Sunday, March 6, 2011

Tip of the Iceberg

There's a quote from Hemingway I love: I always try to write on the principle of the iceberg. There is seven-eighths of it under water for every part that shows. (source)

When reading a book, the reader only "sees" one-eighth of the iceberg of a character. But there's a whole iceberg looming underneath the surface - activities, conversations, moments that aren't seen on the page.

Today, I came across another great quote, from an unlikely source. I love the FX t.v. show, "Justified." Not for the faint of heart (due to violence), it's sort of a modern-day western with characters based on an Elmore Leonard short story (in fact, he's the exec. producer of the series).

Well, one of the actors is quoted as saying this, about characters he develops on screen: The life of a character doesn't just exist between action and cut.

I think that goes along perfectly with the Hemingway quote. The life of a character doesn't only exist with the dialogue or action that we write on the page. It's much more than that. The reader must believe that these characters eat, breathe, sleep, cry, laugh - outside those pages. And that what the reader sees on the page is only the tip of the iceberg.

Of course, in order for this to happen, in order for a reader to believe there is life outside those pages for the character, the writer must know that character well. Inside and out. We must know the character better than anyone. And once we have a grasp on that character, we'll be able to inject the tip of the iceberg with subtle hints -- hints that there's much more lurking underneath.


  1. So true. I remember hearing a prolific children's author speaking, years ago, about getting to know your characters inside and out. She said that we need to have all the information about that character handy. What would he do if...? What does he believe about....? The author needs to know their character, not necessarily to tell the reader, but to have the character act according to his beliefs and values and personality.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Jeanne - I couldn't agree more!

  3. Absolutely. Something I like to do is try to imagine my characters outside the setting of the story. I take them along to the supermarket with me, bring them to a new sushi place - this way I can see how they would react in a new environment and later make them more real when it's time to return them to their world.

  4. I love that, Samantha - what a cool idea! *totally stealing it* lol