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Copyright Melanie Spiller 2011. Do not copy without permission.
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Building Character, Part 1

My mother always told me that eating the crusts on my bread would make my hair curly. I donít know if youíve noticed my hair before, but look what she did to me!

 

Those two sentences reveal a fair amount of information about character. The mother character used clichťs and a sense of wry humor to gain obedience from her difficult daughter. The mother must have looked at her daughterís hair and seen the ringlets already there, and she also knew that the innocent child didnít have any sense of whether curly or straight hair was desirable. The daughter, on the other hand, has grown up, come to her senses, realized that her hair is plenty curly, and with a modicum of actual blame, decries that the wivesí tale might be true.

 

We can see quite a bit from this minimal exchange: both women have a sense of humor, there was good-natured affection there, and enough time has passed for the child to grow up and know the reality of the situation. It is also implies that curly hair is the motherís fault, nonetheless, even if the cause for it isnít crusty bread. The grown child tries unsuccessfully to convey a sense of dutiful obedience that misses the mark because of the blame. With that, the relationship between these two women is clear and we know something about their characters.

 

When youíre building a short story, you need to be able to expose character quickly; if youíre writing a novel, you have the luxury of time, but you donít want to lose readers because they donít care about your characters. If you donít have a quick little vignette like the one that started this blog, how do you do it?

 

Letís look at some great literature. Think of your favorite (or most recently read) novel or short story. Name the protagonist (the main character or most sympathetic character) and the next most important secondary character.

 

It almost doesnít matter which tale youíre thinking of. There is some kind of tension between the two characters, be it affection, anger, business, or dysfunctional family relations. Oh, you could start your story like this:

 

Aelred was an irritable fellow, always grousing about this or that.

 

Thatís not so horrible. But you reveal more about yourself as the narrator that way than you do about Aelred. Thatís okay if itís your intention for the narrator to be an important character in the story, but it doesnít work if your main character is Aelred unless he is anything but irritable. Itís just too literal to be compelling beyond the first sentence or two, if Aelred is truly a grump.

 

In the case of Poeís ďThe Cask of AmontilladoĒ that you read with me in my last post, the narratorís character is pivotal to the story. He reveals in the first sentences that he is competitive, self-righteous, and pompous, and that he assumes the readerís sympathy with self-absorbed confidence. We follow along innocently until right near the end, willing to listen because of his assumptions about our interest in his side of the story. The success of the story is based almost entirely upon our willingness, like that of Fortunado, to follow unquestioningly so that we can be shocked by the ending.

You donít need to know how the story ends to write an intriguing character; all you need is to identify the nature of the tension between the characters. Once you know the ending, you can go back and tighten up how you reveal the charactersí personalities so that the endingóor the middleóleaves room for surprise.

 

Okay, back to the story you thought of. What do you know about the two primary characters on the first page of the story? Are they companions somehow? Are they competitive, and if so, is it a friendly competition? If theyíre partners headed down the same road, what glue sticks them together? How sturdy is the glue? Is there anything stereotypical about either of them?

 

Stereotypes are useful because you donít have to spend a lot of time describing a character who fits the bill. But as a protagonist, a stereotyped character would be more than a little dull. Itís the unpredictability of the character that leads readers into a story. That doesnít mean you should avoid stereotypes at all costs, of course, only that you should use caution, just as you shouldnít make the actions of your characters unrelentingly unpredictable. You lose your readers if they know too much about your characterís character and you lose readers if they canít get a grip on it.

 

Hemingway, the master of understatement, omitted almost all detail about his characters; Poe gives us piles of information. Both methods work because there is nothing casual about how the charactersí personalities are revealed. Now the question is: how do you insert such clarity into your own work.

 

Aside from the obvious ďit takes years and years and tons of work,Ē your best bet is to spend time reading and analyzing. You can make a list of character traits about every story you read, if you like. What do the characters look like? How old are they and how do you know? Where do they live and when? What is their attitude about the circumstances that place them in the story? What is their relationship to the other characters in the story and how did that relationship get to its present condition?

 

Once youíve got an idea of how other writers include character development in the wending of a tale, you can do it yourself. You might want to make up a list of character traits and then scrupulously avoid naming them in your writing (just knowing the traits will color your writing), or you might want to describe a select few. Donít name them all in the story, please, or your readers will all nod off on the first page. If you like, you can write character descriptions in narrative form as an exercise, but do remember to delete them from your second draft.

 

In Part 2, Iíll discuss using real people as models for your fictional characters.