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Creating believable and resonant characters is one of the great challenges of the fiction author.
The concept of character has also become more important in narrative non-fiction and memoir, and even business books start with character stories to illustrate their points. In today's article, David Corbett, author of The Art of Character, helps us with some key aspects to keep in mind.
Imagine the following scene:
A woman shops in a grocery store at 10 am dressed in evening wear: a cocktail dress, bolero jacket, opera gloves, a string of pearls, patent leather pumps. Her makeup is subtle and tastefully done, her hair neatly combed.
She reaches for a can of peaches on a top shelf, straining, unable to get a grip. Glancing around, she sees no one able to offer assistance, stares once more at the unnerving peaches, then suddenly hikes up her skirt, notches the toe of her pump on a lower shelf and starts climbing as though up a rock face.
Tongue between her teeth, reaching as far as she can, she wiggles her fingers, finally nudges one of the cans — it totters. Then falls. Several others tumble down with it. She jumps back down, shields her head from the avalanche — she may be hurt, but before anyone can get to her she very slowly drops to her knees, picks up two of the cans, clutches them to her chest, and begins to sob quietly.
There is no description of what this woman looks like beyond what she’s wearing. We presume she’s short, but her age, race, weight, height and so on are all unstated. But it’s unlikely anyone who reads the previous paragraph will not form a distinct mental image of her.
What are the most important things that make that visualization and engagement possible — that make the depiction compelling?
- The character needs or wants something.
- She is having difficulty getting what she needs or wants, and comes up with a plan — imperfect, admittedly (one might say necessarily) — for overcoming that difficulty.
- She exhibits a seeming contradiction: she’s dressed in evening wear at the grocery store at mid-morning.
- Something unexpected happens (she makes a mistake), which renders her vulnerable. (She may even be hurt, enhancing this impression.)
- Her sobbing suggests there is more to her predicament than meets the eye — a secret.
More than any of the other considerations, these five concerns are key to any compelling character.
That doesn’t mean we’ve uncovered the secret crazy magic formula, or that by methodically running down this checklist we can do all that’s required to make a character leap off the page. Characters can’t be crafted from a grab bag of traits, no matter how clever or interesting. That’s a recipe for an idea — a plot puppet — not a character.
Characterization requires a constant back-and-forth between the exterior events of the story and the inner life of the character. This requires training your insight, asking the right questions and not hedging on the answers, and learning to listen to yourself when, from the back of your mind, a voice insists: No. Not yet. Make it better.
That said, these five considerations can provide a touchstone as you work. Either while conceiving the character, writing the initial drafts, or polishing a later edit, as you’re evaluating the character you may ask yourself if any of these five qualities is missing, or underdeveloped.
If so, consider providing such a trait, or bringing one already in existence into greater focus, to see if it resonates with the story, echoes other aspects of the characterization you’ve already developed, helps clarify or intensify interactions or conflicts with other characters. or in some other way enhances your depiction.
The reasons that these five specific concerns are so central goes to the heart of who we are as human beings:
- The most profound actions we take reveal an inner yearning, a desire for meaning in the face of death.
- Our true character is never revealed so nakedly as when our desires are thwarted, and we need to adapt, improvise, get creative, dig deeper within ourselves for greater resolve or deeper insight. One might even say our character is forged at such times.
- We instinctively respond to vulnerability. Few things engage our empathy as automatically as a wound — including invisible ones, like sorrow, loss, and regret.
- Contradictions reveal that we’re more than we seem, or care to admit. Our public self gets betrayed by our private self. Pieces don’t fit. We must be many things to many people. (Or, as Jean Cocteau put it: “The spirit of creation is the spirit of contradiction — the breakthrough of appearances toward an unknown reality.”)
- And secrets get at the difficult truths of guilt and shame in a life lived among others. On some level, we all believe ironically that we must hide something of ourselves to make ourselves visible. No one would accept us, let alone love us, if they knew the whole truth.
These aspects of character can’t be cranked out mechanically. A rushed approach to anything will bear only scattered results. To paraphrase one of my favorite professors: The difference between great artists, and artists who are not so great, is that great artists think deeply about simple things.
And so in our writing, we should strive to think deeply about five rather simple things:
- the nature and quality of yearning
- how profoundly frustration of one’s desires distorts the personality — or defines it
- what it means to be wounded
- the curse and crutch of secrets
- the inescapability of contradiction
From that foundation we can move on to exploration of the physical, psychological, and sociological elaborations that flesh out the character, render her and the world she inhabits more real.
But at every stage, it remains important to resist the seeming reassurance of checklists and easy answers, and instead to be patient, to seek solitude and quiet, the better to think deeply and to respect the mysterious gravity that resides in the seemingly simple.
Do you have any tips or questions about writing believable characters? Please do leave your thoughts in the comments below.
David Corbett worked as a private investigator for fifteen years before becoming the widely acclaimed author of four novels and short fiction. His work has been singled out as a New York Times Notable Book, twice chosen for Best American Mystery Stories and nominated for the Edgar.
His latest book, The Art of Characteris the ultimate guide to creating captivating characters. David has taught at the UCLA Extension Writers' Program, 826 Valencia, Chuck Palahniuk's LitReactor, the San Francisco Writers' Grotto and at numerous writing conferences across the U.S.
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