Believable Fiction Workshop: June 2007
A Writer's Characters -- from Chapter 6
of Ron Rozelle's Description and Setting
The characters who become inhabitants of your fiction are the actors who will take you to the stage of your reader’s mind. They are the channels for the dialogue you’ll write, and the players in your conflicts and resolutions. You’ll have to conjure up all manner of folks to get the job done. One of the first decisions you’ll need to make when a story is forming in your head is how you’ll go about describing these characters.
Let’s say your protagonist is a woman of thirty, and she arrives at a party in your first scene. She might gravitate toward the safe harbor of a corner, losing herself in the dull pattern of the wallpaper. On the other hand, she might stride purposefully in and guffaw loudly, planting her feet wide: a force to be reckoned with. More than likely, her conduct will fall somewhere between these two extremes. However she behaves, you’ll need a skillful description. The protagonist carries a significant workload in the process of storytelling, and your reader’s first impression of her is crucial.
That skillful description can’t stop with the first scene: neither is it restricted to major characters. Most of your characters will need to be sufficiently described so that your reader can get a good picture of them. Your goal should be for your descriptions to work for your reader’s understanding.
You’ll want to convey as much about personality as you do looks. Don’t limit your descriptions to their most utilitarian function: giving essential facts regarding what somebody looks or sounds like. Work attitude, philosophy, vulnerability, and lots of other information can be included in your descriptions.
The extent to which you’ll describe your characters will depend on what you will have them doing at any given time in your tale. But whatever the situation, and whatever the level of description, you will do well to remember this: your reader needs to see the people in your fiction as clearly as you do.
Providing a physical description of what your characters look like can come in very short doses—like saying that someone had butter-colored hair—to much longer ones like this one from William Faulkner’s short story, “A Rose for Emily”:
They rose as she entered—a small, fat woman in black, with a thin gold chain descending to her waist and vanishing into her belt, leaning on an ebony cane with a tarnished gold head. Her skeleton was small and spare; perhaps that was why what would have been merely plumpness in another was obesity in her. She looked bloated, like a body long submerged in the motionless water, and of that pallid hue. Her eyes, lost in the fatty ridges of her face, looked like two small pieces of coal pressed into a lump of dough as they moved from one face to another while the visitors stated their errand.
Faulkner carefully works in detail after detail like a painter using small strokes with a fine-tipped brush. In a story aimed at readers of popular fiction, you would need to stay a bit closer to what exactly you need the reader to know about this woman. Just remember that readers of popular fiction aren’t as tolerant of long descriptions as literary readers.
One way to go about this multiplicity of purpose in your own story or novel is to list everything that you can think of regarding a particular character in your writer’s journal. Get it all down—height, weight, coloring, beliefs, faults, strengths, the way he sits in a chair — anything and everything you can come up with. Don’t just put things down that you’re pretty sure will end up in your story: your knowledge of this guy will have to be broader than that in order for him to work in your fiction. If he ends up being left in charge of a child in one of your scenes, it’s essential for you to know how dependable he is, whether it is important for your reader to know it or not. Good writers know the motivations of each and every character they write: what drives them and what stops them cold. The only way for you to know a character that well is to immerse yourself in his or her persona. So make the list; you’ll be surprised how complex your creations end up being.
Don’t be guided by how much description you can come up with. You’re a writer—so you can come up with tons of stuff. Judge how much someone or something in your story needs to be described. Many times brevity will win out over elaboration.
Writers often create characters based on a person in history, or someone that they have known personally. What the two have in common is that they are each patterned after actual people who drew breath and walked around and lived (or live) their lives outside of just your imagination.
Putting a real person that you can’t stand in your fiction, with all their warts and foibles intact, can be downright therapeutic. But tread cautiously. That old “any similarity to any persons living or dead is purely coincidental” might not prove as magically cleansing as most folks think. And if so and so that you’ve woven into your story is too recognizable and still falls into the “living” category, he might cause you some grief. That’s not to say you can’t slip him in, or parts of him—the worst parts probably.
The other danger of putting in people that you know is to give in to the desire to honor them by making them recognizable in your fiction. This is almost always a mistake, since your characters should be exactly who you need them to be. More precisely, they need to be who your story needs them to be. Allowing your decision regarding characters to be dictated by a grocery list of friends that want to be included in your writing will dilute this essential process and weaken your writing. People who don’t write fiction don’t understand the precision of the craft. Send you well meaning friend a copy of your book, or dedicate a book to her, but leave her out of your fiction. . . .
Whether you’re describing Saint Paul, Adolph Hitler, or anyone in between, remember to abide by the clutter rule. Use only those traits and features and actions that serve to move your story along, and avoid teaching a history lesson about the person or their importance.
There’s one more category of character that is based on a real person we need to discuss: the one you will write about on occasion that is based on you. Much is made in some writing books and creative writing workshops of the importance of keeping yourself out of your fiction. On the other hand, you should write what, and who, you know.
Ernest Hemingway will serve as a nice example. His protagonists were nearly always him, through and through. He was the kind of guy who wants to be the bridegroom at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral. In other words, he was the center of attention. We’re all like that to some degree. We usually write what we know. And what we know is ourselves. So my bit of advice on this is like my advice on other real people: Use only descriptions that are called for in a particular story or novel. Even so, much of you will sneak in; you should accept it and expect it. After all, you relate your tale in your voice, so it’s logical that other parts of you will follow along.
The Character Profile Sheet
If you expect your reader to know some things about your character, then you’d better know many things about him or her. A profile sheet like the one shown just below will help you define who you’ll be using in your story. Just look at it as your character filling out an application to be in your fiction. When you’re done, put it in your writer’s journal for a quick and easy reference.
Favorite type of movie:
Strongest personal relationship:
Weakest personal relationship:
Who would he/she have voted for in the last presidential election?
This list is a good start on finding out who your main characters are. Make this profile sheet your own by adding a few areas of particular interest to you and your subject. Does this person drink alcohol to excess or do drugs? Does he have a police record? What is his bank account like? You get the idea. Identify your character in all his positive and negative aspects. When you put him in a situation, his response will be second nature to you if you’ve already fleshed out his character in a profile.
The people who do and say the things and words that you put in your fiction are, in large part, what makes your story work for your reader. So treat them well, and describe them well.
Exercise and Prompts
Stand in front of your bathroom mirror--or sit yourself down with one of the hand held variety--and take a good, hard, long look at yourself. Now write down what you see in such a way that somebody that has never laid eyes on you might see you through your description. Work in hints of character, flaws, a spiritual awareness, or that evil gleam in your eye that an elementary teacher saw long ago. Write this up as an item, and leave a link in the forum for your 'mates to read.
Using one of your previous pieces of writing, choose one character, major or minor, and look for ways to use your description of him for more than to just report what he looks like. Consider ways you can work other elements--foreshadowing, prejudice, fear, a deep dark secret--into your overall delivery of this fellow to your reader. Write this as a new item, and insert a link to your original piece. Post you work in the Utimate Writer's Workshop Forum.
We often make discoveries or come to realizations when we read other's work--especially based on a identical theme. Check back at 'the Forum' during the month and read what's been written. It's always grand to receive an encouraging word from another writer!
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