Characters are the life and soul of fiction. We might have the most splendiferous plot or setting, but it’s an empty dance floor until the characters arrive.
You might think that it’s easy to create characters. We are surrounded by people. How hard can it be to transfer some of them onto the page?
As it turns out, it can be quite hard. I have lost count of the number of books that I haven’t enjoyed because I couldn’t engage with the characters. It’s a common issue with the books I beta read for aspiring authors who are learning the craft. Heck, even highly commercial authors often can “do” plot but not character or vice versa.
The problem, I think, is that novel characters are nearly – but not quite – real people. They’re special, but not so special that they turn into caricatures.
I have been thinking about this for a long time. I’ve read loads of books. Trawled the internet. Spoken to other writers. And after much thought and deliberation I’ve come to the conclusion that the answer is … 7.
Or around 7. It might be 6.8 or 7.5. Somewhere in that region. Approximately.
More specifically, I mean 7 out of 10. In pre-decimal money, that’s more than half way but not the full beans.
Okay. I can see you’re puzzled. Let’s have some examples. Let’s say that we want a character who is a macho man of action – a James Bond or a Jason Bourne. We would want him to be more macho than average, but we wouldn’t want his character to be ridiculous. So we would add a bit of tension. Bond drinks too much and has doubts about the profession he is in. Jason Bourne wants to stop killing people and get his memory back.
To write a really effective character we need to turn the volume up high, but not all the way. Every dark character needs a bit of light. Every romantic character needs the occasional bit of steeliness. Every “good” character needs an interesting flaw. Not too much, mind! Around 7 or 7.5. That feels about right.
When we are drawing up a character we ought to look for an interplay of emotions and traits, where one tendency is partially balanced by another. That helps to hook a reader. They get a feeling for how a character would react but they can never be quite sure. That is the sort of hook that draws you in to a story.
But a funny thing happens when you’re writing. You need to hold some of the information back from your reader. It’s our old friend “show don’t tell” again. If you’re hero is brave don’t say that he is brave. Show him doing something brave instead.
This can feel a little weird. You might write a dozen pages of notes about your character. You know their hair colour, their back story, how they speak, their deepest feelings. You’re proud of these notes. Hey this is good stuff! You’ve created a really interesting, complex character that people will be talking about for hundreds of years.
And I’m telling you not to write that directly into your book?
Yes, that is precisely what I am saying. Your reader will enjoy your characters more if they have to work things out for themselves.
Here’s an extract from the beginning of Great Expectations by Charles Dickens:
“As I never saw my father or my mother, and never saw any likeness of either of them (for their days were long before the days of photographs), my first fancies regarding what they were like, were unreasonably derived from their tombstones. The shape of the letters on my father’s, gave me an odd idea that he was a square, stout, dark man, with curly black hair.”
This is our first introduction to the main character and first person narrator – Pip. We are starting to get a sense that Pip is a dreamer who is prone to fancifulness. Dickens doesn’t come right out and say it. He doesn’t need to. This introductory scene does it for him.
Later on we meet the convict Magwitch:
“A fearful man, all in coarse grey, with a great iron on his leg. A man with no hat, and with broken shoes, and with an old rag tied round his head. A man who had been soaked in water, and smothered in mud, and lamed by stones, and cut by flints, and stung by nettles, and torn by briars; who limped, and shivered, and glared and growled; and whose teeth chattered in his head as he seized me by the chin.”
“Aha!” I hear you cry. Dickens is describing Magwitch in great detail. Doesn’t that disprove what I’ve been saying about holding back information?
Maybe, but look at what that paragraph tells us about Pip. Without saying it directly, Dickens is adding more layers to our mental image of Pip. This time, he is telling us that Pip is a sympathetic and kind character. Pip describes Magwitch in terms which show that Pip feels sorry for him. He doesn’t need to say “I felt sorry for him.” The writing would have been weaker if he had said it so directly.
The painful secret for writers is that a reader’s imagination is far more powerful than anything we can write. Our job is to give them enough clues to get their imagination going. We do this by leaving holes in our writing which they have to fill with their imagination.
One way to add character is by inventing an establishing scene where the character can do something to reveal their personalities. This establishing scene might have little to do with the main plot. It’s a chance for the readers to get to know the characters without us spoon-feeding them.
There’s another thing about character. Readers need to be able to relate to the main character, at least a little bit, even if the main character is a villain.
I know that sounds unfair. I know that we really want to write about super evil villains. The Evil Characters’ Union will be furious at me for saying it. But it needs to be said.
Every main character needs to have at least something about them that is appealing. That mass murderer needs to have a motive or someone they care for or something. Blofeld has to have his cat. Hannibal Lector helps Clarice Starling … and knows a bit about fine wines.
The flip side is also true. Every good character needs to have at least one negative trait. As one writing teacher once told me, we need to put a little bit of grit inside the oyster.
Pip gets ideas above his station. Sherlock Holmes finds it hard to have relationships, as well as having a drug problem. Bond drinks too much and can be cruel. And on it goes.
Naturally, these character traits shouldn’t dominate. Around 2 or 3 out of ten, to counterbalance the 7 out of 10 that we’ve already talked about.
There’s one other thing that helps, but which you hardly ever read about in writing manuals. It can help if your characters have a sense of randomness about them. Something unusual that they say or do which is never really explained. After all, that is what real people do. They have odd hobbies, sayings or actions.
In “To Kill a Mockingbird”, Scout calls her father by his name and not Pop, Dad or Sir. This has fascinated generations of readers who have tried to work out what this means. The simplest answer is that Harper Lee’s father did exactly the same thing and so she included it in the book as a semi-random detail. It hints at respect and a modern sensibility, but there is no hidden code. It’s a random (or semi random) detail.
My grandfather lost part of his index finger in an accident. He was chopping logs as a boy and … you get the picture. For the rest of his life he would point with his middle finger – a gesture which Americans now consider to be rude. That seemingly random detail doesn’t have explicit meaning, but is the sort of pearl to drop into a character.
I’d better draw this to a close. There’s lots more to talk about character, but that will probably do for now.
Next time we’ll talk about team-work.