Alice Walker’s ‘Celie’ from The Color purple (1982), ‘Lennie Small’ from John Steinbeck’s, Of Mice and Men (1937), ‘Hana’ starring in Michael Ondaatje’s the English Patient (1992); What is it about certain literary characters who capture the hearts and imaginations of readers of any generation? Arthur “Boo” Radley, out of Harper Lee’s classic To Kill A Mockingbird (1960), the charismatic, ‘Jay Gatsby’, star of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925), Sam Spade’s, rough and gruff, no nonsense detective from The Maltese Falcon (1930); Do some authors just have the gift to be able to write about anyone and make them sound extraordinaire? Who can forget, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ ‘Tarzan’ the jungle hero of Tarzan of the Apes (1914)? What is it that makes these fictional characters so endearing to us all and often more memorable than real life, heroes and heroines? Is it possible for new creative writers to learn and study how the great, universally acknowledged, fiction authors bring their characters to life and make us care within just a few paragraphs?
The eccentric genius, ‘Sherlock Holmes’ in The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1902), ‘Santiago’ from The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway (1952), ‘George Smiley’ starring in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John LeCarre (1974).
So, is it the way these authors describe their characters that makes their leading men and ladies jump out of the page at us? Or, is it the creative traits and unique personalities the author gives his main characters that causes us to perk up and pay attention, fall in love with, hate, loathe, laugh along with, fear, or cheer for them? First off, anyone who can start with a blank piece of paper and only using variations of 26 letters, 10 numerals and a handful of symbols, can create out of thin air, believable characters, new fully imagined worlds and engaging, entertaining story lines, deserves an applause! A standing ovation must go out in honor of and in testimony to the skills of communication and the genius imaginations it takes to first come up with a fresh idea that is noteworthy enough to warrant further development which later will be turned into a full blown tale that can be shared and enjoyed by the masses.
The real question comes down to whether one believes that our beloved gifted writers were born with their creative writing abilities or did it take real work, sacrifice and dedication to develop their skills of communication, word usage and imaginative genius.
If you believe that all these great, gifted writers are given their powers through Devine intervention then I’d hate to be the one to shatter your illusions. By all means, go on reading with awe, delight and fascination. And, if you are a ‘want to be writer’, obviously, read on with a little bit of envy. Honore de Balzac said, “If the artist does not fling himself, without reflecting, into his work, as Curtis flung himself into the yawning gulf, as the soldier flings himself into the enemy's trenches, and if, once in this crater, he does not work like a miner on whom the walls of his gallery have fallen in; if he contemplates difficulties instead of overcoming them one by one...he is simply looking on at the suicide of his own talent.” That to me doesn’t sound like a writer who believes he was bestowed at birth with a God given talent. Sounds to me like he believes it’s not only imperative that we work hard for our spoils but that it is also our duty and responsibility to ourselves, if for nothing else then for our own salvation.
‘Yuri Zhivago’ in Dr. Zhivago by EBoris Pasternak (1957), ‘T. S. Garp’, the star of The World According to Garp, John Irving (1978), ‘Harry Potter’ the young hero of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J. K. Rowling (1998).
None of these great literary characters exude only admirable traits all the time. The reason we can relate to them is because they have faults just like we do and just like all our friends, family members and neighbors have faults. But what makes us care about them is that they are all trying hard. Faced with life’s diversities, they struggle on. They don’t always win because that would become boring and isn’t very realistic. Almost always they learn something when they lose, even if their pride refuses to let them acknowledge the lesson. We feel their pain because we can envision ourselves in their situation. But none of this is possible if the author doesn’t let us get to know his characters intimately. I’m not referring to physical characteristics like height, six pack abs, whether he or she has blue or hazel color eyes. I’m talking about mental anguish, flaws like a flailing temper or a consuming jealousy or a stifling guilt. We need to hear about how our protagonist dives for cover whenever a car back fires and breaks out into a cold sweat if someone stares him in the eyes too long. Is he scared of heights? Does she bite her nails?
‘Benjy’ in The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner (1929), ‘Nick’ and ‘Nora Charles’ from Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man (1934), James Bond, Ian Fleming’s hero of Casino Royale (1953).
Why should a reader care about a character if he knows nothing about them? No matter how handsome, pretty, strong, smart or funny you describe your character to be, you still haven’t told us anything about them that has gotten us emotionally involved. Pass a tall dark and handsome man on the street and you may think to yourself, “That guy could be a movie star or at least a model.” Two minutes later you’ve forgotten all about that dude. See a young, chubby, freckle faced, school girl struggling to nail a poster to a telephone pole that advertises a photo of her scraggly, orange colored, pet cat named Zeus, who ran away a few days ago and you may feel a little more empathy. The more we know about someone the more we are interested in finding out what will become of them. The problem is, as an author you can’t afford to take all the time in the world to talk about every character who enters the story. A good story won’t wait for you to describe, thoroughly, every new character that enters each scene. If you are telling your reader about a thirteen year old boy, think about all the things that separate your thirteen year old boy from all the other thirteen year old boys in the world. That’s what your reader needs to hear about.
When I first started writing, I choose the fiction category because doing research to write about nonfiction had zero appeal to me and I wanted to show off my imagination. I’d always liked reading mysteries so it was a no brainer that my first stories would be of the mystery genre. Back then, I didn’t even pick my characters’ names, until way after the first draft of the whole story was written. It didn’t matter to me, to describe whether my detectives, villains, victims were old, young, fat, trim, tall or short. You see, I was naïve enough to believe that the most important thing about a mystery story was the crafting of a seemingly unsolvable crime and then solving it. I’d spend 99% of my time designing the perfect murder; well, perfect except for the one mistake that would get the killer caught. Last, I would quickly make up exotic names for everyone then fill in all the other fine details just as fast as I could type. I’d give many of my characters identifiers, like limps, stutters, scars, droopy eye lids, a hacking cough; because that was what we were taught. You don’t have to keep listing the characters’ names during conversations if one character stutters and another, talks with a distinct English accent and another, has a raspy, scratchy smoker’s voice. It was only as my writing matured that I realized stories were always about people first. The best crimes in mysteries evolve out of the character’s personalities. The crime should fit the villain to a T. If your killer has a quirky sense of humor, don’t you think that sense of humor would manifest itself somewhere in the means he chooses for murder? Perhaps his sense of humor is ultimately what gets him caught. If your hero is very analytical, then that is how he should solve the case. But, if your detective is a hard drinking, wise cracking, loud mouthed bully, perhaps he should ultimately beat or threaten a confession out of someone.
Letting your characters’ traits and personalities steer your story is the real key to great characterization.
Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett (1930), Vladimir Nabokov’s enchantress, ‘Lolita’ heroine of the 1955 classic novel Lolita, ‘Holly Golightly’ out of Breakfast at Tiffany's by the master word smith Truman Capote (1958); just to name a few more noteworthy characters and their genus creators. So, tell us, who are some of your favorite characters of fiction literature and why? Classic as well as non-classic examples are both very welcomed. What authors do you feel are the best at characterization? Who builds the best sympathetic characters and why do we care so much about someone we know only exists as symbols in the pages of a book? Who is the greatest writer when it comes to creating, your average, every day, boy next door and girl next door, neighbor type characters? Who created the best super hero character? Who are your favorite sci-fi characters and authors? Comments! Comments! Comments!