Most stories center around a central character. The character may be a fuzzy, white circus dog or it may be a girl in Kansas whose life is turned topsy-turvy by a wicked witch and a tornado. The character may be a narcissistic Southern debutante whose life is destroyed by the Civil War or it might be that of the narcissist’s sweet and meek cousin Miss Melanie Hamilton. The character might be that of a New Englander who is forced to wear a letter “A” on her dress or it might be that of a pompous, arrogant, and zealous 16th-century minister. Regardless of who they are and what their predicaments become through the workings of the plot, stories focus upon characters. The better the writer can create his characters, the better his stories will be.
If the story is fiction, such as Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, we may begin to understand the character by the words she speaks in dialogue:
“I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.” ― Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre
“I am not an angel,’ I asserted; ‘and I will not be one till I die: I will be myself. Mr. Rochester, you must neither expect nor exact anything celestial of me – for you will not get it, any more than I shall get it of you: which I do not at all anticipate.” ― Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre
Or our understandings of a story’s character might evolve as we observe what a person actually does.
“You can tell a lot about a fellow’s character by his way of eating jellybeans. ” ― Ronald Reagan
“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” ― Abraham Lincoln
“Real courage is when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.” ― Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
“Grudges are for those who insist that they are owed something; forgiveness, however, is for those who are substantial enough to move on.”
― Criss Jami, Salomé: In Every Inch In Every Mile
When writing nonfiction, might approach the creating of his characters differently, but his approach should not be less creative. Look at some of the ways that Annie Dillard creates the character of her father in her book of memoir An American Childhood:
Annie Dillard is an exemplary memoir writer, and her memoir books read like great fiction.
In chapter 1 of her book American Childhood, Dillard demonstrates her skill with creating setting or sense of place for her memoir Here.
In chapter 2 of the same book, Dillard skillfully brings her dad back to life Here:
“In 1955, when I was ten, my father’s reading went to his head.
“My father’s reading during that time, and for many years before and after, consisted for the most part of Life on the Mississippi. … There were dozens of copies of Life on the Mississippi on the living-room shelves.
. . .
“When all this reading went to my father’s head, he took action. .. He quit the firm his great-grandfather had [p. 6] founded a hundred years earlier down the river at his family’s seat in Louisville, Kentucky; he sold his own holdings in the firm. He was taking off for New Orleans.
“New Orleans was the source of the music he loved: Dixieland jazz, O Dixieland. In New Orleans men would blow it in the air and beat it underfoot, the music that hustled and snapped, the music whose zip matched his when he was a man-about-town at home in Pittsburgh, working for the family firm; the music he tapped his foot to when he was a man-about-town in New York for a few years after college working for the family firm by day and hanging on at Jimmy Ruan’s on Fifty-second Street with Zutty Singleton, the black drummer who befriended him, and the rest of the house band.” Dillard, An American Childhood, pgs. 6-7.
Dillard begins to create the character of her dad in an anecdotal way. Afterward, she begins to develop his character through description:
“When our mother met Frank Doak, he was twenty-seven: witty, boyish, bookish, unsnobbish, a good dancer. He had grown up an only child in Pittsburgh, attended Shady Side Academy, and Washington and Jefferson College in Pennsylvania, where he studied history. He was a lapsed Presbyterian and a believing Republican. ‘Books make the man,’ read the blue bookplate in all his books.” Dillard, An American Childhood, p. 8.
A few paragraphs later, Dillard allows us to observe her father’s behavior, and she allows us to enter into his thought process–that is an important part of a character.
“It was a long way to New Orleans. . . . It was September; people had abandoned their pleasure boats for the season; their children were back in school. There were no old salts on the docks talking river talk. People weren’t so friendly as they were in Pittsburgh. There was no music except the dreary yacht-club jukeboxes playing ‘How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?’ Jazz had come up the river once and for all. . . . He was living alone on beans in a boat and having witless conversations with lockmasters. He mailed out sad postcards.
“From phone booths all down the Ohio River he talked to Mother. She told him that she was lonesome, too, and that three children–maid and nanny or no–were a handful.She said, further, that people were starting to talk. She knew Father couldn’t bear people’s talking. For all his dreaminess, he prized respectability above all. . . .After only six weeks, then–on the River at Louisville–he sold the boat and flew home.” Dillard, An American Childhood, p. 10.
In a masterful way, Dillard allows us to process her dad’s thoughts through what her mother has said to him, and afterward, we witness her dad’s response. Her dad’s response suggests the essence of Dillard’s father’s character.
“Choices determine character.” ― Brandon Mull, Secrets of the Dragon Sanctuary
Because good characterization is vital to good storytelling, it is an important skill to study. When our stories have been told, it is the characters within those stories that have the power to stay.
“All morning I struggled with the sensation of stray wisps of one world seeping through the cracks of another. Do you know the feeling when you start reading a new book before the membrane of the last one has had time to close behind you? You leave the previous book with ideas and themes — characters even — caught in the fibers of your clothes, and when you open the new book, they are still with you.” ― Diane Setterfield, The Thirteenth Tale
But her father is not the main character in Dillard’s memoir–Dillard is. When we read what Dillard says of her reaction to her father’s trip down the river, we begin to discover a bit about Dillard herself:
“Children ten years old wake up and find themselves here, discover themselves to have been here all along; is this sad? They walk like sleepwalkers, in full stride; they wake like people brought back from cardiac arrest or from drowning. . . .
‘i woke in bits, like all children, piecemeal over the years. I discovered myself and the world, and forgot them, and discovered them again. I woke at intervals until, by that September when Father went down the river, the intervals of waking tipped the scales, and I was more often awake than not. I noticed this process of waking, and predicted with terrifying logic that one of these years not far away I would be awake continuously and never slip back, and never be free of myself again.
“Consciousness converges with the child as a landing tern touches the outspread feet of its shadow on the sand: precisely, toe hits toe. The tern folds its wings to sit; its shadow dips and spreads over the sand to meet and cup its breast.
“Like any child, I slid into myself perfectly fitted, as a diver meets her reflection in a pool. Her fingertips enter the fingertip on the water, her wrists slide up her arms. The diver wraps herself in her reflection wholly, sealing it at the toes, and wears it as she climbs rising from the pool, and ever after. [p. 11]
“I never woke, at first, without recalling, chilled, all those other waking times, those similar stark views from similarly lighted precipices: dizzying precipices from which the distant, glittering world revealed itself as a brooding and separated scene–and so let slip a queer implication, that I myself was both observer and observable, and so a possible object of my own humming awareness. Wherever I stepped into the porcelain bathtub, the bath’s hot water sent a shock traveling up my bones. The skin on my arms pricked up, and the hair rose on the back of my skull, I saw my own firm foot press the tub, and the pale shadows waver over it, as if I were looking down from the sky and remembering this scene forever. The skin on my face tightened, as it had always done whenever I stepped into the tube, and remembering it all drew a swinging line, loops connecting the dots, all the way back. You again.” Dillard, An American Childhood, pgs. 11-12.
In the opening lines of the movie version of Gone Baby Gone, the narrator raises another important consideration of character. In many cases, people are determined by their settings and the circumstances into which they are born:
Patrick Kenzie: I always believed it was the things you don’t choose that makes you who you are. Your city, your neighborhood, your family. People here take pride in these things, like it was something they’d accomplished. The bodies around their souls, the cities wrapped around those. I lived on this block my whole life; most of these people have. When your job is to find people who are missing, it helps to know where they started. I find the people who started in the cracks and then fell through. This city can be hard. When I was young, I asked my priest how you could get to heaven and still protect yourself from all the evil in the world. He told me what God said to His children. “You are sheep among wolves. Be wise as serpents, yet innocent as doves.”
How to Create a Character in Writing?
- Describe the way that the person looks. Be specific. Do not use cliché expressions like handsome or beautiful. Dig deeper and find words to tell what about the person makes him handsome or her beautiful. Don’t just say that he had black hair. Tell if the hair is straight, spiked, curly, and whether is reaches to the person’s navel or whether it is clipped above the ears.
- Allow the character to speak and allow the reader to understand the character by the words that he speaks and by his accent and by his use or abuse of grammar. If the character is Amish, he will use the words that Amish people use. If the character is from the 16th-century, he will speak in another way.
- Place your character in the setting that tells more about who he is. Is your character rural or is he a professor of law at Harvard?
- Use your five senses to tell more about the character. Does he smell like the pipe that he smokes in his library or does he smell like garlic? If so, why?
©Jacki Kellum October 16, 2016