I’ve just finished reading Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West: A Novel. It’s an excellent text book on novel writing. Allow me to demonstrative (hopefully) with just one sentence, written as three of the characters cope with the death of another:
“Saeed’s father encountered each day objects that had belonged to his wife and so would sweep his consciousness out of the current others referred to as the present, a photograph or an earring or a particular shawl worn on a particular occasion, and Nadia encountered each day objects that took her into Saeed’s past, a book or a music collection or a sticker on the inside of a drawer, and evoked emotions from her own childhood, and jagged musings on the fate of her parents and her sister, and Saeed, for his part, was inhabiting a chamber that had been his only briefly, years ago, when relatives from afar or abroad used to come to visit, and being billeted here again conjured up for him echoes of a better era, and so in these several ways these three people sharing this one apartment splashed and intersected with each other across varied and multiple streams of time.”
First this sentence is a reminder of one of Donald Barthelme’s exercises, called, I think, “Assignment: Write a sentence with some attention to the notes below.” To summarize, Barthelme asks what should readers demand from sentences in fiction? He mentions four things: sentences should surprise, be true, be beautiful, and turn “the mind toward original questions, first principles, the deepest sort of search for meaning.” Barthelme’s exercise encourages those performing it to consider possible examples in the light of each of these criteria. As high as these expectations are, Hamid’s sentence meets them.
His sentence also illustrates two other principles. The first is that setting reveals the characters. Readers come to know and understand these characters because they are seen in this particular place. The objects that they have chosen to surround themselves with helps identify the characters. Saeed’s father, having kept objects that belonged to his wife, is jolted from the present as he encounters them. Nadia, encountering objects from Saeed’s past, is reminded of her own. Saeed experiences nostalgia as he rediscovers a childhood room. In all of these cases, characterization and setting blur.
Secondarily and similarly, characterization and plot blur. The characters in this sentence are all responding differently to the death of Saeed’s mother. Their responses involve tiny changes in how they see and are in the world. What has happened to these characters has changed their way of being in the world. Their encounters with the objects and the place around them, the sentence clearly suggests, is different than it had been. Saeed’s father’s consciousness is swept from its current moment, Nadia finds connections between her past and Saeed’s, and the setting conjures up memories of a better era for Saeed. Characters acting or being acted upon, even in these subtle ways, are forms of plot.
And it would be easy to go on by considering how characters can mesh in thematically significant ways like they do here, or how the sentence is organized, or this sentence and Charles Baxter’s counterpointed characterization from his book Burning Down the House.
If you want to do any of these things, Hamid provides a model.