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.