Writing Beyond Good: Crafting Memorable Characters
By Alison Balaskovits
In my original Writing Beyond Good post, one of the factors I listed as crucial to crafting prose strong enough to be selected for publication was, “Make sure your characters, whether real-life or fictional, are not background-blenders.” Today I’m going to offer ideas to help you render your characters as glowingly illuminated as if they were in a Warren Beatty/Annette Bening movie.
Our goal as writers is to create that delicious experience we have as readers. Our goal is to have our characters stay with the reader for days after they finish reading, characters who readers think about as though they are real people, as though they know them . . . or wish they did.
• Tap Your Inner Psychologist:
To create believable and memorable characters, start with understanding people. Writers generally are fascinated by people. Take that interest a step further and ponder which specific characteristics—beliefs, education, values, background, physical attributes—seem to lead to specific actions and life choices. Think about how a person changes over time, how as a teen they differ from their adult self and from the person they were as a child. In crafting memoir, spend some time exploring the events of your life and seeing how they shaped you. Those things that make up our personalities reveal themselves in body language, speech and actions. Record your observations about these revealing physicalities along with life histories in a ‘people journal’ for use in shaping your characters.
One of the finest examples of an author laying out for the reader the life events that shape her protagonist and revealing mannerisms is Alice Walker’s Celie in The Color Purple. She is insecure, self-effacing and her ultimate transformation is deeply rooted in story events. When describing her travails, she adds, “but I’m alive,” and by that we know she has a resilience that will carry her through. And at the turning point in the novel, when Celie says, “I’m pore, I’m black, I may be ugly and can’t cook, a voice say to everything listening. But I’m here,” our hearts cheer her coming into herself. Walker’s enduring character Celie is revealed by the content of her character (note the two meanings of the word); she has been rendered as though a real person by her reactions to the events of her tragic life. We care about her journey though the fire, we care when she emerges stronger and finds contentment in the end.
• Reveal The Character Of Your Characters:
Show us your character’s character by what he does and says. The word character’s two meanings are: The people who inhabit stories and the other kind. The kind coaches talk about in sports—motivation, inner strength, stick-to-it-ness. Celie’s tribulations are so great she could easily give up on life, and, in fact, contemplates doing so. But Walker wisely builds a character with remarkable inner resources, the stuff all enduring characters are made of. Those traits should be present in your protagonist. And, as in life, those characteristics rise out of difficult situations. Character means nothing if not tested—a football player on team that always wins doesn’t have a chance to develop (or at least demonstrate) character. Make sure to give your protagonist problems which no one else can fix for them; they must rise to the challenge.
In crafting characters or describing yourself in memoir, don’t be too concerned with protagonist likeability. The truth is that readers need to empathize with your protagonist (and to some extent your antagonist), but don’t need to like them. To create empathy reveal your character’s wounds. There are psychological theories which assert that our adult behaviors are driven by childhood wounds. Explore those traumas in a character journal (see below), but know that only rarely is your prose improved by itemizing long-past trauma on the page. Instead, reveal obliquely. Instead use this gathered data to fuel and inform your work.
An unforgettable example of an arrogant character who grows in character by being faced with a live-or-die problem only he can solve is Aron Ralston’s memoir, “Between a Rock and a Hard Place,” dramatized in the film 127 Hours. The story isn’t about a hiker who cuts off his own hand to free himself from a boulder (the plot). It’s about a guy so engaged with life that he’s willing to do whatever it takes to insure his life continues—it’s about character.
The nature of a character’s character is always dependent, as in Ralston’s book, on the context of story events. The stakes (the consequences of story events) must be high enough to be worth caring about. A person who crosses the street mid-block may not lack character, but if that jaywalker gets hit by a car and the driver doesn’t stop, that driver lacks character. What the character does demonstrates character; what the author does is contextualize his actions.
• Intensity, Passion, Obsession:
In order to be compelling, like that trapped hiker your characters have to want something very very much. Make their desire intense. Celie’s transformation arises from her passion for Shug. Follow the character’s passion—make them nearly obsessive about something, be it surviving a series of abusive relationships, surviving a day hike where they are trapped by a boulder, or surviving a long hike for which they are ill prepared (overly prepared?), as Cheryl Strayed is in Wild. She could have left the trail, abandoned her quest, but rose to the challenge of completing a thousand mile solo trek. Note that this need for compelling, passionate, driven characters is equally true whether fiction or memoir. Finding your character’s obsessive passion is crucial, whether real:
Tap into your character’s desire by creating a specific journal for each character to complement the ‘people journal’ mentioned above. Record the rituals, habits and values of each major character. Write down their biographies and backstories to use in writing your novel or memoir—again, not to itemize in the manuscript, but to inform your writing. I introduced what I call Method Writing in WBG: Creating Emotional Resonance, The Sequel. It’s like method acting where you ARE the character. One way to use Method Writing is in your character journal, writing as fast as you can in the voice of your character, with no thinking or editing. Disconnect your ego, be the character. The speed helps you to immerse yourself, helps quiet your internal editor.
Take care that you don’t love your character description so much it all ends up in your story, making the whole piece essentially a character study. Something needs to happen to the characters; you need a plot (which will be the subject of another post). And if all this seems like a lot of work for words that won’t end up the page, yep, crafting enduring characters is hard, time-consuming work.
• Use Dialogue To Reveal Character:
Introducing your protagonist in action is a good way to show who they are, but dialogue can be fantastic for revealing character as well—“I’ll have eggs over easy. Make that scrambled. Why should the eggs get off easy?”—tells you more about the character than any description of looks, demeanor or thoughts.
Make use of the fact that people don’t necessarily reveal their true selves in what they say aloud. In fact, having your character say the opposite of what’s true can be most revealing. Having your alcoholic character down a couple of shots in secret before a business lunch, then turn down the offered refreshment. “No thanks, I don’t drink,” is more revealing about that character’s goals and motivations than that same heavy drinker saying, “I’ll drink to that,” at every opportunity.
Avoid introducing your characters in dialogue where they are talking about themselves. Just as in life, when we meet a person who immediately launches into their life story, we start looking for the exits. Unless, of course, what the character says about himself is so poetic, so insightful, so moving, you’ve written this scene:
In the movie Amadeus, court composer Salieri was tormented by his ability to recognize genius, as he does upon hearing what Mozart creates, while being unable to create a work of genius himself. About him one could write, “Salieri was frustrated by his comparable lack of talent.” But how much deeper our sense of who Salieri is when he is instead given these lines of dialogue:
All I ever wanted was to sing to God. He gave me that longing.
And then made me mute. Why? Tell me that.
• Use Character Traits To Create Narrative Tension:
Narrative tension is created in Salieri’s bit of dialogue by starting with what the character wants and setting about thwarting him. Examine your work to insure you’ve created narrative tension (and not just plot tension):
The character’s thwarted desire can be as transparent as Harry Potter wanting to fit in, then making him live at the Dursley’s where he can never fit in.
Or more subtle as in Water for Elephants where the protagonist greatest fear is growing old, so the author puts him in a rest home.
If your character wants to be alone, put her in a crowd, or, for a more subtle motivation, make your character lonely, so she feels alone even in that crowd. Showcase your character’s deepest desire by preventing him from having it.
• Selective Character Description:
To avoid predicable description, or what amounts to a list of character traits, try my favorite technique for getting at which traits truly matter.
“It is thus with most of us; we are what other people say we are. We know ourselves chiefly by hearsay.”
~ Eric Hoffer
Here’s my ‘Best Friend’ technique: Tell me about your best friend. Let’s say you’ve moved from a distant city and I am your new friend in your new town. What would you tell me about your friend in the city you left that would help me to understand when you talk about her? You want me, your new friend to like and understand your old friend—what would make me like her as you do? Would it be her physical characteristics? A laundry list of height, weight, hair and eye color? Likely not.
Perhaps you’d mention her exceptionally large ears, or hips so skinny you don’t know how she squeezed her kids out, or her amazing green eyes . . . but mostly I’ll bet you’d tell me what kind of person she is.
You might say: She has a funny way of talking that makes people think she’s dumb, but she’s really quite brilliant . . . I wish she had more confidence.
Or: She’s had a lot of problems, but is always cheerful and optimistic, despite things as bad as her mom leaving when she was a kid. She’s really an exceptional person—fiercely loyal to her friends, too.
Or: She’s pretty conservative—wears twin sets and pearls, even with jeans. You’d never know she’s the life of the party when she’s had a couple drinks.
Or: People think she’s shallow when they first meet her, but the truth is she volunteers to teach illiterate people to read. She bought me groceries—just showed up with them every week—when I lost my job.
Do this ‘Best Friend’ exercise for each of the characters you are creating. Tell me (your reader) about them as though they were your old best friend and you want me, your new best friend, to understand them. Villains too. It is important to write sympathetically about all characters. Imagining your antagonist as your best-friend-gone-wrong helps to create believable bad guys with understandable motivations.
Chekhov called revealing the good in the bad guy the pet-the-dog moment, so common is it to show a villain can’t be all bad if they are kind to animals. (A satirized version of this technique is Doctor Evil petting Mister Bigglesworth in the Austin Powers movies.) Unless you are writing formula fiction, avoid such stock characteristics. Write each character as though they are the main character. After all, outside of comic book plots, the antagonist is the protagonist of their own life.
Finally, start with naming your character. Early in the writing process (before?), naming your character gives her substance. Decide on both her full given name, and on how she identifies herself, as this shows character.
Remember the adage: for universality, be specific: Eddie isn’t the same person as Edward. Fast Eddie is someone else again, Eddie the Fish yet an entirely different character. Distinguish between how a character identifies himself and monikers slapped on by others: One doesn’t imagine that Tricky Dick, Slick Willy, or The Guy From Texas Whose Village Is Missing An Idiot, selected those nicknames.
If you discover as you’re progressing that the name doesn’t suit, feel free to change it. Margaret Mitchell named her protagonist “Pansy.” That’s right, Scarlett started life as a Pansy. Thank goodness her wise editor prevailed when she felt Mitchell’s heroine needed a more heroic name.
If you draw them well, if your reader invests in your character, they will follow her through suffering and celebration, heartbreak and romance, alien battles and medieval swordfights—every obstacle you throw in her path. And your lovely characters will linger in their thoughts long after they’ve closed your book.
Thanks for reading ~ QLB
Q Lindsey Barrett is a short story writer and novelist, writing teacher, conference speaker, and member of the National Book Critics Circle. She exalts writers and rejects manuscripts as Assistant Fiction Editor of Hunger Mountain and taps out atonement in her ‘Writing Beyond Good’ column at The Missouri Review Blog. One of that elusive species nocte scriptor, she can be sighted on many a starless Pacific Northwest night at her treadmill desk, walking, endlessly walking, fingers arranging and re-arranging words, ever seeking the combination that creates story magic
More Than Talking Pretty
Last week, I, and what seemed to be about half of Columbia, had the pleasure of seeing David Sedaris live at Jesse Hall. I had never seen him before and though I only started reading him recently—Me Talk Pretty One Day this summer on my lunch breaks—I knew I was in for a great night when I saw the posters hanging around campus last month.
As the lights dimmed and Sedaris emerged, bobbing towards the podium and glancing timidly at the anxious gallery awaiting him, I leaned back and prepared for that pleasant belly ache like everyone else.
And, in case you had any doubt, he did deliver.
After starting off with a piece from his latest collection, Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk, Sedaris jumped from earlier stories, to unpublished journal entries, and lastly, to jokes he’d been told on earlier readings. Also interspersed was more general oration that proved as entertaining as his writings, including a reading of a book title in what was to Sedaris an unknown language. When he asked the audience if anyone knew the language, and someone yelled “Croatian,” Sedaris replied, “Come see me after the show. The book’s yours.” Needless to say, it was a great show; but it was what followed the show that most impressed me.
The moment Sedaris said, “I’ll be in the lobby afterwards if any of you would like me to sign a book,” I began to make my move. I was clapping as I did so, sure, but I was more so concentrating on limiting was sure to be a significant wait. As I rose, made my way out of the row, I saw masses of people flooding towards the exits like there was a fire.
After standing in line for twenty minutes, two friends approached me with signed books. On one, Sedaris had sharpied a crying Jesus with the words “Why did you kill me?” above his signature. On the other, were the words, “I’m glad you can joke.” My friend had told her best one, upon Sedaris’ earlier request. I guess it hadn’t landed so well, as he’d also crossed out the word “joke” and underneath written “walk.” I laughed, impressed that Sedaris had taken the time to personalize their signings. My friends left, and I resigned myself to the long wait ahead.
Almost two hours later, a story for my fiction class as well as the university concert series pamphlet read, I was next in line to get my book signed. At this point, I thought, stealing glances at a slumped David Sedaris, I’m sure he’s just signing them. No way he’s still personalizing each signing. The person in front of me cleared out, and I stepped forward.
“Hello,” Sedaris said, smiling wide-eyed, as if I was first person to ever ask him for an autograph.
I said hello and thanked him for coming. “And thanks for your patience,” I said, “You must be exhausted.”
He paused, pen poised above the title, and looked up.
“I like signing books,” he said, and smiled.
After a moment, “It’s Owen, is it? O-W-E-N. Are you a student here, Owen?” Then, following a nod, “What are you studying?”
I told him English-Creative Writing with a fiction emphasis, and he perked up.
“Do you write short stories?”
A couple minutes and a couple questions later, he handed me my book. “Thank you for waiting,” he said, still smiling.
While he talked with my girlfriend, and asked her to tell him about her latest non-fiction piece, I flipped to the title page of Me Talk Pretty One Day.
“It was about my love for Bruce Springsteen,” she said.
He laughed. “Have you ever met him?”
She told him about the time she touched his sweaty arm and vest at a concert in Chicago.
“Oh wow,” he said. “Was it everything you’d imagined?”
As a young writer, I often feel intimated by the literary world. It is a place of grim prospect. Spend your whole life in front a computer or notebook, working to communicate something worthwhile and original in a worthwhile and original way. Sure, there are literary journals to strive towards, as well as grants and fellowships and other awards, but who cares about these things besides other writers? It’s even worse if you write primarily literary prose or poetry. Romance or crime, you’ve got a chance, but if you plan on writing anything else for a living, you better start playing the lottery.
Because of these truths, it’s easy to grow bitter. Many writers work and struggle and eventually prosper while this bitterness consumes them. I’m sure David Sedaris wouldn’t say he’s never had a bitter moment, but last night I saw no evidence of one. For at least three hours –we weren’t even close to the end— he made an effort to connect with every single person in that line. And he’s going to do the same thing every night for the next month. How does a writer, especially a well-respected literary writer, do this? Maybe if this was his first book tour, then maybe I could understand his insatiable desire to engage fans, but he’s been publishing books for over fifteen years. And not only that, but he reads his work, over and over again, with a zeal as noteworthy as his actual prose.
This baffles and inspires me. If David Sedaris can work and struggle and prosper with such an impressive character intact, I have to believe that so too can anyone. I hope I always will.
We thanked him and left. Outside Jesse, we opened our books to the title page. On mine, he’d drawn an owl perched on the publisher’s name. It looked at me, wide-eyed, patient, still. And on hers, he’d written “Your story has touched my heart.”