by Lisa Lenard-Cook
Lisa Lenard-Cook is now a regular columnist for Authorlink. She is an award-winning published author and writing instructor. Voices is the second in her series, The Art of Fiction. Watch for her insights every month on Authorlink.
"Every character in every work of fiction should have a complete biography." —Lenard-Cook
Characters. What’s a work of fiction without them?
To my way of thinking, characters drive a narrative. Perhaps I’m lucky: I’ve got voices in my head, and when one of these voices begins speaking, it’s all my 120 wpm can do to keep up. My characters even come with names, biographies, and yes, astrological signs. If you prefer not to be a veritable Sybil of fiction, however, you’ll want to create biographies for your characters before you begin.
Create a biography
When it comes to characters, there’s really only one question: How do you create fictional people who not are only alive on the page, but seem more compelling than the people your readers encounter in their everyday lives? Part of the answer can be found above: Every character in every work of fiction should have a complete biography. Much of this biography won’t make it into your finished work, but you the author must know these things about your character. What things? Here we turn to authors Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter, and their book of exercises for writers, What If? (Harper Collins, 1991). Bernays’s and Painter’s exercise “What Do You Know About Your Character?” posits all sorts of questions for you to answer. There are the obvious:
What’s your character’s name? How old is s/he? Where does s/he live?
And there are the less obvious (but a whole lot more fun):
What’s your character’s sexual history? What’s your character’s taste in books and music? What kind of car does your character drive?
Get the idea? Of course, there’s that all-important astrological sign. After all, another character might just ask your character what his or her sign is!
"The second trick to character is the way you incorporate this information into your fiction." —Lenard-Cook
Incorporate your information
The second trick to character is the way you incorporate this information into your fiction. In nineteenth century novels, every time a new character appears, he shows up with his complete biography, not to mention his standing in society and what others think of him. Here’s George Eliot (from Adam Bede):
It is clear that the next workman is Adam’s brother. He is nearly as tall; he has the same type of features, the same hue of hair and complexion; but the strength of the family likeness seems only to render more conspicuous the remarkable difference of expression both in form and face. Seth’s broad shoulders have a slight stoop; his eyes are grey; his eyebrows have less prominence and more repose than his brother’s… (etc.)
What do you know about Seth from this paragraph? Well, he’s tall and he looks like his brother Adam, though there’s a “remarkable difference of expression both in form and face.” But what else do you know? Not much. Is he someone your reader cares about? Not yet. And maybe, not ever.
"Twenty-first century readers (that’s us!) neither want nor expect these lengthy introductions." —Lenard-Cook
Clues to character
Twenty-first century readers (that’s us!) neither want nor expect these lengthy introductions. Because we’re immersed in the nuances of psychology (even if we’ve never taken Psych 101), we can intuit a great deal about a character from one small bit of information. So rather than lengthy introductions like the one above, we get character “on the run.”
Here’s an example from early in my own novel Dissonance. I’ve underlined the “clues.”
She was worried about Heidi’s chicken pox. She knew it was foolish; she hadn’t worried about Pavel’s, but he seemed so much sturdier than his baby sister, and always had. She sat up through the night next to the baby’s crib, listening to Bartok turned down low on the radio set, and to the occasional news reports that interrupted the music. It seemed certain that the British were going to hand Czechoslovakia to Hitler, that dreadful man. To Hana, it made no sense: Czechoslovakia was not England’s to give.
Lots of clues, huh? What do you know about Hana from this paragraph? Here are the things I, the author, want you to know.
Hana has two children: a son, Pavel, and a baby daughter, Heidi. Hana is a typically devoted and concerned mother. The time period is just before World War II. Hana is the kind of person who listens to Bartok. Hana lives in Czechoslovakia. Hana is starting to worry about Hitler.
If you formed an opinion as to whether or not you care about Hana from this paragraph, I’ve succeeded on another level as well: In one brief paragraph, I’ve created a character to whom you’ve had as real a response as if you’d actually met her. In fact, you have!
As the author, you have a responsibility to know every aspect of your character’s biography. How much of that biography you share with your reader will ultimately depend on the story you’re telling. Using some of the questions above, go ahead and try creating a biography for a character right now. Once you have, chances are you’ll want to keep going and start telling that character’s story, too.
About Lisa Lenard-Cook Lisa Lenard-Cook’s novel Dissonance (University of New Mexico Press, October 2003) won the Jim Sagel Award for the Novel, was selected as a 2003 Book of the Year by the Pima County (Arizona) and Cincinnati Public Libraries, and is a Book Buzz selection of the Ramsey County (Minnesota) Public Library. Her newest novel , Coyote Morning, is published by UNM Press. Lisa taught writing at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado throughout the 1990s, and now writes and teaches in Corrales, New Mexico. Visit her website, www.lisalenardcook.com for information about upcoming classes, appearances, and for writing inspiration.