I mentioned that in order to be successful in fiction writing we have to be able to create characters that come to life in our reader’s minds. And if we want them to do that, we must first get to know them ourselves.
What does our character look like? What is his place in the world? What does she do for a living? Real people don’t stumble around w/o a means of support. Their occupation colors the way they think and act, even if they don’t do it in the story.
What are her goals? Remember when we talked about Protag’s desire to reach the mountain in the section on Plot? Not only are our character’s goals important, but we need to know why are they important? What inner conflicts, strengths and weaknesses are aids and obstacles in the way of obtaining the goal? Even the strongest of us have doubts and weakness, even the weakest of us have strengths and hopes.
Where does she come from? This is reflected in the way she speaks. What are his hobbies and interests? What are his dialogue tags, those often used phrases and comments? What are the little mannerisms and quirks she picked up as she roamed through life? What does his home look like? How does she make love? Or not make love?
All of these things make up the ghosts that hide in the closets of our minds just waiting for the right stimulus to pop out and yell–surprise. So must they be for our characters as well. It’s what makes them tick.
Obviously every character in the story doesn’t get the full treatment. That is reserved for all Point Of View (POV) characters. These are the people who’s heads we inhabit. Anything less than the Full Monty here will seriously weaken our story. And not far behind are the main characters that are integral to the outcome. From here we move down in degrees to important minor characters, minors, and walk-ons who have no dialogue and only appear as a blip on the screen.
But even with walk-ons we can dab a splash of color.
We can say, “The doorman flagged down a cab.” Black and white, right? Just facts. Or we can say, “The doorman summoned a cab with a blast from his brass police whistle.” That tad of specificity not only gives us sound, the police whistle warbling in our ear, but the brass tells us the place is up-scale, or the doorman is pretentious. We can reinforce the image with a few more words. “The doorman summoned a cab with a blast from his brass police whistle attached to a white lanyard hanging around his neck.”
Attention to small details can add much to a story. It’s verisimilitude, the feeling of actually being there. Is it worth spending the extra words? In a short story, your call. In a novel, probably. Definitely if we bring the doorman back again. The whistle, a quirk or mannerism, will tag him in for the reader.
In BookMarc #17 we’ll try to flesh out some of the traits of our main characters, but we won’t use all of it in the story, folks. One of the reasons I do characterization after the first draft is the same reason I hold off on my research, to forestall the temptation to add things just because I worked so hard to get them. Remember, our writing should only contain that which advances the plot, adds to the characterization, or gives us a sense of place, verisimilitude. But while we might not use it all, the material we gather WILL help us see our characters more clearly, and as we move through succeeding drafts we’ll find spots where bits and pieces of background will naturally fall into place, giving our readers a richer experience of our characters’ lives.
As an example, in Bloody Bonsai, when past-fifty Jim Dandy races up a hill and around a corner, he hangs onto a pole to catch his breath, and stares down the street at his Lincoln hiding in the shadows. And since he is a recent widower, this is a convenient place for him remember how he bought the car to brighten his life after his wife of many years died, and how little it actually relieved his bereavement. It’s a little reinforcement of his love for his wife, which in turn reflects on his loyalty and steadiness. Again, as I mentioned in BookMarc #15, I think Dennis McFarland does this very well in his book, The Music Room.
Peter E. Abresch – BookMarc© February 13, 1998. Updated October 27, 2014