EM Forster On Character: Novels Are For Telling

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Aspects of the Novel

E.M. Forster, 1927

E.M. Forster, author of A Passage to India, A Room with a View, and Howards End, wrote a book about novels. It isn’t a how-to book, but you could use it as one. This isn’t for the beginning writer; it tackles questions such as “What is the purpose of the novel?” and “What is the relationship between character and plot?” Forster attacked these questions using his skills as a novelist, illustrating abstract ideas with concrete metaphors and poetic language. I haven’t finished it, but I can already tell it’s going to go on my short list of “books writers should read”. There’s a neat summary of chapters 2-5 here, and I’d guess the rest is summarized somewhere nearby in web-space. Forster’s writing is so good that it’s a shame to read just an outline, though.

He has two chapters on characters. The first of them presents a theory about characters that amounts to a theory about the purpose of the novel. Forster doesn’t see the novel and the play as alternative ways of telling a story. The distinctive thing about the novel, he says, is that the author can tell us what characters think and why they do things, and so we understand them better than we understand people, even ourselves, in real life. The purpose of the novel is to show (or pretend) that people make sense:

They are people whose secret lives are visible or might be visible: we are people whose secret lives are invisible.  And that is why novels, even when they are about wicked people, can solace us; they suggest a more comprehensible and thus more manageable human race, they give us the illusion of perspicacity and of power.

He contrasts this with plays and movies, which he finds comparatively vulgar spectacles of incompletely-realized characters who are pushed around by a story-line that does not aspire to the level of a plot, but is merely a chronologically-ordered spectacle pulling the viewer along with “What next?” He argues in other chapters that most people want only an endless string of events that pique and then satisfy their curiosity, while a novel requires memory and thought, and so appeals to only a few:

A plot cannot be told to a gaping audience of cave-men or to a tyrannical sultan [a reference to 1001 Nights] or to their modern descendant the movie-public. They can only be kept awake by “and then—and then—” They can only supply curiosity. But a plot demands intelligence and memory also.

Curiosity is one of the lowest of the human faculties…. The man who begins by asking you how many brothers and sisters you have is never a sympathetic character, and if you meet him in a year’s time he will probably ask you how many brothers and sisters you have, his mouth again sagging open, his eyes still bulging from his head.

Aristotle said that all emotion in a drama must be expressed through action. This brings us back to our old chestnut, “Show, Don’t Tell,” which also comes from Aristotle. We’ve had arguments over “show, don’t tell.” The greatest counterexample in drama is Shakespeare, who expresses most emotion in his dramas through dialogue, or even monologue. You could find many other counter-examples, like Death of a Salesman; you could point impishly to Waiting for Godot, in which emotion is expressed through inaction. Yesterday I saw A Raisin in the Sun, which is a good play but given to Shakespearian-length monologues, and so seems fake to ears more used to Tarantino.

But Forster ignores all this and cedes the point: “Show, Don’t Tell,” and the rest of Aristotle, is good for plays but bad for the novel. (He would perhaps say the telling plays listed above should have been novels. A literary realist certainly finds a stink of unreality about them, but on the other hand, the demand for realism in our artificial spectacles is a modern dogma.) Forster believes some stories should be plays or movies, and some should be novels, but none should be both:

The plot, instead of finding human beings more or less cut to its requirements, as they are in the drama, finds them enormous, shadowy and intractable, and three-quarters hidden like an iceberg. In vain it points out to these unwieldy creatures the advantages of the triple process of complication, crisis, and solution so persuasively expounded by Aristotle. A few of them rise and comply, and a novel which ought to have been a play is the result.

This leads to a surprising conclusion: Novels must tell, and not merely show. Showing is fine, but doesn’t enable an author to describe a character hyper-realistically, in more detail than is possible in life, and so a story that can be only shown, should be, as a play or a movie.

I don’t agree entirely. I think, first, that most things can be shown, given enough length. The novel doesn’t give us a qualitatively new way of looking at people so much as it makes it possible to condense a character, through telling, so that more can be said in fewer words. Today’s movie-makers have tricks Forster never saw in 1927 that let them convey a surprising depth of character visually. Forster’s contrast of drama with novels is so stark that it would make it impossible to make a movie from a novel, or a novel from a movie, since he says a novel requires a completely different kind of plot. When he wrote, there were no good movies made from books as far as I know, but today he’d have to say that Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Apocalypse Now, and all the critically-praised movies made from his own books, were bad.

The movies are different from the books. Apocalypse Now takes the themes of Heart of Darkness and expresses them in spectacle (surfing under artillery fire, choppers with loudspeakers blasting “Flight of the Valkyrie”). The sequence of events is entirely different, yet the plot is the same. A movie has to take a different route, but might end up at the same place.

Second, even when you’re showing, not telling, words can focus more precisely and nimbly than a camera. You might have a story that has to be completely shown, not told, yet it would have been difficult in a movie. A movie could show a sunrise photo-realistically, but couldn’t as easily romanticize it, and couldn’t direct the viewer’s attitude through word choice. Did Mirkwood and Moria seem more threatening in the book, or in the movie?

Later, Forster argues that the requirement to bring things to a conclusion might possibly also not be needed in a novel, and ruins most novels because the characters are too much alive for the writer to rein them in at the conclusion. He didn’t know how to do without it. He described a recent French novel which had different subplots that resolved independently, in a very self-conscious, meta-fiction way that he didn’t say was a general solution, but at least showed the thing could be done. This foreshadows the contemporary literary short story, which is not allowed to have a conclusion, but comes to a kind of resting place instead.

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