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Creating Quality Characters in Literary Fiction

William H. Coles


Techniques for Creating QUALITY Characters in Literary Fiction:
Action, Conflict, Character-Based Plots, Change, Dialogue, Imaging.

 

How do the most well-received literary fiction writers create memorable characters? In essence, literature is a written work of lasting art; fiction is imagined story and characters.  When an author uses imagination for creating characters who compliment the storytelling, a character can become the dominant feature of the story, can contribute to plot development, and with consistent emotional and intellectual arcs often is the source of a reader’s discovery of significant theme and meaning.  Here are techniques and principles in storytelling that provide literary-quality characterization: Action, Conflict, Character-Based Plots, Change, Dialogue, Imaging.

ACTION

Showing story and character in imagic action-scenes displays characteristics, emotion, morality, and worldview whenever possible. Of course narrative telling is important, but in-scene storytelling can engage and involve the reader often with more intensity and impact.

This example tells of a happening. There is no action or significant characterization:

Harry flew a kite at the beach to entertain his invalid son. But the kite got away, and Harry seethed with anger.

Here is the event told in scene and with action that develops character:

A wind gust elevated the dragon kite and the string ran through Harry’s hand fast enough to hurt.

“Let me do it, Daddy,” his son Raymond said as he limped to Harry’s side. The boy held out his hand that trembled without stop from a congenital palsy. Could he hold the string? Fly the kite? He wanted to so badly.

“Hold it tight,” Harry said placing the string in the boy’s hand. The kite dipped then suddenly soared, the string taught again.

“I dropped it,” the boy said crying. Harry reached out but the kite had ascended too far to reach the string.

Harry cursed as the kite disappeared untethered, driven out to the sea by the off-shore wind.

“I didn’t mean too,” the boy said, “Don’t hit me.”

CONFLICT

Dramatize by keeping characters in conflict (reveals character). When plotting, this is accomplished by (1) presenting characters with conflicting desires, emotions, actions, thoughts, and (2) inserting conflict in dialogue of verbal exchanges.

For example of conflict in dialogue:

Jane says to her father: “I’d like to hike to the top.”
Her father says: “A smashing idea.”

There is no conflict in this exchange.  But there is potential.

Now with character-revealing conflict embedded;

Jane: “Let’s climb to the top.”
Father. “I’m too weak to do that. And you know I don’t like heights.” 
Jane: “Stay here then. I don’t care.”

This conflict tells something about characters and plot. And there are always many ways to reveal different character traits.   What if father said:  “I don’t want you to go.  You know what the doctor said.”?  A caring response in a clash of wills about the climb.

CHARACTER-BASED PLOTS

Character-based plotting in narrative telling often augments opportunities for characterization. Compare these examples: straight-forward narrative telling and then character-based plotting:

“The night was dark and stormy, the plane’s instruments were not functioning after a lighting strike, and the plane crashed killing all aboard.”

Now the same event but with character-based plotting; the character’s hubris causes the accident. An opportunity for character development.

“A wealthy business man excessively proud of his invincibility chooses to fly his private airplane at night with limited experience in bad weather, causes a crash due to his poor decisions based on his inflated belief in himself and his abilities, and kills himself and his passengers.”

In essence, plots can reveal essential character traits. In successful literature, characters’ strengths, weaknesses, fears, lack of experience, failures of intuition, etc., frequently drive plots.

CHANGE

Great characters in literature change in some significant way. An enlightenment, an epiphany, a recognition of responsibility, a caring, a gracious gesture from a mean soul, a commitment, accepted responsibility for a failure, a change in character’s perception, acceptance, realization of consequences from an action, a change in morality, a coming of age, a new way of thinking, etc.  But characterization is also enhanced when a character fails the opportunity for change. 

EXAMPLES

A young girl goes to court with her brother, younger sister and aunt to attend the indictment of her father for the murder of the children’s mother and discovers truth about the father that forces a coming of age to take on maternal caring for her distraught siblings and stressed aunt.
Dr. Greiner’s Day in Court

The son of an illiterate stonecutter of funerary statuary falls in love with a client twice his age whom he helps to forgive the dead man whose statue of tribute crafted by his father is so revealing to all of the good rather than the bad that the boy discovers pride and love for the father who had so long embarrassed him.
The Stonecutter

An older man is living with a divorced woman unwilling to commit to marry when the two go on a tour of India where the theft of a valuable necklace results in the death of a woman and the circumstances bring the man to realize the value of the woman he loves and then expresses to her by commitment to marry.
The Necklace

The husband attending a funeral to give a eulogy for his dead estranged wife meets a young college student also attending to delivery a eulogy who helps him to understand forgiveness of his dead wife allows him to conquer his fear of a failed eulogy and deliver a remarkable tribute to the dead woman.
Speaking of the Dead

UNIQUENESS (AVOID STEREOTYPES)

For a major character, actions, thoughts and descriptions must seem as unique and fresh to a reader as possible. Avoid stereotypical rendering.

Excerpt from Chapter 1 of Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert, an example of ironic, humorous storytelling producing unique memorable characters.

It was about this time, that is to say, the beginning of winter, that she seemed seized with great musical fervour.

One evening when Charles was listening to her, she began the same piece four times over, each time with much vexation, while he, not noticing any difference, cried–

“Bravo! Very good! You are wrong to stop. Go on!”

“Oh, no; it is execrable! My fingers are quite rusty.”

The next day he begged her to play him something again.

“Very well; to please you!”

And Charles confessed she had gone off a little. She played wrong notes and blundered; then, stopping short–

“Ah! it is no use. I ought to take some lessons; but–” She bit her lips and added, “Twenty francs a lesson, that’s too dear!”

“Yes, so it is–rather,” said Charles, giggling stupidly. “But it seems to me that one might be able to do it for less; for there are artists of no reputation, and who are often better than the celebrities.”

“Find them!” said Emma.

The next day when he came home he looked at her shyly, and at last could no longer keep back the words.

“How obstinate you are sometimes! I went to Barfucheres today. Well, Madame Liegard assured me that her three young ladies who are at La Misericorde have lessons at fifty sous apiece, and that from an excellent mistress!”

She shrugged her shoulders and did not open her piano again. But when she passed by it (if Bovary were there), she sighed–

“Ah! my poor piano!”

And when anyone came to see her, she did not fail to inform them she had given up music, and could not begin again now for important reasons. Then people commiserated her–

“What a pity! she had so much talent!”

They even spoke to Bovary about it. They put him to shame, and especially the chemist.

“You are wrong. One should never let any of the faculties of nature lie fallow. Besides, just think, my good friend, that by inducing madame to study; you are economising on the subsequent musical education of your child. For my own part, I think that mothers ought themselves to instruct their children. That is an idea of Rousseau’s, still rather new perhaps, but that will end by triumphing, I am certain of it, like mothers nursing their own children and vaccination.”

So Charles returned once more to this question of the piano. Emma replied bitterly that it would be better to sell it. This poor piano that had given her vanity so much satisfaction–to see it go was to Bovary like the indefinable suicide of a part of herself.

“If you liked,” he said, “a lesson from time to time, that wouldn’t after all be very ruinous.”

“But lessons,” she replied, “are only of use when followed up.”

And thus it was she set about obtaining her husband’s permission to go to town once a week to see her lover. At the end of a month she was even considered to have made considerable progress.

CHARACTER-SPECIFIC DIALOGUE

Dialogue should always be specific to the character speaking. Note that character-specific dialogue is dependent on word choice, syntax, ideation, but as important is the dialogue segment in revision is determined to be logical and credible and directly related to the character’s worldview, experience, education, intellect and the moment in story time when the dialogue is delivered delivered.

Example I  (excerpt from “Reddog“)

On Christmas Day my second year in prison for murder, my mother stopped coming to visit.  She doesn’t call and I can’t get in touch with her.  In August, she missed my twenty-fifth birthday.  A couple months later, my sister came and said, “Mother doesn’t want to think about it anymore.  Try to understand.”  I did try. 

Eventually my sister quit coming; she had a lot on her mind with her van full of kids – and no husband.  So I go a year with no visitors, and when I get dragged to administration to face an assistant to the warden, I’m half-crazy. 

“A graduate student working in criminal justice wants to include you in her experiments,” he said.  “Your choice.  Two or three times a month.  Goes on your record as good behavior.”

Sessions would be out of maximum security . . . like a mini-vacation.

“Hey.  What’s with the experiments,” I said.  “She stick you with drugs, stuff like that?”

“Just talk.”

“Hey, Captain.  She a looker?”

“Don’t get your fantasies revved up.  She’s a pro.”

“You be there?”

“Just you and her.  And high security.” 

“Maybe I get out of max sooner?” I asked.  You get a cell in the main building and you could talk to guys, set things up.

“Can’t promise.”  He walked around the table, stuck a ballpoint pen in my cuffed hand, and showed me where to sign.  “Consent papers.”

You need a magnifying glass to read the print on the last two pages.  “I don’t know about signing anything,” I said. 

“It’s permission to talk, record, use information,” he said. 

“I thought this was research,” I said.  I hated do-gooders and I didn’t need rehabilitation.  I needed parole, miraculous DNA evidence, a new trial.

“I don’t give a shit what you do.  I’m here because the warden says to cover our ass legally.  It’s routine.  No one’s trying to screw you.  No one cares.”

“She ain’t a lawyer, is she?  She ain’t trying to retry the case or something.”

“She’s a student.  We checked.  She was a paralegal before she went back to grad school.  She’s demonstrated against the death penalty.  Arrested once, but never charged.  She won’t violate your rights, if that’s what you’re thinking.  You don’t have rights.”

I signed her papers with a bump-and-a-line so no one could ever read my name.

_________________________

Example II (excerpt from “The Activist“)

“I ain’t going to stand for it,” Mama said.  She said this often.

She held a small dead human about as long as an ear of corn.  Even though the head was too big, the hands too small, you could tell it might have been somebody.

“Push down,” Mama said.

My sister moaned.  With a gush of blood the afterbirth slid onto the bed.  Her skin was white as wood ash.

“I don’t feel good,” she said.

“Shut up, Pearl Anne,” Mama said.  “Shut up and grow up.”

“I’m seventeen.”

“You’re acting like a two-year-old.”

“I’m going to throw up,” Pearl Anne said.

I wasn’t feeling so hot either.

“Go get some towels, Ether Mae.  Help get Pearl Anne cleaned up.”

I didn’t move.  Pearl Anne got herself into this fix, not me.  I’d never had a boy put his thing into me.  Pearl Anne said it felt funny but not so good that she couldn’t do without it.  So she’d decided to quit.  She wanted more respect.  She quit too late.

Now Mama moaned and held this dead thing.  “My grandchild,” she said.  “Didn’t I tell you get some towels?”

“Don’t want to.”  I backed away a little.

“You’ll get the stick.  You’re too old to have me telling you what to do.”  I was eleven.

I found some rags and two towels and got them wet under the faucet in the sink, then squeezed the water out.

“Goddamn it.  Wring them out.  You’re dripping all over the floor,” Mama screamed.

“What’s that doctor’s name wouldn’t treat you, Pearl Anne?”

CHARACTER-FOCUSED IMAGING

The perspective of a scene can be close or distant for a reader.  Variations of use depend on authorial style and purpose of the scene.  The use of close perspective is often valuable for characterization; by allowing the reader into the scene, character traits are revealed.  In distant perspective, so essential for delivering broad perspective of story and setting, characters contribute to image but not so much to characterization.  See these two examples:

Perspective

1) Close perspective   (excerpt form “Dilemma“)

After the explosion they were quickly inside the room.  The gun had fallen to the floor.  His son had fallen to one side; his face gone: the lower jaw blown away, a few upper teeth haphazardly clinging to flesh.  Nose and lower lids gone, the deflated eyeballs wrinkled like a fallen soufflé.  His son’s legs, then his arms, went into spasms; he was alive but without air.

I’m a surgeon, he thought.  Focus.  Think like a doctor and not a father. 

His wife had crumpled to the floor, her hands over her eyes, wailing.

He held his son’s head with both hands; straightened the torso.  “Get up,” he said to his wife.  “You’ve got to do this.”  She stood.  “Slide the pillow under his shoulders.”

He let the head fall back hoping to find the glistening end of the trachea.   There were no landmarks, only flesh and blood, and bits and slivers of bone.

2) Distant perspective  (excerpt from Moby Dick, Chapter 1, by Herman Melville)

There now is your insular city of Manhattoes, belted round wharves as Indian Isles of coral reefs–commerce surrounds it with her surf.  Right and left, the streets take you waterward.  Its extreme downtown is the battery, where that noble mole is washed by waves, and cooled by breezes, which a few hours previous were out of sight of land.  Look at the crowds of water-gazers there. 

Circumambulatee the city of a dreamy Sabbath afternoon.  Go from Corlears Hook to Coenties Slip, and from thence, by Whitehall, northward.  What do you see?–Posted like silent sentinels all around the town, stand thousands upon thousands of mortal men fixed in ocean reveries.  Some leaning against the spiles; some seated on the pier-heads; some looking over the bulwarks of ships from China; some high aloft in the rigging, as if striving to get still a better seaward peep.  But these are all landsmen; of weekdays pent up in lath and plaster–tied to counters, nailed to benches, clinched to desks.  How then is this?  Are the green fields gone?  What do they do here?

Final thought.

Characters in fiction are often stimulated by real life persons and events but are most effectively rendered when engagement, entertainment, and enlightenment of the reader are the prime considerations and achieved through authorial skill in creating characters through imaginative, accurate, prose-storytelling.  Literary stories have altruistic reasons–usually void of authorial ego, catharsis, need for attention, or relief of guilt–to tell their stories and seek to stimulate new or renewed thinking about facing the human condition in our lives.

 


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