Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Character in the round

Early in July, M.K.B. wrote, ....Sometimes I feel some of my characters don't have enough volume and they don't feel as real to me as some of my other characters. I was trying to formulate a system to create characters. Do you have any suggestions?

And Lexi asked a related question: I know everything about my characters; there are reasons for the jobs I chose for them and backstories that explain their personalities. I just don’t know how much or how to tell my reader. How do you pack in as much information as possible without sounding stilted, and how much is too much?

In Writing Magic I offer a character questionnaire that is a kind of character-development system. (I just looked at it and was embarrassed to discover that, although I asked about appearance, I didn’t specifically mention apparel, a sad omission.) If you answer most of the questions, your character will be quite rounded - in the questionnaire. How to get all that information into your story, and whether you need to, are other matters.

There are real-life people, people I’ll bet you’ve known almost always who still surprise you. An elderly friend of mine, let’s call her Betty, pampered from childhood on, who doesn’t cope well with ordinary vicissitudes, has been battling cancer for the last five years, and about the cancer she is uncomplaining. I would never have guessed. If she were a character I would have had to give her cancer to find out.

And yet we size people up in two seconds. Someone - let’s call her Hetty - called in to a talk radio show I was listening to recently, and I disliked her by the time she’d spoken three sentences. Her hearty voice (too hearty, in my opinion) seemed to my warped ears to proclaim, Look how delightful I am. I didn’t even see her! I don’t know if she kicks her cat or volunteers at a nursing home, and even if I learned she does volunteer and is unfailingly kind to animals, I’d have to recite her virtues in my mind over and over to get past that voice.

So let’s make me and Hetty minor characters in a story. Hetty’s overbearing voice and overconfidence establish her, at least partially. My dislike of a boaster sets me up too - let’s change my name to Bonnie for this post. The reader, Lenny, who knows nothing more about these two, feels that he’s encountered two complicated people. He hasn't read much about them, but the little suggests that more is there.

If they’re minor characters, that’s all we need. In fact, it may be too much. It’s too much if Lenny is distracted, if he wishes the story would veer off and have Hetty and Bonnie meet in person and develop their relationship. Sometimes all you need is a long, trailing scarf or an interesting name. And sometimes characters aren’t important enough even to warrant a name; male or female and old or young may be sufficient. We don’t want to burden Lenny’s brain with characters he doesn’t have to remember.

Or Hetty and Bonnie may be fine with the amount of detail provided. Lenny appreciates how we populate our stories with intriguing oddballs.

What reveals character?

Hetty has an unpleasant voice, so voice helps define a character. Along with voice, there’s dialogue. What does Hetty say and how does she say it? Does she interrupt people? Does she disagree with whatever is said to her, or does she always agree? How’s her enunciation? Her grammar? And many other speech possibilities.

Bonnie’s thoughts show her to be a tad prickly or sound sensitive; thoughts bring character to light. Of course we have access to the thoughts of POV characters only - unless we’re writing in third-person omniscient.

Lenny may be a writer as well as a reader. If he becomes a character, and if his writing enters the narrative, then it will help reveal him. Introducing a character's writing, a diary, for example, is a way to slip in the thoughts of non-POV characters.

What else?

Those aspects of appearance that a person can control, which covers a lot of territory. Bonnie, for instance, is short (I am). Does she wear three-inch heels or flats? Does her erect bearing suggest a taller person? Lenny sports a goatee and chooses to wear glasses rather than contact lenses.

Clothing. One could write about this forever. Not only clothing itself, but also about clothing in a setting. Does Hetty wear a suit to the company picnic?

The setting that a character controls, Lenny’s house, his room if he’s too young to have a house (forget the goatee in this case). What’s his taste? Is he neat or sloppy?

These seemingly little things, Hetty’s bedroom with the martial arts posters, the free weights in the corner, the biography of Helen Keller on the desk, or Lenny’s goatee or Betty’s weighty painted beads around her neck and the four bracelets on each arm, suggest developed, deep characters.

Actions, which may be more important than anything else, define character. Hetty listens and calls in to a talk show. Bonnie just listens. Betty calls her son and complains, but never about the cancer. Lenny reads.

Everything is subject to interpretation. Does Hetty listen and call in out of loneliness? She lives alone and likes to hear voices on the radio. Then she gets so caught up she has to respond. Or does she call for some other reason? Does Lenny have a goatee and glasses because he wants to appear professorial? Or is the goatee hiding a weak chin, and he wears glasses because contact lenses seem vain to him? Or a thousand other reasons. If Lenny moves from reader to important character, we may learn what his motivations are. We learn motivation from further action, possibly from his explanations in dialogue, from his thoughts if he’s a POV character.

I’m not sure about backstory. If the backstory doesn’t move to the front story, I think it’s more for the writer to know than for the reader. Backstory will influence a character's actions, but Lenny doesn’t have to know that Hetty’s father locked her in the cellar when he was in a bad mood - unless the father or the cellar or something directly related comes into the story.

Coming into the story is the key to what character development to put in and what to leave out. If you need it for the plot, then include it. If you don’t and the information makes the story drag, leave it out. If you don’t need it but it’s fascinating in its own right and Lenny doesn’t get bored, it’s up to you and the kind of story you’re writing. You can’t please everybody. Lenny may like an embellished story but his brother Lonny may prefer his fiction stripped down to action action action.

Only one prompt today:

Betty, Bonnie, Hetty, and Lenny, strangers to one another, all attend a reading by the famous teenage fantasist Tammy Millhart. At the end she announces that before the event she hid a talisman, an ebony ball, somewhere in the local amusement park. She chooses three teams, one of one of them comprising our characters, to look for the ball. Whichever team finds it will be given a far more serious mission; the entire population of a mid-size city will be at risk. Write our quartet’s search while developing each one as a complex personality. Do all of them want their search to succeed? Tammy can be an important character too if you like. She can attach herself to your team or wander from team to team. Is she helping or getting in the way?


  1. From the website:

    Gail, thank you so much for answering my question! Unfortunately, I'm still not really sure how much to add, but this clears the water a little. Some of the backstories would add a lot of depth to the story, although I'm not sure where to put them in, but you're right, others would probably just get in the way of the story. Thanks for your thought-provoking post!

  2. I've heard this called "The iceberg theory." (Most of what you know about the characters + world is below the surface, never seen, but it holds up the rest.)

    Lexi, I ask myself "Is this related to what's going on right now?" If a character has a need or intense want to know about something, the reader will want to know too. The time to mention that Character A is an EMT, 55 years old, who almost died of bee-stings when he was 12, is when he has to rescue the extremely large barbarian warlord who's passed out on top of a bee's nest. ;)

  3. From the website:

    Thank you sooooooooo much for answering my question :-D

  4. Gail- do you usually have to try to think of something to write? Or do you have to have an idea before you start?

  5. Melissa--I have a list of ideas that I go back to, and I think up new ideas. I don't outline, but I write lots of notes before I start a story. My way is only one way, though. Everybody works differently.

  6. Gail- Are people allowed to actually write books from the prompts you give at the end of each chapter in Writing Magic? Or would that be plagiarism? I really like the prompt that says "I have one blue eye and one green eye."

  7. Melissa--You are certainly allowed to write from the prompts in WRITING MAGIC and here on the blog. In fact, you're encouraged to. If your story becomes a book and gets published, you can dedicate it to me! Just kidding, but if that happens an acknowledgment would be nice.

  8. Ooh thanks, Ms. Levine! I've wondered that myself. I was really hoping to use a couple of those. Don't worry - I'll mention in the dedication if anything happens with it. ;)

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  10. Sorry, I've been so busy lately that I haven't gotten on here in three weeks. I also changed my e-mail. I used to be Emma, but now I'm writeforfun.

    Great post! I had Lexi's problem exactly in my last book, although in my current one, I’m having M.K.B.’s problem. I’m with Lexi, though; how do you know where to put those important backstories, the ones that are pivotal to a character? Is there any way to know, or do you just put it where it seems “right”?

  11. writeforfun--Maybe there's more to say about backstories. I'm adding your question to my list.

  12. I'm doing the young writers nanowrimo. My user name is Wink for anyone who cares to be a writing buddy.

  13. Thanks, that'll be helpful, I'm sure!

    I know this is more of a fiction writing blog, so feel free to ignore this, but I was wondering if you have any advice on writing poetry. Lately I've taken to writing inspirational poems and I just wondered if there are any techniques or common mistakes amateur poets make. I've been experimenting with different rhyme schemes (AAA, ABAB, AABB, ect.) but aside from that, I'm clueless! Just curious if you had anything to say.

  14. writeforfun--I love writing poems! But I'm a beginning poet, and I don't feel qualified to write posts on the subject. However, I do know that there's more than one kind of rhyme. There's vowel rhyme (assonance), consonant rhyme, internal rhyme, and more. If you google "kinds of rhyme," you can read up on them. And there's an excellent book that may help you with poetry in general: THE TEACHERS AND WRITERS HANDBOOK OF POETIC FORMS (high school level and up, I'd guess).

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  16. Thanks, I'll try to find that book!