Literary Corner Cafe

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Writing Tips - Crafting a Novel - Creating Memorable Characters


It’s important to have a good, cohesive plot running through your book, but I think it’s equally important to have standout, memorable characters. Story, I believe, flows from character. Story is character and character is story. If you think of the great books, the books that have endured - Anna Karenina, Doctor Zhivago, Emma, Pride and Prejudice, Don Quixote, Tess of the d’Ubervilles, Jane Eyre, The Portrait of a Lady, Moby-Dick, Huckleberry Finn, Heart of Darkness, Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov, Gone With the Wind, To Kill a Mockingbird, David Copperfield, Alice in Wonderland, Dracula, Lolita – they all feature wonderful, unforgettable characters. So, how can you go about creating unforgettable characters for your books?

Many novelists and screenwriters, including the guru of screenwriting, Syd Field, begin by writing extensive character biographies. Syd, and everyone else I know, including me, write far more than we’ll ever include in our screenplays/novels. We do this so we really get to know our characters. We begin by describing how that particular character looks, then we write about his or her interests, likes and dislikes, hobbies, education, career, good points and flaws. We write what he or she likes to do in his or her spare time, what he or she dreams about, his idiosyncrasies, how his childhood shaped him, what he likes to eat, etc. If you write an extensive character biography like this, chances are you’ll never find your viewers/readers saying, “He wouldn’t do/say that!” because you’ll know your character inside and out. You’ll know what he or she would do or say.

I believe you should write extensive character biographies, not only for your main characters, but for your supporting players as well. Get to know their history and what they hope for in the future. Yes, it’s time consuming. Yes, you’re going to discard most of it. No, you can’t afford not to do it. Not if you care about creating believable, memorable characters.

Many authors give a character a unique trait. One example, though it’s a little extreme, involves the character of Lisbeth Salander in Stieg Larsson’s “Millennium Trilogy.” Lisbeth is certainly one-of-a-kind and she does stand out from the crowd. Humbert Humbert in Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita is a pedophile. Hannibal Lecter in Thomas Harris’ books is a cannibal.

You don’t have to be so extreme when giving your characters a unique trait. (Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe raises orchids.) It can be something very subtle, like a sideways smile whenever your character feels nervous or the maddening habit of always chewing gum. Take care, though, that in creating this unique trait, you don’t stereotype. Avoid the “hooker with a heart of gold,” the “hard-bitten detective who cries when moved by love,” the “tiny Russian girl who can kick some serious butt,” etc. Characters are more memorable if you play against type. Hannibal Lecter was much more effective because he was very soft-spoken, well read, and quite the aesthete. And instead of being a “little girl lost” Lolita was the one who got the best of Humbert Humbert rather than Humbert Humbert getting the best of her. I once wrote about a woman who chewed her bottom lip whenever the conversation turned to something that was uncomfortable for her. It was a small, unobtrusive thing, but it was memorable.

Keep in mind the fact that every character doesn’t have to have a unique trait. In novels, just as in movies, some parts are simply “walk on” parts. Their job is to blend in. To give every character an identifying trait would be “character overload.” Rather than making your characters memorable to your readers, you’d be drawing attention to this particular character device, and that’s something you never want to do. All literary devices should be transparent to the reader. You want your readers to feel your characters are real people – somewhere – not people you’ve created just for your book. And guess what? Readers want to feel that, too.

Remember to give your villains some good points and your heroes and heroines some flaws. This adds complexity and makes them more real to the reader. In reality, people are not “wholly good” or “wholly bad.” I know two pretty bad people, people who don’t seem to have much of a conscience, but they seem to truly love their dogs. See? They aren’t wholly bad.

Now, here’s one trick you might not be aware of. The more sympathetic backstory you give your villain, the nastier you can make him or her. One good example of this is Stieg Larsson’s character, Lisbeth Salander. In Larsson’s own words, Salander is a “sociopath” and a “borderline psychopath.” She doesn’t experience “right” and “wrong” the way most of us do. But Larsson got away with all of Salander’s law breaking and vigilantism, and he even made readers care about her, because he showed us where she came from. He filled in her backstory, and it was quite sympathetic, indeed. Sociopath or not, most readers really like Lisbeth.

Just like villains have good points, heroes have bad points. No one is perfect. Be aware, though, that you can’t give heroes “bad” traits to the extent that you can give villains “good” ones. You don’t want to turn your reader off and cause him or her to stop rooting for your hero. This happened to me with Chang-rae Lee’s latest book, The Surrendered, though I know it certainly didn’t happen to everyone. I found the main character of June so odious that I couldn’t care about her at all, and by extension, the book. If I could have seen one good or “soft” trait in her, I think I would have felt differently. I’m not alone in this, and I don’t believe it’s the prevailing feeling, but why risk turning a reader off? Even one? I felt Lee could have given June one trait that showed her vulnerability without weakening her character at all.

Another example is the character of Vida Winter in Diane Setterfield’s bestseller, The Thirteenth Tale. Vida isn’t really a likable sort of person, but early on we learn she’s suffered terribly, and we feel pretty sympathetic about that suffering. We also learn that though she tries to be “hard as nails,” she dearly loved someone named “Emmeline.” This love for another person makes her not wholly unlikable. We feel early on that she has promise, that there’s something deeper to be found if we only spend a little more time with her.

Of course it’s important to let each of your characters have a distinctive voice, but this is something that’s the subject of a future post on dialogue.

Names are also important. If you’re writing about a character from an exotic locale, you want to give them a name that’s “place appropriate.” Natives of Myanmar aren’t usually named “Dick” or “Jane.” As readers, we realize that. However, try to make an exotic name pronounceable. Readers hate it when they encounter unpronounceable names. I’ve even known a few readers who put a book down due to unpronounceable names.

And never start the names of two characters in your book with the same letter unless you have a special purpose for doing so in mind. It may seem very easy to you to keep Alvin and Annie separate and distinct, but it won’t be for your readers. When you name two or more characters with names beginning with the same letter, you dilute each character and make it more difficult for your reader to identify with either character. In my current novel-in-progress, I wanted to name one character “Henry” and another one “Helen.” I knew this wouldn’t work, especially since both characters have large parts to play, so I had to decide which name I preferred to keep. For me, “Henry” was really a “Henry,” so I kept that one. Since my novel takes place in Appalachia, I renamed “Helen” “Sarah,” a rather old-fashioned name that used to be popular in the area. Sarah’s named for her grandmother (I know her family history), and “Sarah” is working out very well for me, and for Sarah, herself. The name suits her, just as “Henry” suits Henry.

I know there are some authors who never describe their characters’ physical appearance. They feel it’s best to “let the reader fill in the details.” I agree, but only to a certain extent. I think authors need to give their readers the rudiments of a character’s physical description so the reader can better visualize the character and go from there. Now, this doesn’t mean giving the reader a “laundry list” of physical traits as soon as the character is introduced. That, fellow writers, is boring, and it stops your narrative cold. Instead, a good writer weaves a character’s physical description into the story itself. In my latest novel, the second sentence talks about the “bright June sunlight” and how it makes the character’s fair hair “shimmer white” as she navigates a trail of Queen Anne’s lace. I’ve accomplished two things with that second sentence of mine: I’ve let the reader know that it’s a blindingly sunny day in June and that my character has hair so fair it “shimmers white.”

Once you’ve established a character’s physical traits, don’t keep bringing them up every chance you get. In my story, we know the character has flaxen hair and very blue eyes. No need for me to keep hammering home the obvious. That would tend to turn readers off, and turning readers off is something you never want to do.

Instead of constantly repeating yourself, try to give the reader new information about your character’s physical description. For example, there are times in my book when my character’s blue eyes are going to look tired, or crinkle with laughter, or look almost navy with despair.

It’s also good to let characters describe characters. In my first novel, the protagonist’s former fiancé is upset when he looks at the protagonist’s honey colored hair and wonders if her current fiancé, a man he abhors, knows the highly unusual color is natural and not the result of a complicated salon process. Something like this works better than simply saying, “She has honey colored hair.” If you let characters describe characters, it will seem far more natural and “real” to your readers than if you provide a laundry list of physical characteristics. It also helps to bring your characters to life. When I let the former fiancé be jealous of the current fiancé for knowing the details of the hair color, I’m not only conveying that hair color to my readers in a very natural way, I’m also letting them know something about how the first fiancé feels and that he still has romantic feelings for the woman with the unusual hair color.

In the end, creating a fascinating character is much the same as creating a fascinating story, and both are terribly important. Don’t ever make the mistake of sacrificing character when you’re writing. Put time and effort into creating your characters and you’ll find, to your enormous satisfaction, that readers speak of them as though they were real people. “I loved Jane,” one reader might say. “Victoria was the kindest person I knew, yet I know she didn’t realize it,” another might think. “Anthony was cruel, but really, I could understand why,” might be a third comment.

I know I’ll never write a book as timeless as Anna Karenina, and that’s okay. You might not, either. (Then again, while it’s good to be humble, never sell yourself short.) Even if we don’t write a book on par with Anna Karenina, with a little work, both you and I can learn to create characters that are as memorable to some readers as are Anna, Emma, Lolita, and maybe even Dracula, himself.

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