The Writer's Writing Guide: Character

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I. What Are Characters?

Characters are the foundation of your story for two reasons. First, characters are the way readers get emotionally wrapped up in the story. We won't care about what's going to happen next if we don't care about the characters who are experiencing these things. Second, all good plot is based on a character's interaction with some force, whether external (his mother, the harsh Alaska climate, the Confederate troop over the hill, etc.) or internal (a private wrangling over Should I drink or not, the progression of insanity, the struggle to get out of bed, etc.)

Because of these two reasons — emotional connection and plot coherence — characters need to be well-defined and well-understood by you, the writer.

A brief history. Characters used to be props that moved along with the plot. They had no internal life and no internal strife because the gods directed their actions. Think of Odysseus. He knew his wife's suitors were hanging around his palace, waiting to hear of his death so they could pounce on her, and this bothered him. But whether he would get home and slay them was never in question; the gods had already determined he would. So he simply went through pre-determined motions, with no internal fuss and turmoil. This view of character lasted until the Renaissance, when the individual came to be recognized throughout society. It is said that Hamlet was the first modern character, since he goes through internal strife over the course of the play. Ever since, we expect internal life in our characters.

II. Who Are Characters?

Some writers use only real characters for their models, other writers use only made-up characters, and still other writers use a combination of real and made-up. So if there are no rules for how to come up with your characters, what are some guidelines for your ultimate goals?

1. Distinguish each character in at least one important way. Let's say you have a child run into the street to retrieve a ball. No person is a generic person — children included. So distinguish this child from other children. Give a detail — hair color, look on face, clothing, size, word spoken. Distinguish her.

2. Aspire to communicate an essence — the thing that makes that character unique. Such as — my Rachelness. What I mean by essence is the part of me which makes me me, which transcends all my externals, such as appearance and hobbies, which lasts from my birth to my death. My essence is what you feel of me when you are in my presence. It is highly subjective and not readily expressed through words. You must experience me to know me. So what you as a writer are trying to do, underneath all your technique, is communicate the experience of being with any particular character.

3. Recognize that you, the writer, will be developing different layers of knowledge about different characters. Generally, major characters require a deep layer of knowledge, minor characters less so.

4. Accept that some characters need to move through time, and others do not. Again, this generally splits into major and minor characters, but the careful writer makes all characters move through time, if they appear in more than one scene. And, if a character appears in one scene only, chances are you have missed an opportunity; try to use all characters, even minor ones, a second time, if they can possibly help make your story richer and more cohesive.

5. Accept that characters become clearer to writers over time. The more you work on a piece, revising it layer by layer, the more your characters will reveal themselves to you, if you allow them to.

6. Make sure your character changes. The changes should be based, at least in part and perhaps completely, on what s/he is at the beginning of the piece.

7. Recognize that everything you do to bring out character will accomplish two things: it will help you the writer come to know the character, and it will help your reader come to know the character. You're not working those details just for the reader. You're working them to discover the character for yourself.

8. In the traditional story, be sure that your character undergoes some change over the piece, so that s/he understands things differently at the end, and maybe even shows this by behaving differently — or, if not, by thinking things through differently, even if behaving the same.

III. Six Ways To Create Characters

There is no one right way to communicate character; there are infinite ways. Actually, there are infinite ways quadrupled, because each of the methods I describe below can be used in third person or first, subjectively or objectively.

You can also use all of these techniques through both direct and indirect exposition. (See chapter on Exposition for discussion of this.) For instance, when it comes to appearance, you can say: "I'm a stout, middle-aged woman who lives in sweat pants and Playtex gloves, a sponge always in my hand." Or you can tell us indirectly — for instance, instead of having her say "stout," you can make clear the sweat pants are all she can fit in; instead of saying "middle-aged" she can wistfully remember the days when she needed to worry about birth control.

But do keep in mind, when you are getting near your final draft, that every detail you choose to develop your characters should link into the narrative, character, and/or theme. For instance, don't make a character seven feet tall just for the hell of it. Do it because uncommon height is, maybe, linked with an ongoing theme of not fitting in, or because the narrative will require that a huge character be available to clear the roof gutters with his hand, or because the character of the giant is larger (or much smaller) than life. So your details need to bring out the character, but to do so in the context of the greater world of the story.

As far as I can see, there are a minimum of six elements you want to consider when creating a character.

1. Appearance — Everything from figure to facial structure to posture to make-up to clothing to skin conditions to hand-held objects to service animals to hair color & texture.

How do you get tuned into paying attention to appearance? Build up a mental library by opening your eyes. Maybe you should even take notes. When you are in public waiting for something — a doctor's office, a bus stop — look at a person near you and try to describe him or her. You can go through this methodically, working from head to toe.

2. Actions and Gestures — Everything from ordinary facial expressions described in a specific way to idiosyncratic tics and gestures to actions and reactions.

As for the ordinary expressions, think about it. There are many ways to smile, for instance: crescent moon smiles, closed-mouth smiles, gap-toothed smiles, smiles which show gums, smiles which come only at moments of tragedy, smiles that flash and fade, smiles with dimples, smiles that turn into sneers. Each kind of smile, and way it is described, gives us a different slant on the character.

To understand the idea of idiosyncratic tics and gestures, picture someone you know very well, since we are acutely aware of the idiosyncratic gestures with our close loved ones. These tics and gestures, though usually unconscious, deliver all kinds of information. Sometimes that information is contradictory: I have a friend who is on anti-depressants, but you'd never know because the effect they have on her is that her leg vibrates all the time, so instead of appearing depressed, she appears hyper. Sometimes the gesture is symbolic of some inner desire: I have another friend who, when she doesn't want to phone people who trouble her, makes her calls with food in her mouth, so her words come out as muffled as she wishes her emotions were. Sometimes the gesture is a misplaced attempt to fix something: My mother twirls her hair when she's tired, as if trying to corkscrew energy back into her head. Sometimes the gesture is a display of an inner conflict: My brother, who has had a life-long conflict over whether to conform or rebel, had a left-handed first grade teacher and two left-handed sisters, and to this day holds his pens from the top as though he's left-handed, though he's as right-handed as they come.

As for actions and reactions, this is one of your best tools for bringing out characters. There is no one event in this world to which all characters react the same, from earthquakes to punches in the face to a lover showing up with a diamond ring. Instead, all characters react in ways that are specific to their distinct personalities. For instance, if the recipient of the diamond ring is haughty and materialistic, she might scrutinize the diamond ring closely before begrudgingly deciding to accept it. Or if she's frugal and self-effacing, she might accept it politely, and then urge the lover to return it for a refund, telling him that he needs the money more than she needs to look fancy. Each one of these actions and reactions says a great deal about a character — in fact, every action and reaction speaks volumes about every one of us. To prove this to yourself, think about how people you know well (close friends, perhaps, or your family) behave when ordering food in a restaurant. Even if all the people are related, or have known each other for years, each individual will do something that will reveal a distinct character, from what s/he orders to the words, hesitations, laughs, facial expressions, etc. s/he uses to place the order to the way s/he treats the server to the position her/his body is in as the server approaches and leaves. No two people handle this situation exactly the same way.

One more thing about actions and gestures. They are directly affected by who the character is with at the time. So if our hero is out to dinner with his father, whom he fears, he will behave quite differently than he would were he going to a late-night diner with his best friend. This is because, if you have two characters in a scene, you really have three characters: Character One, Character Two, and the character of their relationship. And it is the character of their relationship that will have a lot to do with how they act and react to anything around them. In our diamond ring example above, for instance, the haughty woman might wish to scrutinize the ring, but perhaps will contain herself if her bond with the lover is too caring, or oppressive, to allow for any overt criticism.

How can you start becoming more aware of gestures and reactions? Make lists of all the gestures and reactions you have, and your friends. Note them on strangers, both when they're alone (good for seeing idiosyncratic gestures), and with one or more other people (good for reactions). Note also how people differ. Maybe you can even give yourself a writing exercise that looks at the restaurant-ordering behavior of people you know well.

3. Profession/Interest/Hobby — Pretty self-evident.

Use this category to imply such things as class, educational level, background, intellectual capacity. A man who spends his weekends on his yacht will probably not be someone who earns minimum wage. A woman who works as a museum curator will probably not be a high school dropout. A teenager whose playground activities consist of looking through his microscope at paramecium slides is unlikely to be the dunce of the classroom, or headed for a life as a dishwasher.

Also, use this category to show if the character is living what she feels, or is living a lie — in other words, to help define or somehow illustrate your story's tension. The prostitute who practices piano scales on her clients' backs because she wishes she were a concert pianist. The minister whose parish is stocked with books about buccaneers and whose sermons continually refer to Indiana Jones.

In addition, you can use this category to help your plot. Let's say the heroine's love interest is a man who loves anagrams, and always carries around a bunch of Scrabble tiles so he can rearrange words. It might seem to be a cute hobby which makes him seem quirky and fun when we first meet him, but it could also come in useful later on, when he realizes something he's seeing is a code, and has the Scrabble tiles handy to help him crack it. Or, with the prostitute-pianist above, the inner conflict could create the plot, or the fact that she can play piano could prove relevant for the plot at some point.

A word of warning: Don't assume that if you say he's a lawyer, we'll think shallow yuppie, or if you say mother, we'll think nurturing. If you rely on the stereotyped implications of any interest, you will force your character into being a type and prevent yourself from developing him into someone substantial.

How can you become more attuned to this? Listen when people speak to you, and ask questions. When someone tells you they play Go, or once worked on a Christmas tree farm, ask questions. Do research in libraries. Collect unusual reference material — keep books and catalogs about games, sports, carpentry, science, music, art, etc. Use material you get in direct mail, like the flyers of magazines Publishers Clearinghouse sends out. Basically, listen, ask, and think.

4. Way of speaking — Including dialect, grammatical peculiarities, word choice, length of sentences, speed of sentences, recurring phrases, frequency of emphasis.

This category can be used to convey regional background, education, attitude, and disposition (such as whether the character is rigid, gregarious, melancholy, stoic, hateful, cowering, etc.).

If this is in dialogue, you can also use such techniques as tendency to interrupt, to not respond to a question, to lie. (See chapter on Dialogue for more.)

If this is in first person, it is called voice, and it gives us the way the character thinks as well as the way he speaks. (See chapter on Voice for more.)

Use the fact that people almost never say what they mean directly. A wife who just took a call from her husband's old girlfriend might greet him when he returns from the store by picking a fight with him over the brand of tomato sauce he bought. Or a boy eager to get a kiss on his first date might find himself leading the girl onto the porch and then chattering nervously about various oral activities — brushing his teeth, putting on Chapstick.

How can you start paying attention to ways of speaking? Listen to talk radio, take notes when you are on public transportation, listen carefully to conversations at nearby tables in restaurants. Listen to the voices in your head. You'll probably find there are hundreds. Don't rely on TV, since all those speech patterns have been watered down into homogeneity.

5. Disposition — Does your character tend to be easy-going? Deceitful? Bitter? Withdrawn? Flamboyant? Sullen?

Of course we all have moods, and so might our characters, but even with moods, people, and characters, have a dispositional consistency. It is this consistency which makes us remark, when we see someone we haven't seen in years, "You haven't changed a bit!" We're rarely referring to their appearance as much as we are to their demeanor. A good-hearted person who lets troubles roll off her back generally remains that way. A callous person who resists offers of assistance generally remains that way. Indeed, it is said by many scientists — and parents — that we are born with our innate dispositions, our general tendency toward extroversion or introversion, toward optimism or pessimism, toward enthusiasm or judgmentalism, toward warmth or coldness, etc. Environment may modify the forms in which our disposition reveals itself, but mostly we are who we are.

Reveal your characters' dispositions through all the above approaches (appearance, etc.), especially focusing on their actions and reactions. These are both actions they take on their own initiative, and their reactions to others. Let's say a character gets punched in the face. A character who is self-loathing by nature might cry and feel he deserved it. A character who is quick to anger might strike back. A character who is loving and easy-going might struggle to understand his attacker, at that moment or later.

How can you start tuning into disposition? Think about people in terms of the general tendencies in their personalities. Sometimes it helps to listen to others talk about people they know, since when we describe people who are not present in the conversation, we usually begin with their general personality tendencies: He's controlling. She's bubbly. He's good-natured. She's high-strung. Then notice how these dispositions manifest themselves in terms of appearance, gestures, professions, and dialogue. This will give you a good sense of how to go about working your own characters through in a similar way.

6. Life goals — What does the character want in life, and what does the character fear?

These answers should not be explicit, but they need to be inside you, the writer. For instance, does our buccaneering minister actually want to go out on the high seas? Does he really want to be a little boy again? Does he fear adventure? Fear leaving the ministry? Knowing the answers can direct your entire story, plotwise. This is the main way you can understand how your character can move through time.

How can you get to know your characters' wants and fears? This one you can't do through research. You have to do it through writing and pondering and empathizing with your character. I often let things bubble up by breaking from my work to nap for ten minutes. A friend takes frequent baths. I take long walks every day. Basically, any meditative activity will help. The goal is to feel your character. If s/he is defined well enough, and you write hard enough, you will find you can truly feel your character.

IV. Having Created the Character, What Do You Do Now?

Allow your character to undergo experiences which lead him/her to change. This is what happens every day to everyone anyway, so it feels artificial and even overly controlling if either nothing happens, or your character doesn't change, even in a slight, internal way. Assuming you do allow things to happen in your narrative, then make sure you follow how your character, with his specific wants and fears, is changed by them. You can show this by letting us into the character's thoughts, or by revealing it through behavior. If you reveal it through behavior, you can make adjustments with the character's appearance, way of speaking, profession/hobby/interests, physical gestures, disposition, or wants and fears. You can also take the character to a crucial moment (your climax), where s/he behaves differently than s/he would have in the beginning of the story — or at least thinks the situation through differently, even if the actions remain the same.

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