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Kingsley Amis On Character Development and Language

This question The Paris Review asked Kingsley Amis reminds me of a discussion we had about Tolkien’s writing style back when I read The Lord of the Rings.


Waugh was quoted in The Paris Review as saying that writing for him was an exercise in the use of language rather than an attempt to explore character. How do you react to this?


I’ve come to see it in that way more and more. I certainly feel that this is what I’m trying to do. But I think this is connected—and trying not to sound too somber here—with growing older. Because the world that seemed so various and new, well, it does contract. One’s burning desire to investigate human behavior, and to make, or imply, statements about it, does fall off. And so one does find that early works are full of energy and also full of vulgarity, crudity, and incompetence, and later works are more carefully finished, and in that sense better literary products. But . . . there’s often a freshness that is missing in later works—for every gain there’s a loss. I think it evens out in that way.

It’s an age-old question that we’ve talked about a lot on this blog—character development versus plot versus writing and language usage.

I’ve always appreciated plot a little more than character development. But a writer’s style, the types of words and phrases he uses, can turn me off quicker than anything else.

I believe that’s why I hated Mrs. Dalloway so much. Virginia Woolf, at least in that novel, falls in love with her language and writing. Many people appreciate that, but I couldn’t. Call me simple, but that’s just the truth.

Amis’s point of view is interesting. It’s almost as if old age makes you appreciate language more, while your lack of new experiences causes you to focus less on character and plot.

How do you interpret Amis’s comments? What do you think?

(Image: Wikimedia Commons)

11 Comments Post a comment
  1. Sooo Cool


    November 13, 2014
  2. he is


    November 13, 2014
  3. I think that “horses for courses” applies well. Now, I just turned 50 and my appreciation of authors who place brilliant linguistic construction over telling a story has not greatly changed over time. (Though my parents bought me a little sign to hang up which reads “If you haven’t grown up by 50 you don’t have to,” so maybe it’s not exactly about age.)

    Anyway, some people find “literary fiction” a thing of wonder, and some people read Jackie Collins and Twilight. Some writers wish to craft that most wonderful thing they can, and some like to tell people stories. I like to tell people stories, even if I like the telling of the story to be grammatically correct (for which I have a Kate). I write character-driven fiction and I’ve found that books (and films, and TV series) which concentrate on form rather than content have dissatisfied me more over the years rather than less.

    (So Amis isn’t wrong, but he appears to be generalising. Never a good thing. If he was using “one” to just means how he feels then I’d tend to suggest that he’s right all the way through, but it doesn’t apply to everyone.)

    Liked by 1 person

    November 13, 2014
  4. I think the older you get as a writer the more discriminating you become about the choice of words. Also, you are more driven to explore character. When I was a young journalist, story was everything. Now, as a novelist, it’s trying to get into heads. A bit of self-promotion: Publishers Weekly’s BookLife yesterday put my “The Great Liars” on its Best Books of 2015 list. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist that).

    Liked by 1 person

    November 13, 2014
  5. 1banjo #

    Make that 2014. I’m getting ahead of myself.

    Liked by 1 person

    November 13, 2014
  6. I have a preference for character. I can’t really start writing until I have a character. Out of that character flows a plot. But I am beginning to think they are all intertwined for me. The character so often is reflected by the language I use. For instance, a story about a truck driver is going to have a different kind of language than one about a wall street trader. A story about relationships is going to have a language different than one about a military operation.


    November 13, 2014
    • You should write a story about a wall street trader who moonlights as a truck driver. I’d read it. 🙂


      November 13, 2014
  7. I prefer a character driven story, since I write children’s and YA; but the plot is usually built into that. Like Don, I agree that the character is reflected by the language. What I have found myself doing lately is writing my books and then, after a span, I read through it and find if there are alternate words I could use to define the character and plot.

    I like to incorporate higher level vocabulary for the younger set. They don’t hear it spoken often and I hate for them to miss out on the beauty of the English language.

    It has been argued that most readers don’t want to take the time to look up unfamiliar words; but if written correctly, the reader can conclude the definition from how it is used in the sentence. Well, that was how I learned it when I was a kid.

    @Robert, Truckin’ and Tradin’…what a combo!


    November 13, 2014

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