Lessons from the Writing Workshop #11 — Characters

Whether you are writing fiction or memoir, stories have people in them (even in Disney’s WALL-E, the machines have full personalities; in Watership Down, author Richard Adams invest his rabbits with human-like qualities and behaviors). Characters give the reader someone to identify with and someone to root for.

The skilled writer renders characters that are specific; they seem real. Characters that feel generic or merely formed around an idea (the ditzy blonde, the strong silent type) don’t satisfy readers. Readers look for complexity, contradiction, the quirks that endear or annoy. Whether the characters are like people they know or are incredibly different from themselves, readers are looking to bond.

Writers investigate the lives of their main characters—what they were like as children, what their favorite food is, what scares them, what they keep in their bathroom cabinet, what are their secrets. The writer will know much more information than they share with the reader, but such knowledge helps the writer understand what this character will do in a given situation.

Ideally, the writer is not imposing a personality or set of traits upon the character. I tend to believe characters already exist fully formed somewhere in my imagination; I see it as my job not to decide who the character is, but to listen to them as they tell me who they are. Like anyone, a character wants to be known, to be represented accurately. It’s worth it for the writer to invest time and attention into getting to know them. Listening also helps to bring forward a character’s voice—their unique speech patterns and conversational tics, as well as the content of their expression.

Like anyone, a character is most revealed by what they do. Some beginning writers just have their characters sit around and think about things, or have an omniscient narrator describe who the character is. It’s not that interesting when the writer analyzes a character or tells the reader what the character is like, but it’s fascinating when a character takes action that shows the reader who they are. In a recent workshop, a writer introduced an otherwise-classy-appearing woman who proceeds to key the Mercedes of a driver who’d cheated her out of a parking space; the action conveyed more about the character than any description could.

I mentioned this in an earlier post but it bears repeating—we don’t want to read about a character who never does anything wrong and or a character who never does anything right. Even our heroes are more likeable when they have some flaws, and even the most reprehensible villains have positive qualities that humanize them. People are complicated, and your characters seem more realistic when they are too.

In addition to making characters real, we also want to understand their dramatic function in the story. Are they the protagonist (the character the reader will root for, the character who will undergo the most change in the story)? Are they the antagonist (the character who will try to stop the protagonist from achieving their quest)? They might be a support character (best friend, buddy or sidekick) or a contrast character (someone unlike the protagonist, so the reader can compare them) or the love interest. You might occasionally have characters whose function is to provide weight and mass (a group of bullies waiting after school for the young protagonist; a crowd of neighbors who shun the new arrival to the neighborhood), although these characters may remain undifferentiated.

Sometimes a writer will include too many characters in the story. Sometimes they will write characters who have no dramatic function; they’re just there in the story. I see this frequently in memoirs, where every member of a family is chronicled, even if most of them do not have a role in this particular story. Sometimes a writer will include characters with duplicate dramatic functions (two best friends, for example, where one would suffice.)

Characters need names, unless they are insignificant and/or part of a crowd. They also need physicality. No one wants a list of generic descriptors: “brown eyes, caramel skin, curly dark hair, about 5’4”, 140 pounds, usually wears jeans and tee shirts and running shoes.” Such details don’t help us to know the character. Better to use the opportunity of physically describing them to also show us something about who they are (“Jenna’s olive-green eyes were near-sighted, but she was too vain to wear glasses, so she often appeared to be squinting, as if trying to figure out whether to believe you or not.”)

Characters have histories; they come from locations, from families, from cultures and religions and economic circumstances that have shaped their personalities. Of course you don’t want to stop the story to give a big chunk of description or backstory; it’s far better to interweave such details into the action of the story (“It was only as he stood up to leave that she noticed a slight limp when he walked. She remembered the story he’d told about the war that had devoured his childhood in El Salvador. For a moment she wanted to hold him there.”)

We also want to see how a character changes over the course of a story. The protagonist is likely to have the biggest character arc; the significance of the events of the story is often revealed in the change the protagonist undergoes. But any character we follow throughout the story can have an arc, even if it’s not as dramatic as that of your main character. Depending on the plot of the story, the change may be internal (a change of mind or a shift of perspective) or external (a choice made, an action taken) and the consequences may be modest (the character will have a happier life in the future) or immense (the hero saves the world from blowing up.)

It is frequently the characters that stay with us once we have finished a story or novel. They have become real to us; we’ve suffered with them, cheered them on, and often find ourselves transformed along with them. We may re-read the work over and over in order to spend more time in their presence. Because the writer has been skillful, we’ve come to know these characters, and we miss them like we miss an old friend.

Text by Terry Wolverton
Photo by Yvonne M. Estrada

Thinking about joining a writing workshop? Writers At Work offers weekly, ongoing opportunities for writers of fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction, as well as creative counseling and manuscript review. Learn more at http://writersatwork.com/education.html. In 2017, we’re celebrating our 20th anniversary of inspiring, encouraging and empowering writers.


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