Making Characters Come Alive on the Page

December 1, 2000
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ASK THE EDITOR Making Characters Come Alive on the Page

By Susan Malone

December, 2000

A truism runs through this business about which most agents and editors, behind closed doors, will agree: Books by men have sketchy characters, and those by women are usually thin on plot. Now, this isn't an absolute, so don't go to sending me examples of great women mystery writers or men who create vivid folks. But for the most part, it's what I see as well.

We'll tackle the plotting problems in another column. For now, let's talk a bit about characters, and what makes them come alive on the page.

First off, the number one problem I see in fashioning memorable characters doesn't at first glance seem to have much to do with the actual folks in the book. Trust me, however, it does. That problem is Viewpoint; the Point of View of whoever is filtering the events of the story for me, the reader. I see more writers having trouble in this area than any other, and due to that, all of the characterization in their stories gets watered down. Because Point of View is what narrows the focus for the reader. When understood and done well, it allows the reader to experience the trials and tribulations, the emotions and growth, of the viewpoint character, and also evokes the rest of the cast through the perception of that character (or characters, in multiple-viewpoint books).

And that's the point of any good book. Readers want to feel as though they've traveled through the course of the novel along with the main character, rather than having everything 'told through' him.

You, as the author, have to know everything about anything that has ever happened to your characters. The more important someone is in the story, the more depth you must evoke. Say you're writing a moral-twist tale about a thirty-something woman running for Congress. She truly believes in her agenda, rather than politics for power's sake (suspend all disbelief here?this IS fiction), and of course is forced into a box at some point

(pick a topic as to what), a la Willie Stark. How will she react? Do you, the author, know how she responds to not only backing into a car in the parking lot when no one sees, but also what she does when her best friend comes to her with a shocking revelation? Does she deem it more morally right to turn in the friend (whether national security is at risk or not), or to hold to the confidence?

To know these answers, you must know our trusty heroine well. Otherwise, she'll come across the page as contrived. Even though our story begins with her in her thirties, what was she like as a child? A teenager? What happened on her first day of school? Did she get along with her brother? Is she a classic Leo, always bossing everyone around? Did she cry for days when her pet Springer Spaniel got hit? Or did she conduct the funeral for her friend's cat?

Go back, if you will, and write a short story that takes place during her childhood. Write another when she reached adolescence, and another revolving around her first sexual experience or college days. Get to know her through all stages of her life. None of these are to be included in the book, they're for YOUR benefit. And ultimately, your readers. Because the nuances you learn about your hero through this process will serve to bring subtle characters traits to the surface as they story progresses.

Do this to a lesser degree with the supporting players. Another major problem I see is too large a cast of characters, the number of which precludes any from really being fully fleshed-out. Pare down your cast.

Only a handful can ever really be formed into fully functioning folks with much depth. The rest need to step back a hair. They can play roles, just smaller ones. But you still need to know them well. It's often more difficult to make a bit player come alive than the hero, with whom you have much more time to spend.

Writers tend to give their people traits in laundry-list fashion. Again, this is GREAT for you, as the author. But your reader is trusting you to tell her only that which is truly important to these characters in this story, and then to create and evoke it, rather than telling her about it.

The reader should get a sense of the Protagonist from the get-go, but then you shade and deepen her as the story goes?in the exact same fashion that

you get to know a real human. I strongly encourage writers to keep notebooks or lists or flashcards (whatever works for you) of each character's physical descriptions, mannerisms, major and minor character traits, etc. That way you can always flip through and remember, which imprints that information in your subconscious mind and brings it to the surface at the exact time you need it.

A lot goes into fashioning great characters. You can't just "think 'em up." That may be how it begins, and indeed, these exercises help with that, but the depth, the nuances, the intangible points that make folks in books seem real bubble up from the author's deeper self. You have to get quiet and listen to your people talk and think and move and be.

Willie Stark, so the story goes, was based on a real political figure. I never knew that man. But I do know ol' Willie. And I'd be willing to bet he took off under Penn Warren's hand, in a way that the real politician never could have. Now, THAT's great characterization, which breaks the rule that began this discussion?men don't write vivid characters! Don't you just love the exceptions most of all?

Susan M. Malone is a Contributing Editor to Authorlink.com, a multi-published author, and owner of a successful editorial service. SEVEN books she’s edited have been published or sold within the last two years. Her own newest nonfiction, FIVE KEYS FOR UNDERSTANDING MEN, co-authored with Gary L. Malone, MD, is out now. Check out her listing under Editorial Services, and email her at aaasuz@aol.com.

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