Character is… (Part 1)

When your readers say “What a character!”, you’ve done your job

This is the second in an ongoing series of StoryCrafting/StoryTelling posts I’m publishing for my own benefit; explaining something helps me determine if I’ve truly learned it or am simply parroting what others have offered. I learn my weak spots, what I need to study, et cetera.

Previous offerings include:

  • Atmosphere is…

    And note that I’ll update/upgrade/edit these posts as I learn more.

    Character is involved. There’s lots of pieces to creating believable characters. You don’t have to know them all. You could be a natural at it. God bless you and I hate you. I have to work at it. A lot.

    Everything I’ve learned so far about character falls into four buckets.

    Character is…
    1) An actor in a story,
    2) The way that actor is individualized from other actors in a story,
    3) The techniques used to make the character real/alive to the reader, and
    4) The techniques used so that the reader identifies with the actor.

    1) An Actor in a Story
    It’s that “actor” part that makes it interesting. A character must act upon other characters in the story. A character’s actions must cause reactions in other characters in the story. You need characters acting and reacting to each other because interactions makes plots.

    Did I mention that isolating story elements from each other is challenging?

    Characters can be anything. In Finding Nemo, the characters are ocean creatures. In Bambi, the characters are woodland creatures. In Cars and Cars 2, the characters are automobiles. In Toy Story, toys. The protagonist in ET is an alien. In The Odyssey, humans, gods, and mythical creatures are characters in the story. In Midnight in Paris (and you must see this movie. It’s incredible), the characters are all those people in the foreground on the screen (people just walking in the background, saying nothing, are part of the scene). These examples are easy because all the characters walk, talk, breath, and interact with each other.

    But I pulled a foolie on you in the above. In Midnight in Paris, Paris itself is also a actor in the story and a significant one. Midnight in Paris has to take place in Paris for reasons I won’t share (don’t want to spoil it for you). The Seine, the Louvre, the nightspots, the music, the streets, the hotel rooms, …, all have meaning in the story and all exist to allow other things to exist, other things to happen.

    Characters can be anything.

    Another example of setting as character is Michener’s Hawaii. The ways of the people, the weather, the surrounding ocean (the isolation), all are necessary to the story. If they weren’t, Michener wouldn’t have placed the story in Hawaii. Ditto his Centennial. Yes, these stories have lots of characters in them. However, none of those characters could exist anywhere else except in the locations given, and because setting plays such a large role in the story, because changes in the environment force changes in the human characters, setting can be considered a character just as surely as an antagonist thwarting the protagonist from achieving their goals.

    The sea and the weather co-star with Robert Redford in All Is Lost. The story couldn’t exist without them and it is Redford’s interaction with them that makes the movie worth watching. Pity they can’t get Oscars.

    But to the point, characters can be anything.

    2) The way that actor is individualized from other actors in a story
    The reader wants to know who’s doing what, who’s saying what, who’s thinking what, et cetera. This “who is saying/doing/thinking what” is critical to successful writing. The reader can’t be confused by characters so similar to each other they’re interchangeable; if they’re interchangeable, why are there so many of them in the story? One would suffice.

    Other characters in the story can be confused by who said/did/thought what, that’s fine. Some may say that mysteries require reader confusion.

    Not true. Good mysteries don’t confuse, they intentionally misdirect and the difference is important; confusing readers due to poor storytelling and storycrafting forces readers to work for no real reward. They may not have the sophistication to know the author’s weak, hence any effort to figure who’s doing/saying/thinking what can’t be rewarded by a well-crafted/told “aHA! The murderer is…”.

    Authors can intentionally misdirect the reader but the author must simultaneously share the correct solution. The author’s trick is the stage magician’s – misdirection. As I said in my interview (it’s up around 12.4m or so), you have to craft your story so that readers can’t see what’s coming but at the same time can say “Oh, yeah, that’s right. I saw that coming” when they reach the story’s conclusion.

    The best misdirection examples I’ve read are Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and Robert Heinlein’s By His Bootstraps.

    Authors individualize characters from each other via appearance, speech mannerisms, behavioral mannerisms (which includes manner of dress), what they consider their personal space, what they have in their private space, how they move, habits, …

    Authors individualize characters from each other via appearance, speech mannerisms, behavioral mannerisms (which includes manner of dress), what they consider their personal space, what they have in their private space, how they move, habits, …

    One of the best examples of individualization via physical appearance is of the wife in The Miller’s Tale in The Cantebury Tales. At the time they were written, a gap between the two front teeth indicated promiscuity. Claudius provided a two-fer; a club foot and a stutter (speech mannerism). Nobody else in the book had a club foot or stuttered.

    All of Doc Savage‘s team were physically unique. One, Brigadier General Theodore Marley “Ham” Brooks, is noted for his sartorial splendor and carrying a poison-tipped sword cane. Nobody else in the stories comes close.

    Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe‘s personal and private spaces overlap. Someone’s personal space is how physically close they let people get to them and how physically close they’ll get to people. Bullies want to get inside their victim’s personal space, sometimes referred to as “violating someone’s personal space.” Boxers have an amazing sense of personal space. They have to. Too close and they get hit. Too far and they can’t hit.

    Someone’s private space is usually a physical place where they feel free to be themselves, to drop all social guises and completely relax.

    Wolfe’s personal space is NYC West 35th St brownstone. He allows few people in and rarely extends himself out. His private space is the same. He’s made his home a luxurious garden with sumptuous food and elegant furniture. No wonder he doesn’t want anyone in there with him.

    The Absolute Limit of Sound, a work in progress, has the line “The man moves with animal quickness when he needs.” This line serves multiple purposes. First, it’s in direct contrast with what the reader knows about the character up to this point in the story, and it comes from a reliable witness. Secondly and based on the preceding, it foreshadows the final scenes of the story. And of course, it provides a description of the character that is both kinesthetic and visual; readers both see and feel “animal quickness.”

    A character’s habits tell readers about who they are and how they change over time. In The Augmented Man, one character knows the protagonist, Trailer, has changed because “Trailer no longer maintained Tank discipline.” Trailer’s change in habit provides Donaldson a clue to what’s happening, what to expect.

    That takes care of the first two aspects of character. The next in this series starts the exploration of the third character aspect, the techniques used to make the character real/alive to the reader.