By Aaron Hamburger
When I was in high school, I had a deep, all-consuming crush on a young man we’ll call Austin. Bear in mind, this was high school. In suburban Detroit. In the late 1980′s. I had no hope of his returning—let alone recognizing—my affection.
So I learned to satisfy (and perhaps stoke) my longings by studying him from afar. I became especially knowledgeable about Austin’s scuffed shoes and socks, the hairs on the back of his neck, the door of his locker after he’d closed it and walked away… basically, anything I could learn about the guy without his noticing.
I savored each new tiny detail about his life that I believed or maybe hoped might illuminate larger truths about his existence, like the fact that he commuted to our school from Detroit’s “East Side,” or that he liked Smarties candies, or that he wished that instead of AP World History, we could just watch Mel Brooks’s History of the World Part I.
Little did I know that through my Austin-worship, I was building skills that would serve me well, later on, as a fiction writer. Novel readers encountering characters for the first time go through much the same process as a lovestruck teenager gazing from a distance at his love object. As we read, we’re constantly picking up on the tiniest of details about each character we meet, whether consciously or unconsciously. The difference is that while Austin never noticed or cared that I was studying him, readers are under the delusion that the author has chosen to sprinkle the narrative with purposefully chosen details as clues to suggest some larger and more significant patterns of personality.
Why do writers and readers go to all this elaborate bother?