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CHARACTER by Fish
by Fish
Fish -- all rights reserved

 

Writing Characters

Characters do the bulk of the work in fiction. They carry most of the emotional load and forward most of the plot. I believe it is essential to have the right characters in a story. The kind of story I am able to tell is based on the kind of characters I put in it. Therefore this is an important choice-not only in the kinds of characters I use, but in how my characters go about making themselves known to the reader.

Characters are people. Yes, I know; those of you who write transformation stories will object. However, I didn't say they are human people. This is to say that characters do things for their own reasons, they have likes and dislikes, goals and fears, a past, and a way of doing things based on all of the above.

Think about the last time you were introduced to someone new. You were given a brief introduction-perhaps you'd heard of him before. In person, You saw what he looked like. You listened to how he talked-and what he talked about. You saw how he was dressed, how he treated you and others, what he ate and drank, how he behaved in public. And you put together a clear picture of his personality based on these things.

Writing characters is exactly like this. The author introduces him, gives us a bit of information to start with, and from then on we, the readers, are left to our own devices. We observe the character's habits and speech and from there we piece together the character's personality. The only difference, in a story, is that we are able to look into the character's head and see his thoughts and dreams and emotions and fears.

Introducing a New Character

One of the most difficult things for beginning writers to get a good grasp on is the first few sentences about a character. Just think of it as a personal introduction. The reader needs enough to go on without necessarily getting a life story.

A common mistake by beginners is to dump all of the characterization into that first paragraph. Everything relevant about the character is documented in detail, often represented by numbers and listed characteristics, as if we are reading someone's birth certificate and driver's license. After that, the author seems to feel his job at characterization is done. It looks something like this:

Steve was an 18-year-old teenage boy who was a senior in high school and was 5'11" with blue eyes and blonde hair and was on the chess team but everyone picked on him because he was a geek, even though he didn't wear glasses, but one time there was this bigger kid who grabbed Steve's head and gave him swirlies in the boy's toilet and laughed, and that kid's name was Roland, and Steve really wanted to be an astronaut more than anything else in the world so he always studied really hard and tried his best and helped out at home and was always in the library, except when he was helping his poor sick grandmother, and Steve had braces.

One day Steve was...

Building a character is much more than dumping a life story on the reader. If Steve were your friend, you wouldn't introduce him this way. Instead, you might describe him by impressions rather than by achievements, by emotions rather than by statistics, or by behaviors instead of activities. Try this:

Steve was tall, although he contrived to seem smaller by slouching his back. It was as if he were trying to make himself smaller. Even without glasses, his face had a scholarly appearance, although with the perennial, haunted look of one who is the favorite tarket of other high school seniors. He seemed to be analyzing his next move, as he would a chess game.

This isn't perfect, but it's an improvement. Now the reader can see for himself what kind of life Steve seems to have-he can read it on Steve's face and in his body language. Some of the details have gone, but not all of the details were part of an essential introduction. However, we're still not completely there. There is another useful technique.

Steve was introduced to us-but by whom? Someone could introduce him for us. Sometimes it is only the author, but at other times it is nice to see another character's perspective. It can be a richer way to go about it.

I met Steve in the library as he worked his way through an autobiography of Buzz Aldrin. He looked up sharply as I approached his table, as if he were on the alert for approaching bullies. He seemed tall, taller than I was, but had a hunched look as if he wanted to make himself less of a target. When he saw who I was, he relaxed and smiled a mouthful of braces at me. Still, I had the impression that he was analyzing me as a grandmaster might size up an approaching knight.

Or:

Roland was lighting his second cigarette when Steve came out of the library clutching a pile of books. Damn kid, Roland thought idly. Someone would give him a good beating one of these days. Always reading, that was the problem. No good ever came of a smart kid. He had heard once that Steve wished to be an astronaut and already had his scholarship to MIT whereas he, Roland, had just gotten a job down at the Quik-E-Lube. Yes, Steve was trouble. Tall kid with blonde hair and braces. Roland took a deep drag on his cigarette. He'd remember that face. For later.

The two examples above have context. In the first one, the narrator is colorless, neither a friend nor a threat, but we see Steve through the narrator's eyes. The second example is even stronger. We have a clear idea of Steve but an even clearer idea of Roland, and of what Roland thinks of Steve. We have a basis on which to build their relationship.

But we're not done with characterization.

Show Us, Don't Tell Us

This is the favorite refrain of creative writing teachers, and it is absolutely correct. Even after you have introduced a character, your job is not done. Indeed, it has only begun.

Everything a character does, says, thinks, feels, eats, drinks, owns, wears, loves, hates, fears and fucks is part of his personality. It stands to reason that every time you use one of these elements of a character, everything about the character is an opportunity to do more characterization. Consider Roland, in the last example above. What kind of car would he drive? What would he do on the weekend? What music does he listen to? Does Roland do drugs, drink beer? Does he eat health food and exercise? Does he have a girlfriend-and what is she like? Is Roland intelligent or cunning or sly? Would he prefer to read or to watch television? What makes him laugh? What is his worst fear?

The same questions could be asked of Steve, of course. The better you are able to answer these questions for yourself, the better you will know him; the more smoothly you can introduce these distinctive answers to us, the better we will know him.

Based on what we know about Roland (he has a job at Quik-E-Lube, he smokes quite a bit, and resents people smarter than he) I can gradually extend that character. Personally, I see him driving an older car, one he can service and take apart himself: no fuel injection, no complicated computer diagnostics. Roland might take his weekends as very serious party time, listening to loud music and drinking. He might toke up occasionally with his friends, because he doesn't really have a girlfriend to his name. Roland avoids that kind of kissy-kissy relationship; he prefers things on a more basic physical level. He's not educated, but he has a street cunning and a survivalist streak. Roland isn't comfortable with books-because he's dyslexic? had trouble in school?-and prefers to watch crude, unsophisticated comedy with plenty of jokes about breasts, farts, and sexual innuendo. Roland is terrified of facing his own inadequacy, so he covers it all up with bluster and feels the need to prove himself constantly.

I can do slightly better than this by picking concrete details. He owns a 1986 Trans Am. On the weekends he puts on Hole and drinks Mickey's Big Mouth in the forty-ounce bottle. His favorite movie is Bikini Car Wash.

Character writing is done by knowing that personality and building around it, showing the reader specific details, not by listing them at the beginning, but by showing them a few at a time. Every time the character opens his mouth you have a golden opportunity to give the reader valuable insight-and everything he does, everywhere he goes, every choice he makes. Take advantage of the opportunity and your character will come to life.

How do You Create a Character?

Fine, you say. But where do these characters come from? What is your inspiration for a character? How do you decide what he's like? How can you really know someone who doesn't exist?

Characters come from all over-and they come from inside. You can create one meticulously using logic and reason and sufficient care to detail-or a character can create himself and clamor for your attention. There is no single way I can think of to create a character. However, some techniques work better for me than do others.

Some characters are based on real people. This is one of the easier ways I have found to write characters. In The Mirror of Aphrodite, Virginia was based on a young woman I had once dated. She was playful, bold, confident, and very direct about sex. With a few changes to her circumstances, the character of Virginia was born.

In Eleven, the character of Shae is based on a girl who sat beside me in Trigonometry in high school. The girl was on the school dance/drill team and beautiful; she was intelligent, quirky, funny, had a wide range of interests that overlapped with my own; and she and I talked quite a bit during class, or passed notes. Dee is based upon another former girlfriend, a razor-sharp young lady with a broad streak of compassionate cynicism and liberal politics.

I say based upon because it is truly only a starting point. Characters often begin with one basis and gradually change as I flesh them out. Dee, for instance, was found reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which her real-life inspiration would have read. Dee, however, was in Physics; this girl took Psychology. If we were transformed, as in the story, the girl would not have taken pleasure or gloated over me-I think-but Dee does gloat over Paul. Dee doesn't have the same split personality, either; she's much less likely to wax romantic or daydream or embrace the same cosmic-astral mysticism that my former girlfriend appreciated. In some ways, Dee is more hard-headed, with more hard edges to her, because that's what I needed for her to be.

Some characters write themselves. You may have heard writers talk about characters that write themselves. An author might say this character got out of control. For me, this is an ideal character. It is also not something I as a writer can turn on and off. Good characters do seem to write themselves without my conscious intervention. I know without thought how that character will react and the process of writing turns into that of a stenographer who sees the events in his head and desperately tries to type fast enough to commit the scene to words.

I can't give you advice how to make this happen. Sometimes it does, and it's a joy to watch. It's almost as if you're reading the story yourself as it's being written. Even you don't exactly know what's going to happen next.

Some characters are based on the needs of the story. In some situations it becomes necessary to create a character who has specific traits, a specific function, or to fill a certain scene. When I need one of them, I think to myself and reason out the needs of the story first. For example, I might need a policeman in a minor role. I might want a friend or neighbor to turn up and borrow a lawnmower. I may need a co-worker or boss. Whatever the role I need filled, I use my reason to decide how that character should read.

How will that that character's scene end-and what personality will get me to that ending? Will that personality work well with those around him, and still get me to the ending I'm looking for? Have I overlooked any illogic that makes the character awkward or unreal? What is the stereotype and how have I avoided it?

I don't watch much television. I don't see many movies. I don't generally create characters like the Jock, the Drill Sergeant, the Bitch, the Corrupt Cop, the Detective, the Cheerleader Princess, the Teacher, the Businessman or the Preacher. There is much more to a real person than what he does for a living, although you could argue that he does for a living what he does because of who he is. Character stereotypes are hard to write with and harder to break out of. Nobody is average. Nobody is typical. Make sure you create the character for the story, and for the scene, rather than for your convenience.

Suppose I need my policeman to pull over the hero, warn him, and let him go without giving him a ticket. I want to know why. Maybe he's already met his quota of tickets for the month. Perhaps he's just generous. He could be already thinking of taking the weekend off to go fishing. But I do know that he has to get me to the point where he lets the hero go. If I just gave him a Generic Cop personality, he might not get me the ending I want.

What does that mean? The character resists the author? Well, sometimes. Some characters feel like they're resisting when you write them doing funny things. For a more rational definition, think of it this way: a character has a certain range of behaviors that you would find believable as a reader. To step outside that range without warning would jar the reader. When a reader begins to think of things other than the story she's reading, or when she begins to question why a character did or didn't do something, you've lost your grip on her.

For minor characters, it is important that they remain real people as much as possible without taking too much of the writer's time to create (or the reader's ability to follow). Be sure that they seamlessly fill their designated role in the story.

Plot-Driven Characters

I tend to think of characters as being in service to the plot, or of the plot being in service to the characters. The first one is much as I just described above. You're already aware of the plot, or the theme, or the general material to be described; now you need a character to carry the load.

Every plot has an emotional consideration. People don't often do things because for the right reasons, for the moral reasons, or for the good of the many. If everyone did that, everyone would be the same. People in stories are motivated by emotions and circumstances. In order to know what characters are best-suited to carry your plot, find the emotional angle.

Find the weak points in the subject matter. Find where the rules don't apply. Examine the thin gray area where the edges lie. Locate characters that are most motivated by the emotions and circumstances of the subject matter. Every plot has them; you simply have to see them.

Suppose I were to write a story, and all I knew for certain was that I wanted to write it about slavery. Specifically, black slavery in the American South. This confines my characters to those that existed after slaves were imported to North America. Several obvious characters immediately leap to mind, although I admit this is an easy topic to start with.

I think of black slaves themselves and their white owners. There were abolitionists, and the Underground Railroad to help fugitive slaves escape, there were bounty hunters who hunted the fugitives, and there were poor landowners who could afford no slaves. There were politicians who were forced to vote on the slavery issue for political reasons. There were white owners who took slave mistresses who had mixed-race children. You might also imagine the captain of a slave vessel plying the Atlantic on the Middle Passage from Africa to Virginia. Or a tribesman in Africa selling his political enemies to the slavers. All sorts of characters spring immediately to mind on the subject matter because it is an emotionally charged idea whose core is fairly obvious. One of these characters is bound to have the emotional core to drive the story you wish to tell.

The emotional core isn't always very obvious. For a writer who sits down to write a story about transformation, his first decision is likely to be what am I going to transform the character into? Trust me: your choice of species is almost immaterial to the emotional content. What matters most is how the character should react, and whether that tells the story you want.

In Going South, I wanted to write a story about a person who was going to change into a migratory bird, who then feels an overpowering desire to go south for the winter. What character, I thought, would best tell that story?

It seemed to me the best way to go about it was to choose a character for whom leaving was a difficult choice to make. Perhaps someone with a deep-seated sense of responsibility, with a wife and children he could not abandon? Or perhaps a soldier, for whom leaving represented a crime? Crime. Aha-perhaps a criminal, in prison. Because he is behind bars, he will feel the urge to migrate but be unable to do so. He would have to escape from prison first, a very natural desire for a convict. He escapes and heads south-isn't that what prisoners do, head south to Mexico? Yes: Mexico represented freedom. Better yet, in the spring he would be compelled to return north to where he started. And isn't that a statement on the nature of career criminals, always returning to re-offend? Isn't that a bit like returning to one's nest?

I had my character. Now it was just a matter of writing the story.

In Mirror of Aphrodite, I wanted to describe a realistic tale of a modern-day brain transplant. I decided that this would be the first, or one of the first, successful attempts with a human. Therefore I needed a character willing to try, someone for whom the risk of failure-that is, death-held no fears. This person could have nothing to lose by trying.

The answer was obvious: someone with a terminal condition. A little thought ruled out a brain tumor, and further thought ruled out any candidate with any condition likely to affect the brain. I ruled out surgical candidates with AIDS because of the complication of spreading the virus to a new host. But at that point it was only choosing a medical condition. I knew, based on the needs of the story, that it must be a terminal case. I constructed my character upon that idea, reasoning that a young terminal patient might have become very bitter and pessimistic, and would later have difficulty accepting the success of the operation. And that was what I wrote.

In Touch of Ages, I had envisioned an entire world full of people with an uncanny talent to transform themselves or others. The world as we know it now would be subtly changed in almost every way. Who should tell my tale?

I decided there had to be someone who could tell the difference between a transformed subject and one in his natural state. This person's job would be to verify identity, track down missing or disguised persons, assist the police and the courts, and thus was born Leslie Crane, my Trace Agent. Because her job description had the flavor of a detective, it helped establish the tone for my first few stories. Leslie would, indeed, be a detective of sorts.

Character-Driven Plots

You may notice that there is some give and take between a character and the plot she inhabits. Sometimes an author selects a certain character because he needs to; sometimes the character naturally goes in a particular direction, and the author changes the plot because he has to-or he fires that character and hires a replacement.

I think of a character-driven plot as when the author decides to put several unique characters into a situation just to see what happens. The more distinctive characters you write, the more you will understand how certain actions come more naturally to them than do other actions. Perhaps this can best be illustrated with examples well-known characters.

Superman gets angry at a bank robber and twists off the crook's head, then plants the decapitated head on a spike outside the Fortress of Solitude.

Someone steals an ancient artifact from Indiana Jones. Jones just shrugs and says, "Hey, who cares? Plenty more where that came from."

The Discworld is in trouble, and failed wizard Rincewind rushes forth to do battle and defend the city of Ankh-Morpork against evil creatures from the Dungeon Dimensions.

Richard III is thwarted in his ambition for the throne of England by a legal decision based on a technicality. Richard accepts the decision with good grace.

These characters would not do any of these things. It is against their natures. Superman is too much a straight arrow and a goody-two-shoes to kill a mere bank robber. Indiana Jones is dogged and stubborn and chases after his prizes for years until he gets his hands on them. Rincewind is an abject coward and only saves people by accident or under duress. And Richard the Third is notorious for his unscrupulous obsession with obtaining power.

A character-driven plot just lets an assortment of characters do what they do best. It's not always easy to see where it's headed, or even if it will get you to where you want to go. They're still quite a bit of fun, with the right cast of characters.

Which One Works Best?

Sorry to waffle here, but they both do. They're intertwined. I begin by imagining either a plot, or a character or two; I try to project from that what the other elements might be. Given my plot, like slavery, I add a few characters. Given a few characters, like a slave trader, I add a few more plot elements-the abolition of slavery that decimates the slave trade industry, perhaps. Given that, I need other characters to fill the roles of politicians and abolitionists, and freed slaves, and so forth. It goes back and forth, at least until I have enough material to work with.

My process isn't perfect. Sometimes I get into a story and realize I haven't cast a particular role. I throw a character into the mix and find he's much more interesting than one of my planned roles, so I dispense with the planned one. Sometimes I get into a story and realize that my existing cast is rewriting the plot. I then need to figure a way to get them back on track. That might require another character to intervene, perhaps, or to create some kind of extenuating condition that keeps them in check.

When I first wrote the story Enter the Dragon for the "Here and There" universe, I had trouble with a scene when Burke the soldier first met the Captain, then in the shape of a giant dragon. Neither spoke the other's language. Burke had just rescued my avatar from a rapist, his former commanding officer, and the dragon was on the way to save me himself. Emotions were running very high among the characters, and in my initial draft, Burke's first reaction was to attempt to defend my avatar from this dangerous beast. The dragon's first reaction was to cook Mr. Burke in his superheated steam breath, injuring him mightily and nearly killing him.

I stopped there and considered the future. In that world, with limited technology and no hospital, I had no way of fixing Burke's injuries.

Oops, I thought. I've got to go back and fix that so they don't do that again. I rewrote the scene to its present incarnation, where my avatar senses the growing tension and defuses it by introducing them safely. They still didn't trust one another for a long time thereafter, but it was better than what I'd had.

In Eleven, I wanted Paul to have a passive personality, more of an observer than a participant. Eventually I came to a scene where he visited the physics lab to see an ongoing experiment that turned upside-down all that was thought to be known about physics. Paul's natural reaction would be to tell others about it, to report it. I realized quickly that I couldn't allow him to do so, so I made the character of Stacy warn him not to, that the students weren't ready to publish their findings.

This kind of thing happens all the time, when good characters have free rein.

The Emotional Core of Physical Transformation

If you're looking for a chart on how to write meaningful transformation stories, give it up. I don't have one. Transformation has only a few very basic emotional cores and not all of them are suited to carry a story of any length or depth.

Transformation is just another kind of character development, a milestone in the life of a character which causes his status, his life, and his world to change. It is, in its own unusual way, akin to getting a haircut or a tattoo, similar to putting on a tuxedo or a military uniform, and much like a college degree, a disfiguring accident, or a drug addiction. All of these change the nature of the character, and also alter the way the world reacts to him.

Sure, you could write a transformation story that's all about some guy who stumbles across an ancient Indian burial ground or a mysterious gypsy or a disgruntled witch. Suddenly your protagonist is a wolf or an eagle or a frog, and you write an exquisite two-page study on the physical sensation of transformation. To do so would lack plot, depth, and emotional resonance.

You may notice that the stories in my archive contain almost no detailed transformations. I do this for several reasons. First is for reasons of pace; a ten-page story doesn't need six pages of transformation and four of everything else. Second, I don't see the physical transformation as the most critical part of the story. It is a gimmick, if you will-albeit one of which I am very fond-designed to engender a change in the character's situation. What I find interesting are the ramifications. How does the character react?

Transformations do have emotional cores, namely the nature of personal identity, the specter of loss and losing one's old life, and, depending on the kind of transformation, in accepting one's altered nature. The obvious characters that spring to mind are the male chauvinist who becomes a woman against his will, or the transgendered soul who becomes one and fulfills his deepest desire; the hunter who becomes a deer; the vegetarian who becomes a predator; the acrophobe who becomes a bird; the bully who becomes prey. All of the above are used and overused when the author grants a transformation to a character, usually as punishment, and most often as a kind of ironic last word, ha ha, see how you like it, let's turn the tables on you, isn't that a suitable ending? O. Henry would be proud.

I don't write those stories.

I maintain that transformation stories are only a moment in the continuum, an episode that changes the character. What I think is most compelling is the reaction afterwards.

When I set out to write a transformation story, I try to think of an emotion that the transformation can change. Hope, for example, can be made into despair or vice-versa. Anger can become tolerance. Self-doubt can become confidence. It needn't always be an opposite, either, but in some way the character will change in some way other than physical. Most of the time I write characters who never considered transformation before the story, or for whom transformation is so natural that they don't think much about it. I want that character to approach the situation from his own fresh perspective.

In The Peach, set in the dead-ball era of baseball around 1912, a Southern black man and his friend try to break into the segregated world of white baseball. Baseball is my framing element and it overshadows everything in the story, but the characters see things in terms of privilege and denial. I interpreted this into an emotional core of acceptance and approval, and let the characters handle their situations in their own ways, with their own goals and personalities in mind.

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