We spend most of our working hours with people – fascinating, maddening or unpredictable people. It is through our understanding of others that we mature. A person reveals his character by what he says or does – in even his/her most trivial speech and action. The way he walks or speaks, the way he puts on his coat, the way he hangs it up – or carelessly throws it down, all show something about his character.
When you write a story, the reader not only wants to know what happens, but also to whom it happens. We reveal character through what a person does, says, thinks, how he or she looks; what other characters say or think about a person, what the author says about him. Each speech or action is revealing. If a girl stops to look at her reflection each time she passes a mirror or shop window, we infer she is vain. If a man kicks a cat, we infer that he hates animals, or that he’s taking out his anger on a helpless animal, or that he’s vicious and cruel – maybe all three. You, the author, choose the speech and actions that suggest the total character of the person. You must give your character a motivation for his behaviour and supply a reason for his actions.
A story often centres on just one character, but the minor characters are also important. There is continual inter-action … what do they say and think about the hero? How do they solve their problems, and what does their solution tell you about the wisdom or folly of the hero’s solution?
One of the most graphic descriptions I ever read of a character was contained in just one sentence: “His face was lined with broken Commandments.” It says it all!
Successful authors are those who have created fictional people who are more real than they are themselves and often outlive them (Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, David Copperfield, Tarzan etc.) Once you have created real-life people, you are stuck with them. You can’t forget them, you can seldom control them, and you cannot kill them if they want to keep on living. Sometimes they will upset the plot you have in mind for them and write their own stories.
Once a beginner writer sent his story to an editor stating: “The characters in this story are purely fictional and bear no resemblance to any person, living or dead.” The editor sent it straight back with the notation: “That is exactly what’s wrong with it!”
You should know your character as intimately as you know your spouse. Before you write your story, work out a complete profile of background – birthplace, age, education, religion, experiences, financial status and politics. Understand his emotions – how he feels about people, things situations, his thoughts and philosophy. Setting – clothes, hairdo, car, home, surroundings and environment. How and what he says reveal his character – compassionate, impatient, selfish, critical, bigoted, brave etc.
It is also important to remember NOT to do certain things. Don’t give them just any names. Choose them as carefully as you would for your real-life children. Don’s use confusingly similar names like Phyllis, Philip and Filbert. Don’t begin with minor characters, making the reader think they are going to be important. Don’t add characters unnecessary to the plot. Don’t create all-good or all-bad characters – they won’t ring true.
My latest novella “Searching for Sarah” garnered a wonderful, full-page review in the Jerusalem Post last Friday, beyond expectations. In my next Blog, I’ll send you a link to it.
You can order it on Amazon, buy it at Pomeranz Bookstore in Jerusalem, or direct from me. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org for details.
I welcome your comments and am ready to help with any writing problems.