Copyright 2020 Melanie Spiller. All rights reserved.
Building Character, Part 2
MelanieSpiller and Coloratura Consulting
In Part 1, you examined how character is revealed and developed in a work of fiction. In this post, I’ll talk about how to use the characters you already know. I’m always preaching about writing what you know, and it’s probably even more important when you’re writing fiction than when you’re writing non-fiction. Oh, I don’t mean to give you carte blanche to write fictional non-fiction, silly. I mean that if you aren’t thoroughly familiar with your characters and their circumstances, your fiction won’t be plausible enough to keep your readers reading any more than blundering around in a non-fiction topic you don’t know will earn you a fat paycheck.Experienced authors can make up worlds and characters entirely from their imagination, but when you’re first starting out, it’s a good idea to use what you know as a basis for your story. Yup, you might write an episode or two from your own life, or maybe you’ll use characters that you know to populate a new scenario. Either way, your stories will be the better for it. Let’s say you want to write an episode from your own life. That’s the easiest. You already know your own attitude and how you feel about the other characters and the events in the story. You might even have some clarity about how all the characters feel about the events and the protagonist. Now all you have to do is find a point of view that makes the story compelling. (You read about point of view in October 2005.)If you tell the story from your own point of view, how do you know whether or not the telling of the tale is engaging? You have to depart from your own perspective to gain perspective. If you want the story to read like a journal entry, you don’t have to worry about whether the telling is fair or whether it reveals just enough to be compelling and not so much as to deprive the reader of using imagination to impel them forward through the story. Diarists don’t care what their readers think or whether they even have readers. But that attitude doesn’t make good fiction most of the time.If you want your tale to be compelling to someone other than yourself, you have to be sympathetic to the needs of your readers and you have to create characters that are compelling. The best way to do that is to imagine each of the characters in your story telling the story from their own perspectives. If there’s only one character in the story, try thinking of the tale as told by an uninvolved and omniscient narrator.Let’s say your story involves you and two other characters. To create a compelling point of view, imagine the story as told separately by each of the three of you. You already know the story from your own perspective, presumably, so try imagining how the others feel about what happens in the story. If the other two characters are people you know well, you shouldn’t have too much trouble with that. You might realize that one of the other characters has a more interesting spin on circumstances than you do, or you might find that you are the most objective or compelling observer. Even if you end up writing from your own perspective, this exploration expands your ability to write interesting characters because you understand the participants in the story better.Once you’ve explored the nature of the characters and their effect on the telling of the tale, you need to think about whether clinging faithfully to reporting events is the best way to capture the imagination of your readers. Sometimes it is. Most often, you’ll find that your exploration into point of view highlights this important maxim:Veracity is based on perspective and is often entirely optional. Slander is when a person’s character is maligned verbally and libel is when it’s in print. Both are legally actionable. It doesn’t matter whether the person actually did what you say or whether it’s a happy episode in which no one is made to look bad; it only matters whether the real characters you write into your story take offence or consider themselves hurt in some way by what you write. It’s important—even if you’re writing the absolute truth in your fiction—to change the names and probably a bit about the characters who populate your story. Don’t use character names that start with the same letters as your real-life acquaintances, and be sure to change the background of your characters enough that the real people on whom they’re based don’t immediately recognize themselves. My personal favorite is to base my characters on more than one person (unless it’s me, although I can’t honestly say I haven’t, er, improved my flawed personality on more than a single occasion). That way, I’m not likely to cling tenaciously to one particular person’s approach to life and although people might recognize themselves or others to some degree, enough is different to soften the impact and leave at least some question. I’m especially fond of combining someone I know well with a larger percentage of an entirely made-up character. (I love to play the people-watching game and make up life stories about folks I’ll never meet. It’s especially fun to play with a witty companion and it’s good practice for sharpening fictional character development.)Combining characters from real life people isn’t as hard as it sounds. Try it. Just name a personality trait and see if you know any two people who share it. Then see if you can find more similarities, and you’ll identify some traits that are distinctly different along the way. Now you can create an amalgam, using the parallels and perpendicularities that suit your story best. The same goes for your characters’ appearance. Some writers like to describe what their characters look like. If it’s useful to the story, go ahead, but most of the time, generalities will serve you best. Readers like to imagine characters for themselves, which is why movies made from books often leave readers shaking their heads. Each of us has a unique perspective and movies literally force us to accept someone else’s. A naked narrative discussion of character, whether it’s of personality or appearance, is dull dull dull. Don’t do it. Reveal information about your characters by their actions or the reactions of the other characters and your characters will have life. That doesn’t mean that you can’t write up such descriptions so you can get clarity for yourself before you tell the tale. I’m just suggesting that you don’t include these narratives in your story. I’ll talk about revealing character through the story in Part 3. Meanwhile, I’ve got to go eat the accursed crusts on some bread or my coif will droop.