Quick!Assuming you are not a Baker Street Irregular, can you describe off the top of your head the plots of these stories:
- “The Adventure of the Five Napoleons”
- “The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge”
- “The Adventure of the Empty House”
Now, can describe the character of Sherlock Holmes?Of course you can. Often, Character trumps Plot in making a story click. Indeed, Henry James declared, "Character IS Plot!" How a plot proceeds will depend on the Characters who move through it.
Examples of memorable characters include Hercule Poirot, Indiana Jones, Kim, and others. Sometimes, a character is a one-off. It is hard to imagine Kipling's Kim without the character of Kim himself. Replace the central character of an orphaned child of a British soldier and Indian mother knocking around the Raj and it becomes an entirely different Story. It is equally difficult to imagine Kim II: Secret Agent.
But some characters, like Poirot or Holmes or Travis McGee, go on to fresh, new adventures. Mysteries seem especially suited to series. David Copperfield does not. Captain Nemo is an intriguing character, but Verne used him only twice.
A Situation and a Character
Consider the following Situation:
One day, Jimmy decided he would drive the family car to St. Louis.
Not very interesting, TOF hears you say. So, let's up the ante:
As the dust from the meteor strike began settling over the ruins of Denver, Jimmy decided he had better take the family car and high-tail it to St. Louis before the engine became choked with grit.
Now we're cooking. We've got the meteor strike, we've got a reason for taking the car, and we've got a destination. But who is Jimmy and why should we care if he gets to St Louis or not? If we want to make the Situation fraught, "Jimmy" must be a Character, not just a name.
...but first he had to tie wooden blocks to his sneakers so his feet could reach the pedals.Wait! What? Jimmy is a kid? What happened to his parents? Does he know where he is going? When did he learn to drive a car? All sorts of questions pop up. But they are different questions than we would ask if Jimmy were an ex-Special Forces soldier trained in survival techniques. Either Jimmy can make an interesting Story, but they would be different Stories. Because Character really is Plot.
Fables and Romances
The word for novel is in many languages roman, which gave rise to romantic and romance, though not in the sense of modern publishing categories but more in the sense of romance languages.
The early medieval period had stories, often in verse, called the chansons de geste, songs of heroes. These fables were like ancient myths and legends. A typical example is Le Pèlerinage de Charlemagne [The Pilgrimage of Charlemagne], sung ca. 1140. This told how Big Chuck and his peeps traveled to Jerusalem. Along the way, they drop in on the Eastern Emperor and learn that Constantinople sits on a rotating disk atop a tall pole. [Think "medieval space station".] Spoiler alert: it does not. But the image fulfilled the allegory of Byzantium as a fabulous realm full of wonders. No one cared about journalistic accuracy.
In a fable, archetypes perform iconic deeds in an allegorical setting. Hero, wise queen, brave traitor, cowardly traitor, beautiful princess... We know what they are expected to do; not because of their motivations, but because that's what their type does. Fables are still being written, sometimes on purpose. In the modern era, a fable may feature young iconoclast scientist who sees a danger/opportunity no one else does, old fogy scientist who doesn't believe him, beautiful daughter of old fogy scientist, plucky rebel, and so on.
But sometime in the 13th century, something new developed. It was called novel because it was new. This new kind of narrative developed from poems like Meier Helmbrecht, by Wernher der Gärtner, ca. 1250. (Note that we now start learning who the Authors were.) This epic featured, not a knight or a king, but a peasant who runs off to join the knights but winds up serving a bandit chief and gets hanged by the very peasants he had imagined he was championing. Helmbrecht subverted medieval tropes long before George R. R. Martin. [Think what Helm and brecht mean in German.]
These romances featured realistic characters moving through realistic landscapes and acting from their own motives and purposes. Of course, the kitten is not a cat, an acorn is not an oak, and Helmbrecht is not War and Peace. The novel has developed greatly in the past 700-plus years.
Novels typically feature multiple Characters, each with his or her own motives and purposes, and is a tapestry woven from these many threads. Every character is the hero of his own story. But not all Characters are created equal.
Archetypes and stereotypes still serve a purpose in realistic fictions. They are the background characters, the walk-ons that give a milieu the sense of being "lived in." But we don't want to spend much time on them. The cabby, the skycap, the ticket agent are merely a cabby, a skycap or a ticket agent doing things that cabbies, skycaps, and ticket agents typically do. They need not be characterized.
Consider the following example by Orson Scott Card (Writer's Digest,May 1, 2012)
Nora accidentally gave the cabby a $20 bill for a $5 ride and then was too shy to ask for change.Within a minute a skycap had the rest of her money.
There is no need to flesh them out beyond this. We know what cabbies and skycaps are and what they do. Characters who fit a stereotype are familiar. The reader may fill in the "background details" himself.
Characters who violate a stereotype, otoh, can become interesting. They stand out from the crowd of "extras." We can characterize minor characters with
- a single trait,
- an eccentricity,
- an exaggeration
The cabby chased Nora into the airport, hollering, “Hey, lady! You gave me too much!” Nora tried to quiet him, but the cabby would not hear of it. “I like to earn my money, lady! Five dollar ride; one dollar tip. You got fourteen bucks coming back.”
That makes the character a bit more memorable and if on her return Nora hops into the same cab, the reader may enjoy a frisson of recollection. Here is a supporting character sketched in Donald E. Westlake's crime comedy, Nobody's Perfect:
Tiny had the voice of a frog in an oil drum, but less musical. “Long time, no see.”
Dortmunder sat opposite him, saying, “You look good, Tiny,” which was a palpable lie. Tiny, hulking on the little chair, his great meaty shoulders bulging inside his cheap brown suit, a shelf of forehead bone shadowing his eyes, looked mostly like something to scare children into going to bed.
This is more than "Tiny was large and scary-looking," but not too much more (although he does become a repeating character in the series and we learn more about him).
Building a Major Character
- Getting idea from observation or experience;
- ‘First broad strokes’;
- Find core of character;
- Add paradoxes;
- Add emotions, attitudes, values;
- Add other details
1. That was no Character, That was my WifeIt is generally a bad idea to put actual friends, family, or colleagues into your fiction. Who knows at what they may take offense? However, there is a tradition in Science Fiction called Tuckerization, after Wilson Tucker, by which Authors do exactly that, sometimes under their own names, sometimes 'in disguise.' The Niven/Pournelle/Flynn yarn Fallen Angels is replete with actual fans, many of whom bid in a auction for the honor of being included. Harry Turtledove described a starship pilot named Mike Flynn in his Worldwar: Colonization series, probably in answer to the appearance of a Balkan expert, Capt. Dove, in the Flynn novel Rogue Star.
The Author then has an obligation to closely observe people: at the diner, at the Little League game, on the street, harvesting bits and pieces of traits and behaviors that can be assembled into whole characters unlike any of the individuals observed. When I described the scarred man with a chin "like a coat hook", it was based on a stranger I glimpsed once on the Vienna U-bahn.
- Body: physical appearance
- Acts: What a character does
- Reputation: What other characters say about him
- Habits: What a character does without thinking
- Tastes: What a character likes to do
- Talents: What a character can do
- Network: Different folks for different strokes
- The Past: What led him to his current state
- Motive: Why he does it
Motive and Purpose
- Motives, which stem from his past and "push" him
- Purposes, which lie in the future and "pull" him toward a particular goal
Purposes are generally explicit and known, but the Character may not know his own Motives, though the Author dang well should.
- Why did Bruce Wayne become the Batman?
- Why did Elizabeth Bennet initially reject Darcy? (Pride and Prejudice)
- Why did Sherlock Holmes become a private inquiry agent?
- Why does John Book not have a woman in his life? (Witness)
- Why does Donovan accompany the harper out to the wild planets? (Up Jim River)
- Why does Conagher stand by Seaborn Tay, a man he barely knows? (Conagher)
2. First Broad Strokes
- A lone woman on a quay gazing out to sea (The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Fowles)
- Tall and spare with a hawklike face; cold, logical, calculating (Sherlock Holmes, Doyle)
- Short and stubby, always with an umbrella; humor, wisdom, insight (Fr Brown, Chesterton)
- Belgian, with an egg-shaped head and a passion for order (Hercule Poirot, Christie)
- “His mind had been split into several personalities by an experiment gone horribly wrong; or, even more horribly, right.” (Donovan buigh, Flynn)
Carrie stood among [the girls in the locker room] stolidly, a frog among swans. She was a chunky girl with pimples on her neck and back and buttocks, her wet hair completely without color. It rested against her face with dispirited sogginess and she simply stood, head slightly bent, letting the water splat against her flesh and roll off.
His face, emerging from the darkened alcove at last, is shrunken, as if he has been suctioned out and all that remains of him is skin and skull. His flesh is sallow, his cheeks hollow. His chin curls like a coat-hook, and his mouth sags across the saddle of the hook. He does not look like Death. He looks like Disapproval, and that is worse, for Death is at least impartial. His hair is too white, but there are places on his skull, places with scars, where the hair will never grow back. His eyes are restless. They dart ever sidewise, as if something wicked lurks just past the edge of his vision.
3. Find the Core of the Character
- Historical setting when she or he lived
- Locations where she or he lived
- Social background
- Religious background
- Time: 1348
- Location: Schwartzwald, Mark Baden
- Ethnicity: Schwäbisch
- Social background: Born lower class
- Education: Univ. of Paris, master of arts
- Religious: Catholic
- Occupation: Parish priest
3. Find the Character's Core
- When Adam saw the bloody body in the library, he shouted in alarm, “Gareth! Oh my God! Oh my God!” and nearly swallowed his fingers.
- When Betsy saw the bloody body in the library, she began to search for a weapon. Gareth had been stabbed; but with what?
- When Carl saw the bloody body in the library, he looked about warily. Gareth’s killer might still be nearby.
- When Debbie saw the bloody body in the library, she muttered, “So someone finally did the rotter in.”
- When Eddie saw the bloody body in the library, he crossed himself and prayed for Gareth’s soul.
“I’d like to loan you the money, boy,” Cavendish told his nephew. “I really would. I like you. But do you truly need it?” He looked at the contract Lance had shown him. “And do you need this much?”
Cavendish compared the two cell phones. He didn’t need all the frippery on the second. The first would serve, and it cost two-thirds as much. “I’ll take this one,” he told the clerk.
“Be sure to turn off the lights before you retire. And make sure all the windows are closed. I’m not air-conditioning the world, y’know.”
A change in appearance or expression
Adam’s smile froze and he turned white when he saw the cop.
Adam sighed with resignation as the policeman approached.
Adam mutely stuck both wrists out and waited for the cuffs.
“Go ahead and arrest me,” he said.
Adam's first impulse was to run, but he thought that in jail he would at least be safe.
4. Add Paradoxes
c) Attitudes, values, concerns. Don't make your Character your personal soapbox. He should express all the things he believes in, not all the things you believe in. The Author ought to be able to write with empathy a Character whose attitudes, values, and concerns differ from his own. For example, don't make your antagonist a bundle of all-the-values-I-don't-like. Remember, Hitler was a vegetarian and loved animals. Maybe Lance is a womanizer, but maybe he also gives generously to charities. Such paradoxes of attitudes and values keep the characters interesting, Otherwise, they are reduced to Caricatures.Caricatures.
- directly affect the front story OR
- shape the character without being explicit
Michael Collins suggests you create the backstory as you go. Revising it as needed.
"Something may happen in the present [the story] and I’ll say, “I have to change the past.”
– Michael Collins
Call Me Ishmael
The Wreck of the River of Stars.
- Evan Dodge Hand captain
- Stepan Gorgas first officer
- ’Abd al-Aziz Corrigan second officer
- Eugenie Satterwaithe third officer and sailing master
- The late Enver Bey Koch engineer
- Ramakrishnan Bhatterji engineer
- Mikoyan Hidei engineer’s mate
- The Lotus Jewel sysop and purser
- Eaton Grubb biosystems/life support/cook
- Fransziska Wong, M.D. ship’s doctor
- Timothy “Moth” Ratline cargo master
- Nkieruke Okoye first wrangler
- Raphael “Rave” Evermore second wrangler
- Twenty-four deCant third wrangler
- Ivar Akhaturian least wrangler
- Bigelow Fife passenger
- Avoid famous/shopworn names. You can combine familiar names to make an unfamiliar (and so memorable) name. Example: Donna + Veronica → Donica
- Make the names easy to pronounce:
- Bilbo Baggins is easier than Eshq’laq
- Lavinia is easier than Eloweine (it's the same name)
- Genre. Sebastian Gregoire would be good name for a character in a Romance, Orrin Sackett, for a Western.
- Time of birth. Wilma was a popular name for girls in the 1940s, not so much in the 2000s. No one in 1870 would have been named Skyler or Tiffany.
- Geography. Check the naming conventions in the region whence your character comes. In Hungary, the surname comes first, then first name, then title. Kovacs Imre ur. In Tamil Nadu,the father's name is often the surname: Anthony George (abt. 20% of Tamilians are Christian). In Russia, full names are personal-patronym-family: Ivan Smoilovitch Petrov. It is not impolite to refor to someone by their unadorned surname: "Good morning, Petrov." In addition, degrees of familiarity modify the personal name: Ivan → Vanya → Vanka → Vanushka.
Distinguishing Your Characters
- Different names and physiques
In The Wreck of the River of Stars, Abd al Aziz Corrigan, an experienced spacer, is from the Asteroids. His limbs are long and spindly and his skin is darkened by radiation-protective enhancers. Mikoyan Hidei is a young Amalthean 'elf' from the interior of a Jovian moonlet. She is described as androgynous, which leads to a tragic misunderstanding with another crew member, who thinks she is a lad.
- Different suite of traitsThe Wreck of the River of Stars used the sixteen Meyers-Briggs personality types to define the sixteen characters.
Abd al Aziz Corrigan is sketched as an ISTJ: "Serious and quiet. Practical, orderly, matter-of-fact, logical, realistic, dependable. Takes responsibility. Makes up his own mind what needs doing and works toward it despite protests or distractions. Distaste for the fancy."
Mikoyan Hidei, otoh, is ISFJ. "Quiet, friendly, responsible, and conscientious. Works devotedly to meet obligations. Thorough, paonstaking, and accurate. Loyal and considerate. Concerned how others feel."
- Different purposes and motives
- Different ways of speaking
“Direct route blocked by debris,” Fanghsi answered.“Roundabout safer for niyōs.”
“Well, that certainly settles the matter, then,” Winnie commented.
An Elephant for Aristotle, L. Sprague deCamp gave characters from different city-states different accents. The Thessalians speak with a Scots burr. Athenians with an upper-class English one. Spartans drawl; Argives used archaic "thou" and "thee" and "wouldst." Those familiar with ancient Greece realize that these accents are weirdly appropriate. Ionian Greek did not use an initial rough breathing, so Ionians talk like Cockneys.
- Get ideas for characters from observation and experience.
- Paint a broad concept for the character
- Research character context
- Find core of character/main motivating trait
- Try out some incidents exemplifying that trait
- Add traits that follow logically [or at least do not contradict the first]
- A paradoxical trait will add character interest
- Add emotions, values, attitudes to deepen the character
- Add details, such as beliefs, clothing, tics, etc., to make the character unique and special.
Brainstorm traits/qualities that this person is likely to have.
- Those which necessarily follow
- Those which add character heft and do not contradict
- One which is quirky or paradoxical.
Brainstorm contrasts that would distinguish them
4. Interview your character.
- At a different age, outside the story context
7. Take your characters to dinner.
- Imagine them all chatting together around the table
- Card, Orson Scott. Characters & Viewpoint (Writer's Digest Books, 1988)
- Kress, Nancy. Dynamic Characters (Writer's Digest Book, 2004)
- Seger. Linda. Creating Unforgettable Characters (Holt Paperbacks, 1990)