Writing Essentials: Characters Part Six: Bringing Them to Life Part 1

>> Monday, February 15, 2010

Disclaimer: I'm not an expert on writing. I am not a published author, don't have any sort of English or writing degree, have never taught English or writing and, in fact, do something entirely different for a living. I am simply stating my opinion and caution any reader to assume that every statement described as if it were incontrovertible be assumed to include an "in my opinion" on it. This series is my own opinion as an aspiring writer to describe things I work to do in my own writing and what I look for when I read.

For those of you who thought I was through with characters, surprise!

See, the thing is, having the coolest cat in town heading up your book or story doesn't mean anything unless you can convey what's so cool about your character to the reader. Now, when it's an historical figure, people decide what they think about those individuals based on what those people did or said (noting, of course, that we don't always have first hand information or unbiased sources).

As a writer, you get to show the reader what the character says and does and thinks (i.e. the motivation). How long it takes you the writer to reveal your character to the reader can depend on many things. First and foremost is the medium you're writing in.

If you're writing a short story or any other type of short fiction, you have to make the character come alive and quickly. One way is to focus on character traits that readers might readily identify with. Here's an example from a story I'm currently working on:

Using the handhold just inside the hatch, Lena Glandall swung lightly down to the ground. She could have lowered the ramp, of course, but most of the male scouts leapt down without. It was her nature to refuse to do differently just because she was so very undersized. As usual, she found a way to do what she wanted without it slowing her down. It was rather a point of pride.
Most of us have limitations we don't like to have slow us down. Overcoming them without requiring special attention or accommodations is something many people can readily understand, either because they know someone stubborn like that or because they are like that themselves. But, more than having an in for the reader to identify with the character, we've also said a great deal about our character and her environment. Our character is small, unusually so, but nimble. She is proud and willfull and stubborn. She also prides herself on success and likes to get her own way. All of that is said without telling anyone directly who she is. We also get a sense of it being a physically demanding job, that she competes, head to head, with male counterparts and doesn't expect the rules to be different for her.

If I've done it right, the reader doesn't even recognize consciously all those things. But, when they see my character put up with treatment that many of us would have a hard time standing for, they will (hopefully) automatically appreciate what she's willing to do to accomplish her mission. From that first paragraph, they can hopefully get a good sense of some of her key characteristics and, depending on their experience with others of her ilk, will know if they like her early in the story.

Here's another example:
And, as much as Charley adored her, she loved him just as much. Since the beginning of time, he had gladly inhabited that comfy place beneath her arm, had gladly given up his looks for her. Like most favorite toys, he looked ready for the ragbag with one button eye always just on the verge of falling off and one arm not quite the right color. Mama's hands had mended him times beyond counting, but the worse he looked, the more Ginny loved him. And nothing else mattered.
In this case, of course, Charley (one of my earliest characters) was a teddy bear hopeless devoted to his little girl. Did you get that? Everything in the story is about that dedication. I tell you she loves him, but we know it's the truth because he was mended instead of replaced, because he doesn't care what he looks like as long as she doesn't. Again, those of us who grew up with a favorite "something" can identify readily.

This mental description of actions and accompanying thought can work in longer fiction, too, but you have the option of putting it off until later in the story or giving it in several dribs and drabs. In a novel, a reader is really investing a significant chunk of time; you need to give them all they need to be invested in the character.
Tander stooped to exit of the crowded tent, yawning and stretching as he did so. He stood there, scratching himself absently as he took a deep breath of the humid night air. There were too many people, too many powerful personalities in there for his tastes. It reminded him of when he was part of politics, or at least as much as he ever was involved in politics. Perhaps that’s why he was never interested in it.
He shook his head. Four hours to discuss strategies? His thought was just to have his blade sharpened and fight when the bastards appear. Fight them and have done. What good would all their talking and planning do?
It might not seem like there is a great deal here, but we have a real feel Tander. He doesn't like to plan or have meetings or wrangle with pushy people. He doesn't like compromise or politics where you can't just do what you think is right but you have to get "buy in" from everyone. He's a man of action and, when you add this bit to his history, you get a much better understanding of how he ended up where he ended up. When you find out that he gave up a throne, it doesn't seem unreasonable but in perfect keeping with a man who who lives by action and feels, acts and talks in a straightforward manner.

Having a strong character doesn't, of course, mean that everyone will identify with them or, if the reader does identify with them, that they'll like them. A vivid characterization can repel a reader, too. Still, murky and stilted characterizations rarely appeal to anyone.

Tomorrow, dialog. 'Cause it's my favorite way of bringing characters to life.


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