Thursday, February 03, 2005
Creating Multi-dimensional Fictional Characters
Finding Characters in Your World and in Yourself
by Milton Trachtenburg
How many times have you heard the cliche: "Characters make the story?" As long as stories are being written, characters will be the center of a story and will remain the most important element of a well-crafted piece of fiction. Many new writers have difficulty when it comes to creating memorable and interesting characters and putting them at center stage. While the plot of the story may be wonderful and have the potential to be of great interest to the reader, you can help the reader distinguish among the characters by providing more than surface differences such as eye color, hair length or height. Your reader will forget these details almost before she has completed the paragraph.
Stories have three focuses: people, places and events. A story begins with a person conducting the business of her life in a place at a given time. The juxtaposition of person, place, time and action creates the energy that moves the story. Each element has an effect upon the others, creating tension, direction and finally, a conclusion. Writing a story is like composing a symphony. The elements of the composition that will be featured and those that will be subordinate or omitted will be determined by the way each one is used. We know much more about our characters than we write. But some of what we know about the character is communicated to the reader through how she reacts.
We need to ask ourselves: Is the story about how John overcomes his fear of meeting people? If so, the focus will be John. You will need to give him more depth than you would if the focus were not on one person. You will need to give more attention to his backstory so that the reader will be able to understand John's motivations, fears, drives, ambitions, as well as his past accomplishments and failures. Personal stories often focus upon the inner conflicts of the characters as well as the problems they must solve in their world.
On the other hand, if it is a story about how an exotic locale affects people who wander into it, you might write less about each individual and focus upon how the characters interact with each other and the setting. You might choose to provide some background information on each major character, but you would need to focus on the action, relationships and problems encountered by them.
Yet a third variation is a story about the effects of a catastrophe upon one or more participants The character is the key element in each story. The strength of the story is determined by the way in which you get the reader to identify with the character as she affects and is affected by the events of the story.
If we are looking at story writing as an artist looks at the act of painting, we will start with a blank canvas. There is no place, nothing is happening, and the characters are still and naked. All we know is that there is a tension within us. We need to write. Of course, this is an oversimplified description. Stories can have many characters, locales and subplots, but in looking at the craft of writing, it is better to begin with the simplest combination of a person, a place and an event.
Some writers are lucky. Their minds overflow with stories about gypsies and elves, windswept plains and teeming cities, love and war, deceit or duplicity and acts of extreme courage and sacrifice. Unfortunately, I am not one of the lucky writers in this respect. My stories come to me only through intensive and extensive interrogation of the many and varied characters stored in my brain. Though I don’t have a variety of plots stored in my mind, perhaps I am the lucky one. Truly good characters are difficult to find. Often, my characters come to me through my daytime job as a practicing psychotherapist. When I write fiction, I sometimes compare myself to a talent agent with thousands of listings. I am able to draw from their personas and create stories that use amalgams of characteristics from many people. I never use a real person as a character, however. I can borrow traits, speech patterns or body language, but the character is always a combination of several people. There are probably many more good stories than there are interesting characters who can stand on their own.
Many writers create their characters based upon the requirements of the story. Often the result of giving plot a more important role than characters, will result in two-dimensional characters who are easily forgotten. How many stories have you read in which characters stand out in such bold relief that you remember them long after you have forgotten the book? Think about it.
I believe I could list all the story characters that made an impression on me and not fill a single page. Two unique characters come to mind -- characters that often served as touchstones in my teens. Neither of them came from plots that were particularly special or for that matter, even original. But the characters shall remain with me forever. The first character is Holden Caulfield, from J.D. Salinger's "A Catcher in the Rye," whose dreams and frustrations gave definition to my own, and those of many others in my generation. Salinger captured the meaning of angst, insecurities, love, and the confusion in trying to deal with all the feelings and still find some meaning in our lives that we were unable to express. The nonexistent Holden Caulfield became a spokesperson for us. His life helped provide understanding of our own existence.
Another special character for me was the servant, Antonia, in Willa Cather's "My Antonia” who taught the young protagonist about love. She became my idealized female at an age and stage of life (13 and entering high school) when I was just learning the differences between males and females. For many a young man, Antonia became their unattainable love.
What made Holden Caulfield and Antonia different from the hundreds of thousands of other characters encountered on my early journeys through literature? To me, they weren't cardboard cutouts. They were drawn as full human beings whose personalities, like diamonds, had multiple facets, and with whom we could easily relate. I could not tell you what either looked like. Perhaps the writers gave descriptions. I remember only the important aspects of both characters, but if you had given me a physical description, it would not have changed their meaning in my as yet unformed world. I know what ‘my’ Antonia looks like and it doesn’t matter if yours would appear far different. Each is valid and serves a purpose to the readers.
Special characters have one common element; they seem to spring full blown from the pen of their creators. There is no need to give them exhaustive physical characteristics, or provide specific details about their emotions. For the brief course of their existence, the characters become the author and the author becomes the characters. They appear on the scene cut from whole cloth, and begin reacting to and acting upon the circumstances in which they find themselves. Through the nuances of their speech and the reactions of others to them, you can create their appearance, emotional states and intellect in the mind of the reader. A character
who is already three-dimensional does not have to be described by eye color or height. You may have a laundry list of external characteristics, but they may do more to interfere with a good read than to contribute to the flow of the story. Yes, you do have to describe some facets of a character, but you do not need to list every color or measurement to describe him or her to the reader. Here’s an example that tells the reader something about physical description, but also tells the reader about the personality of a character. “Arnie Grizwalt chose to go for his daily stroll late on sunny afternoons. He always walked west, so he could cast a long shadow.” We can assume that Arnie has feelings about his lack of height, or at least we have a foreshadowing that something drives him and it will keep us reading to find out. Creating puzzles for the reader keep the pages turning more effectively than giving her flat characters who live to serve the needs of the plot.
In my short story, "Journey to Hand Out City," I described the heroine, ". . . as lean and as tough as rawhide, yet as delicate and ephemeral as a cactus flower." Certainly, with that description, your imagination can tell you better than I what she looks like. Your version may not be identical to mine, but she is now your creation and if you come to like the way she experiences her brief moment in the world, she will be all the more memorable to you. The description I used also tells you of her probable origins without wasting a paragraph in talking about her birthplace.
Many stories need a memorable character to maintain reader interest. As a writer, you need to ask yourself: What am I trying to convey to the reader? Only then can you decide what characters will bring the story to life. Some stories center on the action or the setting. Characters make the events more memorable even when the events described are exciting. The Bible demonstrates the value of strong characters. Would the story of the flood have been as interesting if it hadn't been told through the eyes of Noah? When you think of the Battle of Jericho, you always think of the hero of the battle, Joshua. Events alone are like a tree falling in the forest with no one there to hear the sound. Characters humanize the story. They react to circumstances and cry out, "It isn't fair," when circumstances conspire to defeat them.
Often, in attempting to create a character needed to move a story, a writer is trapped in a mode of describing rippling muscles and heaving bosoms--a familiar ploy some readers will accept. There must be far more substance to the characters than how many muscles he can ripple and how often her bosom will heave, or they will take on a Ken and Barbie quality. Their words and actions will have no more content than their ripples and heaves. Instead, why not take a memorable character and place her in the situation you develop and see what happens when she starts moving?
How do you create a character that is more than the sum of her parts? You don't. Your characters already exist in your imagination or experiences. You need to allow a character to emerge, as it would in a dream. Allow the character to speak, first to you, and later, for you, as a rapport develops between you and the character. Use qualities of people you have seen or known. In the example I described above, the heroine was created, in part, from my impressions of a check-out person at a local grocery store. There was something about her, a je-ne-sais-quoi quality that both charmed and intrigued me. I never spoke to her, other than to say "Hi," and, "Have a good day." However, I left the market with more than groceries. I left with impressions of her that were based on her tone of voice, her facial expressions, the way she tossed her head back when she laughed, the way she hummed a melody only she could hear. Many of the qualities subsequently given to the character were of my own invention but the young woman at the checkout counter was able to trip the creative mechanism that I cannot define but that begins the story writing process for me.
Become a camera. Capture details from what you see, hear, smell, taste, touch and experience. In my contact with the cashier, I absorbed some of what I experienced in that brief, impersonal encounter. I own the experience even though I may never see the woman again. I made a mental photograph of the way she glanced around her, the way she used her hands, the movements of her face while she scanned my groceries, her voice, her huge, sad eyes, her freckles, which I chose to exaggerate in the story. When I was using my impressions, I was not writing the story of the woman in the store. In creating the character, I borrowed characteristics from the woman in the store, then combined them with other images and qualities that already existed in my memory. We don't need to remember all the details of every person we use to help us build characters; we need only to use the characteristics that, in the mind of the reader, change our character from a shell to a three-dimensional "person."
In forming my character, I attempt to combine personal experiences and knowledge of human personality and history of fears and beliefs into a new character who will have a unique view of the world that will not be my own. After a first encounter with a character in my imagination, I spend the next several days talking to my creation. In the particular short story mentioned, the character grew into a warm soul who had been hurt from growing up in a bed of poverty, abandonment and neglect. Her hope was a blend of her inborn optimism and the difficult circumstances in which she found herself. I saw clues in her dress, attitudes and posture that led me to believe she was a story waiting to happen. Is this creation the checkout clerk? Definitely not. I captured her traits and gestures, and the character I created became special, and as I wrote the story, I added qualities from my imagination. She lived and died in places in which I have never been. As a young girl, she had a relationship with a boy who possessed some of my own qualities and experiences, but was not me. Her strength led to an uplifting conclusion in which their child was able to overcome the problems created by her parents. The child of the protagonist, whose existence began late in my planned plot, was gifted with the special strengths of her parents that emerged as the story progressed.
To write about special characters, begin by studying people. Begin with yourself. External descriptions can contribute to the forward progress of a story if you use them in a way that changes the manner in which the world will relate to them. A character is composed of appearance as well as actions and beliefs. Characters take on a life of their own and interact with other characters as well as with the environment. External characteristics affect the way the character perceives herself and how others perceive her, but they can be introduced in context. For example, instead of telling the reader that the hero has penetrating, blue eyes, show the reader how the opponent is affected by the hero's penetrating, blue eyes. See the difference? The eyes are introduced only when they are having an effect upon the story.
Using description of characteristics in the context of the action can make a major difference in the effect upon the reader. You need to look at a story as an interactive experience. There is interaction between characters, between characters and the environment and between the characters and the reader. If you can enhance your self-awareness so that you know what motivates you to act, think and feel, as well as what prevents you from moving in a given situation, you will be able to invest the same qualities in your characters.
Life isn't random. Every action, every nuance of behavior, every tonal change in speech affects everything that will follow.
Look at a fictional character as you would a biography of a real person except you are developing the biography of someone who might have existed, or might someday exist. The best biographies capture the essence of the subject as well as her unique words and deeds. So, too, must fiction create and capture those same qualities that make a biography riveting.
When you meet a new character, sit down with her. Listen to the way she speaks and watch how she moves. What flatters her? Does she have idiosyncrasies that make her more real? What happened in her life that affects her views of the world? How old is she compared to her chronological age? Has her life experience affected the way she aged? Like trees, that gain rings annually, and whose rings can tell you what kind of a year they enjoyed or endured, people and characters acquire their rings from their experiences as well as genetically.
Look at your character as a human landscape and discover every detail of her being and existence. Does she move her mouth differently because of her regional accent? You don't need to share all of the details with the reader, but through details you choose to share, the reader will come to know this character almost as well as you do. The real fun about creating a character comes long before you write about her.. By the time you develop your plot and begin writing, your character should control some of the directions she will take. In another of my short stories, a man at a buffet table asks a woman he had never seen, "Where do you put all that food?" Her
answer, which I never planned, or had even heard before the moment it appeared on the computer screen was, "I have a hollow soul." The comment obviously derived from the line, “I have a hollow leg,” however, this character was not a cliche, she was a unique though scarred individual. Her answer was at the same time, funny and poignant. It is what she would have said, not what I would have said. She was so real at that moment, that she took over and said what she felt. That single line of dialogue altered the course of the story and dictated what the character was able to do and not do. The ending I had planned had to be discarded. The new ending was preordained by those five words of unplanned dialogue.
To sum up, how do you create live characters to replace the cardboard cutouts which fill too many stories?
1. Study yourself. Question your motivation for everything. When you understand what forces interfere with people all following the same course of action, you will understand motivation.
2. Become a human camera with sound and in color. Record the nuances of action and
expression in others. Listen to the sounds of their speech. Try to deduce who they could be. Is that harried man across from you planning to murder his wife tonight? Why isn't he meeting your eyes? Do not just see a street person. Instead, as he shuffles past you, smell the ripe aroma of his un-bathed body. Feel your own emotional shifts as he approaches you aggressively.
3. Each day, reality provides us with the potential for a multitude of characters, however, your experiences and imagination must take them over the edge. They become yours when you allow their stories to emerge so that you know them before you start writing. Hang out with them for a while. Let them tell you about themselves.
4. Allow the characters to guide their own destinies according to their capabilities. In comic books, Casper Milquetoast can become Captain Marvel. In real life, ordinary people must become ordinary heroes.
5. A great character is reusable. Change the locale and you may have a series. Publishers love series. If you aren't writing to share your characters and stories with the world, you are writing a personal journal -- no matter what you call it.
Create characters that you find interesting. Love them or hate them, argue with them,
or seduce them, but you will not be able to dismiss them until their story is told. If you feel attached to them in some significant way, so might your reader. A cardboard cutout with external descriptions can't carry a story. A character with quirks, flaws, and inner conflicts can take a story to a higher level for the reader, who is, after all the person for whom we write.