My choice of topic this week was developed purely from my own maneuverings into novelhood. Whenever I read great stories, like those written by Albert Camus, or Charles Dickens, for example, I find characters whole; dripping in pathos and determination. They resonate from the page and make me want to love them wholeheartedly or loathe them. There is no half ground. But what is the secret? How can I mold my stagnant, limp creations into those that jump out of the page and stay in the memory of my readers?
Characters are part of the life blood of a story; the most important building blocks of fiction. Contrary to popular believe, you don’t have to make your characters uber realistic; there’s no need to make them too life-like. After all, there are plenty of boring characters in real life. Think about it for a moment. Would you continue to read a story that was soaked in lacklustre characters? Realistic or not, the answer is NO, of course you wouldn’t. Your characters need to be that little bit bolder, that little bit naughtier, in a sense more dramatic. They don’t have to be totally whacky and way-out just as long as they possess some funny quirk or idiosyncrasy that sets them apart.
One of the key things a writer can do with character traits is show how a particular character is thinking or feeling, in other words their mental state will be a manifestation of their character traits and the experiences they have had. For example, imagine your lead character grew up in a poor, but very happy single-parent family. He had always felt secure and deeply loved and lacked nothing. How would he react when presented with a friend who is being pressured into marrying the mother of his illegitimate child. What advice would he offer?
In her book A Writer’s Guide to Character Traits, psychologist Linda N. Edelstein discusses the traits she believes are associated with childhood poverty. She explains that “traits of poverty may help plot development and emerging personality traits,” she rationalizes that poverty often means “greater levels of violence in the community; more family separations and more housing allocations; more neighborhood crime; harsher or more punitive parenting; less social and emotional support for young parents when they are new at parenting; fewer resources in the neighborhood and in the school; fewer books and more television, no computers or technology; less parental involvement in the school; fewer qualified teachers; greater exposure to unsanitary drinking water, lead-based paint and pollution; homes with structural defects, rodents or poor heating. More accidents resulting from lack of smoke detectors, fire extinguishers, gated stairs or locked storage cupboards.” With this knowledge, how would you redefine your lead character? What experiences do you think he has had? Can you see through his eyes and interpret the person he has grown into? How do you now think he will deal with his pressured friend? The character traits you develop along the way will define how your character reacts to situations. Can you see how important it is to take these leads and run with them?
So, how can you sculpt a good character? Are there any tools you can use to help move the story and character development along? Well, from my reading I have found several tools that will help: dialogue, mannerisms and character beliefs. For each of these there must be complexity and consistency. We’ll start with character beliefs, just for the sure heck of it.
A character’s beliefs should be characteristic of their persona and fit well with the type of person you have developed. Be sure you stay consistent over time. Don’t allow your character’s beliefs to clash with other characteristics; in other words, do they match with their social, religious, ethnic, political and economic background? Does your character think the way a real life person would? Do they hold complex views on life? The beliefs your character holds will pattern the choices they make and will guide the way they relate to others.
Delve deeper. What are their interests, what do they fantasize or obsess about? If your lead character is a lover of toy trains and collects data on the movements of local and national trains then he will doubtless continue with this obsession throughout the story. An obsession is unlikely to be fleeting. Make sure that it can be easily woven into the fabric of your story and remember, just in case you weren’t listening first time around, remain consistent from beginning to end.
Hopefully you are now beginning to add a few traits to those flaccid characters you have lurking in the basement of your novel. Next time we will look at ways you can use dialogue to help the process.