W. Todd Kaneko’s Craft Talk: “The Things You Do–Character Codes of Conduct in Fiction”

The Things You Do–Character Codes of Conduct in Fiction”
by W. Todd Kaneko

An audience needs to be able to understand and sympathize with the characters they meet in stories. As such, characters often adhere to a code of conduct so readers can better understand who they are supposed to root for and why. Consider those medieval knights and the code of chivalry that separates a man of honor from any other scoundrel who dons a suit of armor to make a buck with his sword. Or consider the “code of the west” that separates gunslingers from outlaws in all those old cowboy movies. It’s these codes that fuel the conflicts that propel those old stories forward.

For much of modern America, our lives are defined by our professions, each of which comes with its own set of codes. Restaurant servers might insist they will not steal tips off another server’s tables. A factory worker might try to work at a particular pace so that the rest of the crew doesn’t become upset with him for making the rest of them look bad. But what if that other server has been stealing from you for weeks and uses that money to buy
drugs that she sells to the kitchen manager? What if a new guy shows up at the factory and proceeds to work twice as fast as everyone else and receives a bonus in his paycheck for his increased output? Studs Terkel’s book Working offers a series of real world job monologues. Johnny Bosworth reveals a not-so-subtle racism when talking about how he sells cars to different kinds of people. Dr. Stephen Bartlett admits to being a dirty old man but says that “you don’t eat and play where you work,” insisting that he doesn’t sleep with patients or any of his co-workers where he has his dentistry practice. Our jobs don’t create our characters—but our codes of conduct help define the actions we can and cannot conceive of ourselves performing wherever the world tests how true we are to the people we believe ourselves to be.

Codes of conduct fuel the characters we might know from popular narratives on television. For example, Rick and Shane in AMC’s The Walking Dead are former policemen who try to create rules and order for their group in a world where all the old laws have become obsolete. The main character in Showtime’s Dexter balances his code as a serial killer (his night job) with his code as a blood spatter analyst (his day job) for the Miami-Metro Police department. House, CSI and Mad Men—so much of the narratives around us repeatedly demonstrate how character is created in the pattern provided by a professional code of conduct, and it is defined by how the character enacts or breaks that code where it seeps into other areas of his life.

In this sense, a character’s profession does more than provide a story with verisimilitude. In Writing Fiction, Janet Burroway tells us “Conflict is at the core of character as it is of plot. If plot begins with trouble, then character begins with a person in trouble”. Writers can learn a great deal about how character drives plot by exploring and examining codes of conduct to determine how the character is wired and discover the stories that might be sparked. This way, character is created through a concrete element of the character’s life rather than a more abstract set of moral beliefs. As the plot pressures characters to act abnormally, they cling to their code of conduct because it’s intrinsic to how they see their place in the world. Whether the character breaks code or not can redefine how the reader sees her, or how that character sees herself.

In the short story “The Monkey Look” by F.X. Toole, the narrator begins with a monologue about his profession. “I stop blood,” he says, and then talks about the logistics of his job as a cut man in a boxer’s corner. He explains that his job is to protect his fighter, both in terms of a championship and his body. He gives us gory details about how to stop a fighter’s blood flow and keep the fighter in the game, but importantly, he slips in details about his code—his faithfulness to his fighters and his eye for safety and hygiene. “I’d give AIDS to myself before I’d give it to one of my boys,” he says, and through the code of conduct, the canvas for the entire story is set. When Hoolie Garza rips the narrator off by not paying him for a fight, our hero lets it go. When Garza comes back to him promising to make up for his past transgressions, the narrator finds himself about to get ripped off a second time for a championship bout. He can operate according to his code, or he can violate his code and let Garza bleed faster and lose the fight.

Similarly, Mona Simpson’s narrator in “Lawns” begins with “I steal” and then explains her system, her code of conduct, for stealing from the mailroom where she works. There are many narrative layers to the story, but at the base of it all is the narrator’s need for more than she has—she satisfies that need by stealing. We learn about her relationship with her roommate, about her romantic interest in Glenn, and about the sexual abuse that she has kept  secret all her life. The first code of stealing is an extension of the second code of secrecy, and by the time the story ends the codes have been broken, perhaps as a demonstration of change in the character for the better.

Here’s an exercise. Give a character an occupation, and then begin a monologue with this simple construction: “I (insert verb here).” Add a direct object to the sentence if you want, but strive to allow the character to talk about the who, what, where, why, and how of the job. “I destroy.” “I paint.” “I pinch pennies.” Whatever you want that describes what the character does for a living. Jump on the web and research details about the job if you don’t already know them. Avoid the temptation to start in on a plot—through exposition, try to establish character details, agenda and personal code of conduct. These details will help create the world as the character knows it, and when that world comes into conflict with code of conduct, a plot can be sparked into being.

W. Todd Kaneko is not cool enough to be a rock star, not tall enough to be a professional wrestler, and not virtuous enough to be a super-hero. His stories and poems can be seen in Southeast Review, NANO Fiction, Bellingham Review, Los Angeles Review, The Collagist, Blackbird and elsewhere. He is an associate editor for Hayden’s Ferry Review and has received fellowships from the Kenyon Review Writer’s Workshop and Kundiman. He lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan where he teaches at Grand Valley State University and lives with the writer Caitlin Horrocks. Visit him online at http://www.toddkaneko.com.