Some Characters – Tolstoy versus Turgenev

I’be been reading a book by Richard Cohen, entitled How to Write like Tolstoy. Now, I don’t especially want to write like anybody, I want to write like me and set my own example for others to follow. But when I noticed that the book was endorsed by twice Booker Prize winner Hilary Mantel, I thought there might be something in it. If you have read Wolf Hall, you’ll get my drift.

The book follows the usual How To rules with chapters on beginnings, characters, point of view, etc.. The chapter on characters I found particularly enlightening and amusing. It seems that there was a rivalry between two masters of literature – Tolstoy and Turgenev – about the creation of characters. Turgenev allegedly didn’t speak to Tolstoy for several years because he thought Tolstoy was better than him at creating characters.

How brilliant is that? Here are these two incredible writers, creators of Anna Karenina (Tolstoy) and Fathers and Sons (Turgenev), who were so competitive and jealous that they behaved like schoolboys over who excelled in character creation. Tolstoy (allegedly) showed off and Turgenev (allegedly) couldn’t stand his contemporary’s superior ability at characterisation.

Cohen refers to a story, it may be apocryphal, about the two men playing together on a seesaw, forcing each other to soar higher and higher, until… well, he doesn’t actually finish the story. But the point is clear. How childish, how relatable, how much this story will be understood by every fiction writer. How totally human.

Fiction writing is all about character. Create an unforgettable character, you’ve cracked it. Think Madame Bovary, Humbert Humbert and Lolita, Dr Zhivago, or, departing the Russian Masters for a moment, Scarlett O’Hara, James Bond, Indiana Jones, Gollum. These are characters who will live in your imagination as strongly as members of your own family.

Have a look at How to Write Like Tolstoy: there are some little gems you might find useful in your own writing.