Lightning in a Bottle-Characterization in the Short Story
“Remember, I am not recording the vision of a madman. The sun does not more certainly shine in the heavens, than that which I now affirm is true. Some miracle might have produced it, yet the stages of the discovery were distinct and probable. After days and nights of incredible labour and fatigue, I succeeded in discovering the cause of generation and life; nay, more, I became myself capable of bestowing animation upon
lifeless matter”.---Victor Frankenstein, Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
I must admit that I feel a little like Victor Frankenstein when I begin the process of writing a short story. As I start to form the characters that will populate the story, I can sense life arising from nothing. As I start to write or type my story, my own version of lightning, each of the participants in the story begin to take on a new shape. The characters become mentally corporal (if you will allow a contradictory metaphor); real in my mind and, hopefully, real to the reader while they peruse the story.
In my opinion, creating these lives is one of the great pleasures of writing. Fleshing out the details of a fictional character is not only fun, but often, as your story unfolds, what is required of your character can be completely different than what you first imagined. Unlike conflict, where I argue the writer should have a clear, focused concept, characters can be flexible, changing while you write the story.
So, what makes a character believable? Several things, of course, but what I’d like to focus on today are the more perceivable qualities of characters, saving the “mental” aspects of characters for another day. I’m also going to focus on main characters, those who are the primary actors in a short story.
To start with, unless your character is the invisible entity or you are trying to keep the character’s identity a secret, it helps to reveal physical traits. What color is the person’s hair? What color are his eyes? Does she wear makeup? Does the character have a distinct aroma? By providing details about the character’s physical appearance, you can help the reader visualize the person you wish to create. Part of the task of the writer is to take the reader into that “fictional reality” whereby the reader becomes aware only of the reality of the story they are reading. In reality things exist which have shapes and colors and smells. Our job is to translate these physical characteristics onto the written page.
Sheer description, of course, is not merely enough to bring a character to life, and too much description will bog the story down. Remember, in a short story every word counts. So, another aspect that defines a character is that person’s mannerisms. Remember, one of the goals we are attempting when we create new characters is to create unique characters. Of the several ways that we can make a character different and stand out one is by having them act in a particular way. Give the character a nervous twitch, like one of the characters from our WhoDunnit campfire. Perhaps the antagonist has an evil glare which he uses on your protagonist. Your character might need to make grand entrances. The list of individual mannerisms is endless, but by giving your characters distinctive ways of acting, you will set them apart in the reader’s mind.
Another area that helps develop the individual character is speech patterns. I would wager that everyone has read or tried to write a story with a character from the southern United States. The attempt at the so-called southern drawl can often be a challenge, but when done correctly, the character is so real you can almost taste the mint juleps, grits, or sweet tea. A definitive speech pattern is one sure way to develop individual characters. Speech patterns can also be more than accents. Individuals in a story might have speech impediments. Characters can be repetitive, can be limited in vocabulary, or can be snobbish in their vocabulary. There are any number of speech patterns which you as the writer can employ to make your characters both stand out and be believable.
It should be obvious that the above list is hardly exhaustive. Nor are all of these items essential every time you create a character. Through practice good writers develop the knowledge on the use of the above criteria, specifically when and how to use physical traits, mannerisms, and speech patterns.
So, I would like to know what other “physical” aspects do you employ when creating characters for your stories? I know several people like to produce character biographies prior to writing. Do you feel that they are useful? Tell the group about your writing experiences when developing characters. How, like Victor Frankenstein, do you catch lightning in a bottle?
For practice, I suggest attempting the following task:
Writing Exercise: In one or two paragraphs, begin the process of creating a character. Like Frankenstein, begin your character at the moment that consciousness begins. This can be when a character is actually born, or maybe when the character awakens from sleep, or just when a character awakens to some particular realization. Focus on the “physical” aspects described above. Submit the exercise either in bitem form or as a posted message. Be prepared to answer questions from the group concerning your creative process.