collection of his reviews and profiles entitled (oddly enough) Negative Space – Manny Farber on the Movies (1971) :

Negative space, the command of an experience which an artist can set resonating within a film, is a sense of terrain created partly by the audience’s imagination and partly by camera-actors-director: in Alexander Nevsky: the feeling of endless, glacial, landscape formed by glimpses of frozen flatness expanded by the emotional interplay of huge-seeming people.  Negative space assumes the director testing himself as an intelligence against what appears on screen, so that there is a murmur of poetic action enlarging the terrain of the film, giving the scene an extra-objective breadth.  It has to do with flux, movement, and air; always the sense of an artist knowing where he’s at: a movie filled with negative space is always a textural work throbbing with acuity. — pp. 9-10

A practical example of what Farber is getting at can be found in the idea of Lead Room.  Lead room is a principle of photographic composition that uses negative space in front of moving objects in order to create an impression of movement.


Leaping into negative space


Moving into negative space

When we look at the picture of the snowboarder, the photo’s lack of symmetry creates a subtle sense of tension.  We want the picture to be symmetrical and so our brain creates an impression of movement to fill the void.  Without ever really moving, the runner and the snowboarder are forever entering the negative space in front of them.  This is what Farber is talking about when he mentions the way in which negative space involves a back-and-forth between the director’s vision and the imagination of the audience: When presented with negative space, the audience will intuitively seek to expand the positive object into it.  Good characterisation is therefore not only about the positive description of a character but also about using the audience’s imagination to create an impression of emotional depth and psychological movement by making the most of what is not said about the character.

Jean-Patrick Manchette is a master of negative space when it comes to characterisation.  His novel The Prone Gunman (1981) (a.k.a. La Position Du Tireur Couché) depicts a character whose astonishing emptiness elevates a mere crime thriller to the level of existential literature.


Book Cover

Much like Jean-Claude Izzo’s Total Kheops (1995) — another hard-boiled crime novel operating in the existential spectrum — The Prone Gunman begins with a blurred identity.  Martin Terrier has been hired to carry out a hit.  The hit takes place in Worcester suggesting that Terrier might well be a British name but as the story unfolds we discover that not only is Terrier French but he is also known as Christian.

Christian, it transpires, is the name Terrier goes by when working as a professional assassin for a shadowy organisation with links to the government.  Which government this may be is not immediately clear as, much like Terrier, the employees of the organisation all have strangely international names.  Much like the protagonists of George Armitage’s Grosse Pointe Blank (1997) and Luc Besson’s Nikita (1990), Terrier wants to leave the organisation,  he wants to leave the organisation because his ten years are up and he promised that after ten years he would return and marry his childhood sweetheart.  Needless to say, the old genre staples ring true and the organisation proves reticent to let Terrier go.  However, while Terrier’s attempts to escape, outwit and brutally dismember the organisation are never anything short of brilliantly written and effortlessly exciting, the novel’s real intellectual power lies in its handling of Terrier’s motivations.

“I will return, I will kill them, I will drag them through the shit, I will make them eat shit,” said Martin Terrier to Dede at dawn after he had kissed Anne and she had sworn to wait ten years. — pp. 39

The son of two fathers, the young Martin is enraged by the ugliness of his local town.  His real father — an alcoholic martinet with little affection for the boy — is seen as a figure of fun by the local students who ply him with drink in the hope that the old boy will do something erratic and amusing.  These same students also express scepticism at Martin’s capacity to woo Anne, the glamorous daughter of a local industrialist — who also has little affection for the boy.  Having spent ten years as a paratrooper and a mercenary, Terrier returns home to find… well… not very much.  Anne is not only married but a pathetic alcoholic with little interest in his return while his desire to exact a bloody vengeance upon the locals has long since dissipated.  There is nothing waiting for Terrier in his home town so why is he there?  This question seems to vex Anne’s husband who reveals the hollowness of Martin’s existence by quizzing him on certain fashionable issues of the day in the hope of humiliating him :

“Have you seen the latest Altman?”
“What?” said Terrier.
“He’s a film director,” Anne explained.  She was looking up now; the sky was turning darker than the sea; it was twilight.
“What do you think of Regis Debray’s position on the media and intellectuals?” asked Felix giving Terrier a mean look.  “What do you think of the new french crime novel?  And do you think that jazz can still progress? [“…]
“I don’t know,” said Terrier — pp. 60

Terrier has opinions and tastes but they seem almost accidental.  Expressions of habit rather than preference, personality or aesthetic sensibility.  Manchette establishes this sense of psychological hollowness through a series of contrasts and comparisons.  For example, during the book’s opening assassination, he depicts the violence with the same blood red cartoonish hyper-realism as the one adopted by David Cronenberg in A History of Violence (2005) :

Terrier also turned, and they found themselves face to face just as Dubofsky’s head, which was split open, full of holes, and shattered like the shell of a hard-boiled egg, hit the sidewalk with a squishy sound.  Terrier took two steps forward, extended his arm, put the silencer against the girl’s heart, and pressed the trigger once.  the girl flew back, her intestines emptying noisily, and fell dead on her back. — pp. 5

As in Use of Violence, the gruesome detailing in the violence clashes wildly with the mundane domesticity of Terrier’s actions immediately after he kills two people in cold blood :

He opened a bottle of Wattney’s “strong ale” and sipped it as he reclined on the bed, his upper body erect, and smoked two or three cigarettes.  He was almost motionless and did not seem sleepy.  Then he got back up, dismantled the weapon, cleaned it meticulously, and put it away in a cardboard box.  He smoked another cigarette, then put on his pajamas, got into bed, and turned out the light. — pp. 6

Note the sentence construction; whether Terrier is killing or winding down after the kill, his actions come one after another separated not by introspection but by a simply comma.  One thing, then the other, then the next.  There is no room for interiority.  Everything functions as though on the level of muscle memory.

He had a plate of cold cuts and German beer sent up, which he consumed as he listened to the radio.  for a while he stopped chewing while, between a bit of jazz and a ditty, the set played a song by Purcell for countertenor, as Terrier knew, “O Lead Me to Some Peaceful Gloom.”  However, with an impatient gesture, as if he were angry at losing his concentration, he began chewing again well before the end of the song.  — pp. 80

For Terrier, contemplating the melancholy beauty of a piece by Purcell exists on the same level as chewing cold cuts.  He is no more moved by one than by the other.

Manchette defines the negative space around Terrier by confronting him with the sorts of things that should make him react emotionally and then refusing to give us any insight into what those emotional reactions might be.  We never see the chair, all we see are the spaces that are not filled by chair.  We see negative space but no positive space.  No interiority.  No personality.  No soul.  At one point, Terrier returns to his hotel room to discover that some terrorists have drowned and disembowelled his pet cat.  They disembowelled his pet cat after murdering his ex-girlfriend.  Terrier does not react to either.

Inside the package was a sealed aquarium, full of water.  In the aquarium floated the tocat Sudan, gutted, his eyes ripped out and his intestines undulating slowly in water dark with blood.  Terrier remained motionless for an instant, then he went and got the HK4’s box from the suitcase — pp. 47-48

This conspicuous lack of emotion also characterises Terrier’s failure to save his only friend from being blown up by a mine.

One of the key scenes in the book comes when Terrier and Anne have finally been captured by the organisation and Terrier has been pressed into doing one last high-risk job.  The pair are sent to an old chateau where they are watched over by a pair of goons.  Preparing himself for the job ahead, Terrier refuses to have sex with the increasingly drunk and belligerent Anne who responds to Terrier’s withdrawal by deciding to have sex with one of the guards.  This is not just a key moment in the book but a key moment in Terrier’s life: As a teenager, he turned his back on his family, his home and his future and went off to join the army in order to make himself worthy of Anne’s love.  Having sold out his conscience and a good deal of his humanity for the bulging pay packets of the professional assassin, Terrier returns to find Anne — his raison d’etre — not only uninterested but also utterly disloyal.  Terrier traded away his humanity and then all security in order to be with Anne and she callously hops into bed with one of the goons who had been trying to kill them.  Terrier’s reaction, when it comes, is breath-taking.  He does not shout.  He does not lash out.  He simply loses the power to speak:

“Stop playing the fool.  Seriously, what’s going on?  Are you mute?” Terrier nodded.  “You really can’t talk?”  He nodded again.  She seemed about to burst out laughing or else get very angry.  “Because of me?” she asked.  “Ha!  That’s a good one — that takes the cake!” She shook her head.  “But you must be kidding.  It can’t be true.”  Terrier nodded once again.  He picked up the notebook and wrote: “I’m not kidding.  I’m fucked up.  I’m sure it will go away.  Right now, I have important things to tell you.  you must obey me to the letter.” — pp. 101

Terrier’s reaction is superb not only because it shows him gliding from earth-shattering surprise and disappointment to full-on action hero mode in the space of a few seconds, it also further decreases our access to the inner workings of the character’s mind.  If Terrier’s actions display a lack of interiority, his freshly acquired inability to speak makes him a completely blank slate.  As readers, we are completely locked out of the character’s mind but because nature abhors even an intellectual vacuum, we are sucked into it.  We are forced to project and to sympathise with this man who is nothing but a skill-set and a potentiality for hideous violence.

Of course, there is nothing new about an under-written action hero.  The use of negative space as a tool of characterisation and a reader’s ensuing desire to fill the intellectual vacuum is used by many thriller writers as a way of tricking their audience into forging an emotional bond with their characters.  A bit of peril, a bit of humanity and voila… your cavernous narrative foil is now a heroic protagonist.

What distinguishes Manchette from most hack thriller writers is a willingness to embrace the emptiness of his characters.  Indeed, once The Prone Gunman reaches its bloody climax, the aftermath of the novel’s main narrative is characterised by Terrier’s attempts to find a new meaning in his life.  He carefully negotiates a deal whereby he will testify against his old superiors and his new superiors enable this by writing an entirely fictitious past for Terrier.  One he has to learn by heart.  Predictably, the court case never comes to fruition and Terrier is cut adrift in the world for a third time.  Directionless.  Pointless.

Every now and then, these days, Terrier still blabbers in his sleep.  Otherwise, as a waiter in a brasserie, he is normal.  He performs his duties properly, even if he is sometimes physically clumsy.  It has recently been noted that his clumsiness increases when he drinks.  Late at night, young people occasionally have fun buying him drinks until he behaves in an eccentric manner.  He has even climbed on a table and bleated like a sheep, interspersing this with grand operatic arias. — pp. 154

The passing reference to Terrier’s father — a waiter who was frequently plied with drink until he started acting erratically — is a nice touch of pathos but what is most striking about Terrier as a character is his absolute hollowness and the futility of his attempts to fill that hollowness by giving his life meaning, first as a romantic mercenary, then as a heroic lover and then as a political whistle-blower.  Terrier tries and tries and tries to give his life meaning and yet still he winds up like his miserable father.

From the beginning of The Prone Gunman to the end, Martin Terrier remains a hollow presence on a page, but despite this hollowness he comes across as a memorable and profound character.

Aside from its technical effectiveness, Manchette’s use of negative space as a means of composing his characters connects him to a much larger and more literary intellectual tradition.  Indeed, Terrier’s lack of interiority and inability to raise his consciousness above the level of mere muscle memory is hugely reminiscent of the character of Meursault in Albert Camus’s The Outsider (1942).


Book cover

The book begins with Meursault learning that his mother has died :

Mother died today.  Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know. — pp. 9

Displaying neither grief nor even shock, Meursault travels on a bus to his mother’s nursing home where he is curiously unmoved by both the sympathy expressed for him by others and the grief pouring from his mother’s friends.

We sat like this for quite some time.  The woman began to sigh and sob less often.  She sniffed for a while.  Then at last she stopped.  I didn’t feel sleepy any more, but I was tired and my back was aching. — pp. 16

Like Manchette, Camus takes two radically different cognitive states and runs them together thereby reducing one to the status of the other.  Through a series of short sentences and full stops, Camus makes it clear that, as far as Meursault is concerned, feelings of intense grief are no different to back pains.  They are both simple physiological reactions to the world.  As with Terrier, the impression left by this exquisite conflation is that Meursault lacks emotional interiority.  We see the world around Meursault but we do not see him react to it on an emotional and human level.  Like Terrier, Meursault is a character defined not in positive terms but by the negative emotional space around him.

Meursault’s extreme passivity and lack of reaction to the world tumbles out of him as Camus marches him through a series of personal relationships.  He stumbles into a friendship with the hideous pimp Raymond who lives next-door to him and he stumbles into a relationship with the lovely Marie despite not being overly bothered by whether or not they wind up together:

That evening, Marie came round for me and asked me if I wanted to marry her.  I said I didn’t mind and we could do if she wanted to.  She then wanted to know if I loved her.  I replied as I had done once already, that it didn’t mean anything but that I probably didn’t.  ‘Why marry me then?’ she said.  I explained to her that it really didn’t matter and that if she wanted to, we could get married.  Anyway, she was the one who was asking me and I was simply saying yes.  She then remarked that marriage was a serious matter.  I said, ‘No.’  She didn’t say anything for a moment and looked at me in silence. — pp. 45

The negative space around Meursault’s personality grows and grows until the moment when he shoots an arab on a beach.  This brutal and unprovoked crime is reminiscent of Rodio Romanovich Raskolnikov’s murder of the old pawn-broker in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1866) and it serves a similar thematic purpose :

The trigger gave, I felt the underside of the polished butt and it was there, in that sharp but deafening noise, that it all started.  I shook off the sweat and the sun.  I realized that I had destroyed the balance of the day and the perfect silence of this beach where I’d been happy.  And I fired four more times at a lifeless body and the bullets sank in without leaving a mark.  And it was like giving four sharp knocks at the door of unhappiness.  — pp. 60

Crime and Punishment is often described as a crime novel because its plot revolves around a single crime.  However, unlike most crime novels, Crime and Punishment is not concerned with either who committed the crime or what their motivations were but rather what the crime says about Raskolnikov as a person.  How it defines him.  Raskolnikov, though asmuch a quintessentially existentialist character as Meursault, is defined not so much by negative space as by ridiculous amounts of positive space.  As the book presses onwards, Raskolnikov cycles through a seemingly endless procession of motivations and identities.  Like the characters in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (1880), Raskolnikov throws himself into the parts of killer, madman and saint in a desperate and at times hysterical quest for identity.  Any identity.  Raskolnikov’s eventual surrender to the definitional powers of a local magistrate is adroitly parodied by Camus when Meursault’s hollowness shocks and horrifies first his lawyer, then the prosecuting magistrate and finally the jury at his trial for murder.

Then he spoke very quickly and passionately, telling me that he believed in God, that he was convinced that no man was so guilty that God wouldn’t pardon him, but that he must first repent and so become a child whose soul is empty and ready to embrace everything.  He was leaning right across the table, waving his crucifix almost directly over me.  To tell the truth, I hadn’t followed his argument at all well, firstly because I was hot and his office was full of huge flies which kept landing on my face. — pp. 68

This scene serves as a brilliant parody of Dostoevsky as it not only manages not only to pick up upon Dostoevsky’s fondness for grand guignol hysteria but also to invert his approach to characterisation.  Raskolnikov is like Shroedinger’s Cat, he carries so many potential identities that he needs someone to open the box and collapse the existential wave function for him.  However, Meursault is more of a quantum vacuum.  Lacking interiority he is largely indifferent to his interrogator’s attempts to define him and he is entirely passive when his trial sees the prosecution exploit Meursault’s lack of interiority by presenting the facts of his life and inferring that he is some sort of psychopath.

The prosecuting lawyer describes how Meursault did not cry at his mother’s funeral, how he went to see a comedy with his girlfriend the day after she was buried and how he turned up at the beach and coolly shot someone dead for no apparent reason.

The Public Prosecutor asked him whether at least he’d noticed me cry.  Perez answered no.  This time it was the prosecutor’s turn to say, ‘The gentlemen of the jury will take note.’ But my lawyer lost his temper.  He asked Perez in what seemed to me like an exaggerated tone of voice whether he’d noticed me ‘not crying’.  Perez said, ‘No’.  The public laughed.  And my lawyer rolled back one of his sleeves and announced peremptorily, ‘Here we have the epitome of this trial.  Everything is true and yet nothing is true!’ — pp. 88

With no real interiority, the lawyers are forced to behave like readers: they sketch out the negative space around Meursault, they lay down the facts and then they speculate as to the positive characteristics of Meursault’s character.  Is he a psychopath or was he in shock?  To drive the point home, Camus even has the defence lawyer deliver a speech in the first person as though he were Meursault.  In the end, Meursault is sentenced to death simply because he did not cry at his mother’s funeral, by speculating about Meursault’s motivations and mindset, the lawyers, the jury, the magistrate, the judge and the audience are providing Meursault with a self.  They are seeking to define him.  They are seeking to fill out the positive space of his character and balance out the composition.  The mind abhors a vacuum as much as nature.

What distinguishes Meursault from both Raskolnikov and Terrier is also what makes him — and French existentialism as a whole — such a romantic figure.  Whereas other existential protagonists struggle through life without meaning before eventually giving up, Meursault rejects all attempt to fill in the gaps where his interiority and basic humanity should be.  After an angry confrontation with the prison chaplain he comes to realise that his fundamental emptiness reflects that of the universe.  There is no secret hidden nature to the universe just as there is no hidden secret nature to Meursault… there are just facts.  Back pains.  Milky coffee.  Purcell songs.  Chewing.  Dead cats.  Dead mothers.  The sun.

As if this great outburst of anger had purged all my ills, killed all my hopes, I looked up at the mass of signs and stars in the night sky and laid myself open for the first time to the benign indifference of the world.  And finding it so much like myself, in fact so fraternal, I realized that I’d been happy, and that I still was happy. — pp. 116

Authors who know how to use negative space in the construction of their characters create a vacuum of meaning and nature that the mind of the reader impresses to fill.  By inviting us to fill in the gaps inside their characters they create an impression of great depth.  An impression of well-roundedness.  An impression of realism.  Existentialist writers such as Camus and Manchette use negative space to force us to dwell on the emptiness of their characters, but rather than allowing us the room in which to project our own hopes and dreams they shut the door by positively proclaiming the emptiness of their creations.  For Meursault and Terrier alike, there is only negative space.  Only absence.  Only the void.  Existentialism is the belief that an absence of positive characteristics is in and of itself a positive characteristic.  Existentialist characters are not merely empty vessels, they are filled to the brim with nothingness.  They are positively overflowing with it.


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