Creating Good Characters
by Elinore Dimsky
But time, space and the very nature of literature prevents even the best authors from being able to fully develop every character presented in the story. Yet, the minor characters cannot be allowed to seem static and flat, simply because the reader isn’t told much about them except what is seen on the surface. We obviously can’t be given total insight to everyone’s ulterior motives or inner thoughts for every scene, yet minor characters are necessary for many various reasons. The art is in portraying the minor characters as real, plausible, endearing and engaging people while using as few words as possible. One or two dimensional characters, if they are to become memorable must be made so in a few short sentences.
If two main characters are dining at a fancy restaurant, waiters must stop at the table, other diners must walk by. People dining at nearby tables must be overheard. Life is going on all around our two main characters and the atmosphere must be portrayed to the reader. Making these seemingly insignificant characters interesting enough to paint a picture of them in your reader’s mind, is sometimes much more of a challenge than developing the main characters because the author can’t spend paragraphs and pages revealing all their necessary traits. Yet the reader must still have an understanding of whether the waiter was a greying, jovial man of forty with a paunch or a distinguished, snooty, short tempered, English accented maître-d or a happy go lucky, eighteen year old college student working nights to put himself through acting school. The creative writer must always, give the reader just enough to satisfy, without dwelling too long that he/she impedes the telling of the tale.
The goal of any great authors is to make their characters come alive for us while we read. Well-developed characters don’t just live in the pages of the book they live on in our hearts and our minds well after we close the book and put it back up on the shelf. We cannot forget them.
Good characters and quality characterization can make or break a creative work. If the characters are developed well, readers will forgive a lot of other mediocre writing in the plot, setting or even vague theme development and still stick with the author through thick and thin to find out what happens to their beloved characters. This is why serial novels are so popular. Great authors can make a reader feel and care about a fictional character like he or she is a real, living, breathing friend. Readers cry when their favorite characters are in pain or turmoil. We root for our favorite characters to come out on top. The ability for a writer to make us feel real, uncontrollable emotion for a character who, at a conscience level, we know only exists on paper and isn’t truly real; is the mystery, secret, Zen and allure of all literature.
The protagonist of the story is the literary term given to the main character. Usually the protagonist is the hero or heroine of the tale but that is not a requirement. The protagonist will generally be the character who is dissected, studied, evaluated and revealed to the reader the most thoroughly of all the characters. The tale is first and foremost the story of one protagonist and that doesn’t change, despite all the literary devises used to tell his or her story. The protagonist’s opponent is termed the antagonist. He is basically the main character’s enemy. The antagonist may be known to the main character from the beginning of the tale or, to add drama and suspense, may not become revealed to the main character until the very last pages of the story. The antagonist is usually obsessed with trying to prevent the main character from succeeding. The antagonist is generally unscrupulous and immoral but does not necessarily have to be totally unlikeable.
The degree with which the author chooses to develop each character makes them minor or major characters. It is at the author’s discretion how much he wishes to reveal to the reader at any given moment. The author also chooses if and when to reveal glimpses of a character’s inner self, what’s going through a character’s mind or what their true motives are which drive his/her decisions and actions. In reality, people see things as they happen before our eyes, we hear words that are spoken but we also infer stuff and deduce things and make judgments. A creative writer can take the exposing of his characters to the lengths of his choosing to suit his purpose. He may simply and quickly gloss over the surface persona of an individual or strap in and delve as deep as a determined Freudian disciple. The art is in how the author peels back each layer of the onion and in his choose of when to do the next peeling.
The basics of characterization can be described as how the author chooses to describe the characters he creates to his reader. A person can be broken down by; age, gender, job, ethnicity, appearance, religion, marital status, illnesses. They can be further categorized by; their temperament, physical strength, mental capacities. Are they hindered by phobias? Haunted by strong memories? Estranged from their children? Figuring out, how much is necessary for the reader to know about each particular character is only the first step in the art of characterization. Developing techniques for exposing your character’s different dimensions in a natural, story-telling, unobtrusive way is the true art.
Good writers rarely just tell the reader anything straight out, especially concerning a character’s trait. For examples, the fact that Mr. Griffith was extremely obese or Judge Watkins was a well read, intelligent Judge or Cindy was beautiful and she knew it; would rarely be stated as fact by the author. These traits must be revealed through action, dialog and other character’s thoughts. “Wow!” Sam exclaimed, pointing out the window at our neighbor Mike Griffin standing on his porch. “I bet me, you, your sister Betty and my little brother Pete could all fit inside a pair of Mr. Griffith’s pants.”
Judge Watkins slammed his gavel. “I’d like to advise counsel that the same tactic was used earlier this year in court proceeding in Tennessee concerning Williams verses Colletty. It didn’t work for Williams’ attorneys in Tennessee and I doubt it will work here in Oklahoma. I’m going to adjourn court for the rest of the week to give you Boys ample time to come up with a new defense otherwise I’ll be forced to make my decision based on the evidence already presented.” BANG! He slammed the gavel then scowled, staring the startled defense attorneys down.
Some critiques and literary scholars claim the best characterization technique is when the author does not impose his own notions and judgments on his characters directly. Like the once upon a time, steadfast rule that a reporter wasn’t supposed to take sides or let his own personal opinion sway the news. Some feel a creative writer should allow the reader to come to his/her own conclusions based on the story telling. I feel this is a good idea for most new, inexperienced writers to follow but I’ve seen plenty of fine examples when this rule was ignored.
One way for a creative writer to truly elevate his game concerning characterization, is to make it a priority to discipline oneself to truly attempt to understand where his fellow human beings are coming from. Showcasing man at his worst doesn’t take much skill. But can you show empathy for a truly despicable fellow. Do you have the gumption to play devil’s advocate and step into the shoes of a demon to fully explore, discover and expose, the good, the bad, the ugly and the beautiful? Can you see the world through your antagonist’s eyes and can you show his view of the world to your readers? Can you explore with true open-mindedness, for the sole purpose of trying to understand and make sense out of the, up to now, non-sensible. For example, Can you help your reader crawl inside the skin of a true racist and help them to comprehend how he or she developed their mindset? What made them into the monster they are today as well as what makes them tick now? Can you find a way to forgive the seemingly unforgiveable?
Delving deeper and deeper into a person’s true nature to expose their heart and soul is what characterization in literature is all about. How far a creative writer chooses to take this mission is at his/her discretion based on the type and scope of the tale being told. Thoroughly knowing the characters, one writes about, inside and out is imperative to good creative writing but that doesn’t mean the author must share everything he knows about all of his characters with his readers. As always the story is the most important thing and nothing should ever get in the way of telling the tale, especially not characterization.