Characterization in literary fiction has special importance, and authors need to develop their own sense of responsibility for full and effective character development.
Character is everything in literary fiction. Not that character replaces plot and setting or theme and meaning, but character intimately relates to all those. Although characters are sometimes categorized as round or flat, every character in fiction must have complexities and uniqueness that may or may not be written on the page. A character that does not need to be fully presented for the story may appear two dimensional, but there should be three dimensions in the creator’s mind. Full character development assures that the author has thought about the story as a unit. Depth of understanding of all characters assures underlying motivations are reasonable, dialogue believable, and logic of action is clear.
The goal of character creation in fiction is complex, but creating a unique character — one that is not stereotypical — is the essence of great fictional stories. The character will be adopted by the reader, and the characters will drive the momentum of the plot. At the start of character development, there are no restrictions. A character emerges unencumbered. Then that character must be perfected for the plot. The character must be unique, but remain believable and within the boundaries set by the suspension of disbelief all fiction requires. The character must not be stereotypical, yet must feel comfortable to the reader in a familiar way. As a memorable character develops, the reader becomes attached — and admires the character in the same way they would begin to like a new acquaintance as a friend. This reader attachment is often associated with liking the character, but affinity is not absolutely necessary. Respect and/or admiration are also strong attachments for a reader to a character. As the author creates an emerging character, subtle choices and imaginative attributes given to the character must keep within the overall story guidelines set in the contract between author and reader. Subsequently, in revision, scenes, thoughts, actions, conflicts and motivations that do not contribute maximally to the character engaging the reader and driving the plot forward are eliminated, or at least changed.
To create a character for a reader in a literary story, there are a limited number of things the character can think or do. In a short story, even for the protagonist, there may be only ten to twenty key characterization opportunities. Often, there are fewer. In the novel, with its longer time line and wider range of development from the direct story line, there are more opportunities for a character to show his or her true colors, but ultimately, even these openings are limited. How do authors take key opportunities and make the most of them? First, character development must be reasonable for the story and for the sensibilities of the reader. The actions and thoughts of the character must also be unique, with elements of surprise, so that the actions and traits embed in reader memory. In-scene showing of a character’s actions, thoughts and opinions has more lasting impact than narrative telling. And character development leaves more impression on the reader when in-scene story time predominates over back story or narrator comments on past character action.
Literary fiction demands extraordinary skills for character development. But two erroneous attitudes suppress authors achieving the memorable characters required for great stories: 1) that character development is an inherent trait and that author learning and experience provide little improvement; 2) that characters take over the author’s stories when authors are in their best writing trances, and the character carries the story to successful completion — a common but surefire limitation on developing the best fictional character. Characters are imagined and created — not discovered and described — for maximum story effectiveness.
Stories, to be great, should be significant and meaningful. A major way for an author to instill these qualities in storytelling is through effective characterization.
A stereotypical (oversimplified standardized image or idea) character is avoided in literary stories. But in fact, stereotypes abound in many stories, and are often essential. Comic superheroes are so rigid that cartoonists must adhere strictly to the visual and story history so familiar to the reader, say for Spiderman. In detective fiction, Hercule Poirot, Agatha Christie’s detective, is consistent crime after crime. He has a role that defines him and that is required for the story telling as she created it. In literary fiction, every character is, by nature of the creative process, born stereotypical, and is then developed to some non-stereotypical threshold. This improves reader interest and augments quality of the story. But in stories with multiple characters, all characters cannot be unique, vibrant and memorable; some stereotypes are unavoidable. This is not bad. Over-development of too many characters may create unbelievable and/or ineffective fiction. As in the writing of all fiction, proper balance must be sought, a balance that is uniquely individual for each writer’s style and sensibilities.
Character in different types of writing
Although many would reflexively disagree, it is true that memoir, creative nonfiction and biography do not have the options and do not reach the potential of character development available to the fiction writer. Yet, many, if not the vast majority, of pieces published as fiction stories today are simply authors telling something that has happened, often to them or someone they know, with a little freedom from reality, and calling the result fiction. A character and his or her traits are described. This result does not have the imaginative structure of fiction, and relies on narrative telling to the reader rather than in-scene engagement. Lyrical writers — the poets of prose — find it easier to experiment with language through nonfiction. This is not all bad and is very enjoyable to some readers, but it does not address how to create great fictional stories. In fiction, characters emerge, plot progresses, meaning arises, and structure supports a story that is created in the imagination and then skillfully crafted to provide entertainment for the reader. Fiction demands that the reader knows more than the characters, and often more than the narrator. Fiction is less reliant on the discovery of something already known than on the awareness of how and why something happens based on character and plot. In memoir, biography, and autobiography, the character is formed before the writing starts. The author chooses accurate descriptions of happenings. There are few decisions allowing change for the betterment of the story.
Character and Plot
In literary fiction, character moves the plot. Consider some brief plot descriptions:
- The plane crashed.
- The drunk pilot crashed in a stolen plane.
- The grief-stricken pilot, rejected by his second wife, fails to listen to a transmission from the tower and is injured after a midair collision.
- The plane was shot down by enemy fire.
- The nearly bankrupt airline failed to pay maintenance man Joe Hubbard for two months, and Joe refused to perform a routine maintenance check, yet Max Fine, the supervisor, allowed the plane to fly. The plane crashed.
These scenarios demonstrate how plot can be circumstantial (1 and 4) or character motivated (2, 3 and 5). (These are not suggested as worthy of development.)
The author who wants to create great stories must characterize well. Time and multiple tries are required, and a healthy dissatisfaction with all early opportunities is essential. In fact, during the creative process, authors must continue to search for improved characterization, never being satisfied with mediocrity.