In tonight’s class, we will discuss one my favorite aspects of fiction (and nonfiction and poetry) writing–CHARACTER. Here is the worksheet if you’d like to print it yourself.
In episode 383 of my favorite radio program, This American Life, they profile 1960’s ad man Julian Koenig who claims (among memorable achievements in the advertising world) to have popularized using the term “a character” to describe an interesting person.
Whether or not he can lay claim, who knows, but I think we’ve all heard the term used to describe eccentric or outgoing people.
“Oh, that lady who always carries her cat in her purse is such a character!”
“My Uncle is such a character; he thinks pink hair is formal wear.”
While I tend not to think of the label as pejorative (probably because I come from a whole family of characters) it does carry a tone of fiction to it. The word implies that such person’s aura or personality has a touch of the unreal (or unrealistic) to it, a tinge of hyperbole or exaggeration and that we typically experience only in the pages of a novel, or on a stage, on in a movie.
I think of stage actors who, in order to reach the audience members in all corners of the theater, must wear thicker make-up, speak loudly, and gesture with large movements, all of which, from the perspective of the watcher, seem to make perfect sense. However, seeing this close up (if you were to sit on the stage while the actor performs) seems a little ridiculous.
Those who we deem characters in our real lives are those people who seem a little larger than life and, therefore, a little ridiculous.
When thinking about crafting characters for a novel, I tend to think of movie or television actors, who still must be a little larger than life, but upon whom the camera is close up. No need for exaggerated movements and bright make-up, yet movie actors must still move their audience and appear to be a little more than just a person that you’d seen on the street—the something exactly between the soprano at the opera and the guy in the elevator next to you.
Novel characters are viewed close up, and the more interesting characters in our literary canon are little larger than life—Cervantes’s Quixote, Dickens’s Pip, and Austen’s Emma. They are mostly believable and relatable, yet they attempt situations most of us don’t. On the page, as on the screen, their subtleties compel us.
There are many methods of crafting unique and believable characters. Some writers give their characters ticks, quirks, or habits. Some endow them with a particular way of speaking. Some writers use stock characters or character types to send a specific message. Some write (or imagine as they write) elaborate histories to explain why a character does what he does.
Whatever method you choose, be consistent, but have fun. Characters drive the plot more than any other aspect of a story, so give you characters room to play. You will be surprised at how interesting they get.
See this definition from Bedford/St. Martin’s online glossary (aka GOLDMINE of lit terms):
Character, characterization A character is a person presented in a dramatic or narrative work, and characterization is the process by which a writer makes that character seem real to the reader. A hero or heroine, often called the protagonist, is the central character who engages the reader’s interest and empathy. The antagonist is the character, force, or collection of forces that stands directly opposed to the protagonist and gives rise to the conflict of the story. A static character does not change throughout the work, and the reader’s knowledge of that character does not grow, whereas a dynamic character undergoes some kind of change because of the action in the plot. A flat character embodies one or two qualities, ideas, or traits that can be readily described in a brief summary. They are not psychologically complex characters and therefore are readily accessible to readers. Some flat characters are recognized as stock characters; they embody stereotypes such as the “dumb blonde” or the “mean stepfather.” They become types rather than individuals. Round characters are more complex than flat or stock characters, and often display the inconsistencies and internal conflicts found in most real people. They are more fully developed, and therefore are harder to summarize. Authors have two major methods of presenting characters: showing and telling. Showing allows the author to present a character talking and acting, and lets the reader infer what kind of person the character is. In telling, the author intervenes to describe and sometimes evaluate the character for the reader. Characters can be convincing whether they are presented by showing or by telling, as long as their actions are motivated. Motivated action by the characters occurs when the reader or audience is offered reasons for how the characters behave, what they say, and the decisions they make. Plausible action is action by a character in a story that seems reasonable, given the motivations presented. See also plot.
“Screenwriter” By Charles D’Ambrosio.
After reading, consider the following question about the characters? (Adapted from Norton Anthology of Short Fiction.)
1) Who are the central characters? How does the writer demonstrate their qualities—dialogue? Voice? Description? Is this character static (unchanging) or dynamic?
2) How are the primary characters defined by their contrast with the other characters?
3) Are the characters types or individuals? How can you tell?
4) Are the characters active or passive about their surroundings/situations/settings/etc.? Do they show growth or learning?
5) How much of the conflict in the story rises from a conflict between central characters and the setting?
6) Is conflict inherent in the personality of the character? How so or how not?
7) How does the writer involve the reader’s sympathy for certain characters?
8) How much are the characters conditioned by time and place?
Write a character sketch (maybe for a character you want to use in your novel.) You can base your character off someone you know, or may have seen on the bus once? Base it off your self, or off the self you wish you were. Consider how the character dresses, eats, reacts to spiders, feels about calling his mom, etc.
Write a scene in which your character has to do something ordinary—like commute to work or school or order lunch at a restaurant. What actions would your character take? How would they handle stress? What do they eat? What rituals does he/she have? Think about SHOWING the characters actions instead of describing the character. Use either first or third person point of view.
If you’d like, see the following list from Kathy Page posted on the blog Writers’ Trust of Canada for ideas on how to shape character.
- Name and age?
- Nickname? Who gave it?
- What is most noticeable about your character’s appearance/physical presence? How does he or she feel about it?
- Describe his or her voice, verbal ticks, pet phrases etc.
- Describe a gesture your character makes.
- Where does he or she now live? Describe the city, town or village, the house itself. Be very specific. It doesn’t have to be in Canada. Any feelings about this place.
- Has s/he lived elsewhere? What does s/he remember of these places?
- What part of her home is her favorite? Least favorite? Why. Describe, using specific details.
- What does your character’s bedroom/sleeping place look like? (lots of detail please)
- What does he or she wear to sleep in?
- What does your character dream of at night?
- Who are/were her parents? Rest of family? What does she feel for them?
- Class, ethnic group, religious background?
- Who does s/he love, or has s/he loved? Or what. Detail.
- Who loves him or her?
- Married/ in relationship/single? Give names and specifics.
- How does your character feel about sex/intimacy? What sexual relationship(s) is he or she involved in?
- Exactly what does your character do to make a living (or in the case of a child, what do his/ her parents do; or in the case of independent wealth, how does he or she pass the time?)? How much does s/he earn? Feelings about work? What is the best part of the job, the worst?
- Who or what does/he fear?
- What about his or her life would he or she change if s/he could?
- Does the character have a hobby? Secret passion? (Can be something ordinary like soccer playing or yoga classes or mountain biking or sewing or fixing up old trucks – or an unusual interest like some Greek poet from the third century, or collecting spiders, or walking the tightrope…
- What would be his or her favorite smell ( why)?
- What kind of shoes does he or she wear, (e.g. furry slippers or gumboot or trainers… new or old, style, what colour, fitting properly or too tight or too loose, nice and clean or old and smelly)? Describe exactly.
- Favourite meal? Attitude to food?
- Favourite clothes?
- What is the worst thing that could happen to him or her right now?
- What vehicles does your character use/own? (for example: bike, skateboard, truck, yacht, stroller, canoe, spaceship, battered pickup, etc.. please be as exact as possible).
- What are his/her feelings towards it/them. What kind of journeys does he or she make?
- What is his or her most treasured possession?
- What illnesses has he or she suffered, if any?
- What’s his/her philosophy of life? For example’ You’ve got to look after Number 1’ ‘Never say die’ or ‘Don’t ask for reasons.” What are his or her most strongly held beliefs?
- What does he or she feel guilty about?
- Biggest mistake ever made?
- Best thing he/she ever did?
- What, right now, does your character want most of all? His or her deepest desire – a glass of water, to get out of her marriage, a new pair of shoes, peace and quiet…