Characters Must Live and Breathe on the Page

From the Editor’s Desk:

I’ve said on many occasions that what brings me to an author time and again is his ability to create characters I just can’t wait to see again. Indeed, I’ll revisit a great book every few years precisely for that reason — because I miss my peeps.

So what is it that makes a certain character, or cast of characters, special? Well, that’s a tough one, and a huge part of the reason we call writing an art and not a science.

The shortest answer, I suppose, is that the character must be “real.” I know… impossible for a fictional character. So let me rephrase: the character must be so well drawn as to appear to be real. We readers have to be able to easily imagine the character jumping off the page and joining us here on planet reality.

Yet that is not such a simple thing. What makes us “real?” Is it our eye color? Our hair color? Our height? Nah. I must say that, as a reader, I rarely care about those kinds of details. Indeed, I often (almost always) prefer to paint my own visual image of what a great character looks like. There are exceptions, of course. For example, imagine A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving, without an explanation of Owen’s physical characteristics. Impossible. Would we appreciate The Hobbit if J.R.R. Tolkien hadn’t bothered to describe them in exquisite detail? Of course not.

Yet those are the exceptions. In most modern-day stories, whether it be YA or Mystery or Horror or Thrillers or Literary, the characters’ physical descriptions will not carry that much weight. What’s even worse is when authors think that by providing those details, they’re meeting their obligation to provide full, rich, real characters. Not so.

Characters come alive on the page when we get to know them intimately, when we can see inside their hearts, their minds. When we know their souls.

Furthermore, the way they interact with one another always tells us a lot about characters, just as such activities tell us a lot about people in real life. We hear often of actors, when a particular film or show works well, that they have that certain something we call “chemistry.” As an author, you want your key interactive characters to have chemistry.

The final key is that you gradually build out your characters, giving us glimpes inside them, via their actions and words as the story unfolds. Don’t just slip in a little narrative telling us a character is intelligent, for example. Blah. Show us through that character’s actions; lead us to the obvious conclusion about her intelligence.

Is another character shy? Show him cowering in a corner at a party, examining a painting on the wall, determined not to face the crowded room. Is another character witty? Don’t just tell us that. Dull. Put some of her wit on display, cracking wise at a social gathering, evoking laughter from those around her.

If your characters live, we will relate to them as readers. We will love them, or hate them, or fear for them, or be happy for them. If your characters are flat and uninspiring, you’re in big trouble.

Allow me to put on my grumpy editor’s snarl: If all you can tell us about a character is that she has red hair and green eyes, then please dig a little deeper into yourself, and then deeper into your character. If all your character’s dialogue is an endless string of cliches we’ve heard a bazillion times, then please pick up a book about how to write great dialogue. If, every mind-numbing time your characters interact, they begin with, “Hey, how you doing?”, then please focus all your energy on your day job. You’re going to need it.

I know. This writing thing is hard. Damn it!

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3 responses to “Characters Must Live and Breathe on the Page

  1. Awesome advice.

    Another technique I learned to create characters that feel “real,” is to give them scenes that don’t focus entirely on the plot of the novel–the external or even inner conflict of the novel.

    Now, of course too many of these scenes would make a novel unfocused, but a few of them really help flesh a character out.

    If we, as the reader, know that a character’s life is more than just this one plot line happening in this one book, than we’ll see them as someone who is far more dimensional.

    Harry Potter didn’t have to join the quidditch team to progress the plot of his novel, however it showed him doing something he enjoyed, following his passion.

    In the recent, American version of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” film, the male lead, after the inciting incident, focused all of his time on the main plot of the novel, a mystery.

    The female lead however, was shown struggling with being an orphan and dealing with abuse from men in many scenes. Later, she joined the main plot line and helped solve the case.

    In the end, she was by far the more sympathetic and “real” character. Like Harry Potter, studying magic and playing quidditch, I could imagine her life, struggling to stay in control of her circumstances, even after the story was over.

    I once heard of a way to test if a character is really special, if they really come alive.

    The test: can you imagine people writing fan fiction about this character?

    If yes, then the character lives off the page, whispering in people’s ears long after they’ve finished reading reading about him or her.

    People come back to these characters time and time again, because they just won’t leave them alone. They’re just too stubborn.

    • Well said, Dmytry. All great points, but I’d like to reiterate your warning above: “too many of these scenes would make a novel unfocused.”

      This is where the *art* of writing really comes into play. If an author does this well, he enhances the piece; if he does it poorly, or to excess, he kills the piece.

      I love throwing in brief little tidbits to build a character, but I think the key words there are “brief little tidbits.” The longer you spend on those scenes, the longer you’ve asked the reader to step out of the moment — out of the story.

      Bottom line: Do it, of course, but do it well. Then rely on beta readers (not your usual “yes-men” please – they don’t help you) to indicate whether you took them too far out of the story.

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