How do the most well-received literary fiction writers create memorable characters?
In essence, (1) literature is a written work of lasting art, (2) fiction is imagined story and characters, and (3) characterizing is creatively forming a character–rather than describing from memory (memoir, biography). Here are techniques and principles in storytelling that provide literary-quality characterization: Action, Conflict, Character-Based Plots, Change, Dialogue, Setting.
Showing story and character in action-scenes with concrete imagery, supportive narration, and dynamic prose enriches display of character emotion, morality, desire, history, and worldview . . . all with pleasurable, enlightening, and lasting effects on readers. Of course narrative telling is important–it can be more figurative, abstract, and metaphorical– but for intensity and impact, in-scene action is often the better choice to develop character with story.
In-scene storytelling can engage and involve readers more than telling narration. This first 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 same event shows in-scene action that helps develop 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, when awake, trembled nonstop from a congenital palsy. Could he hold the string? Fly the kite? He wanted to so badly.
“Hold tight,” Harry urged placing the string in the boy’s hand. The kite dipped then suddenly soared, the string taught again.
The boy cried out. “I dropped it.” Harry reached out but the kite had ascended too far to grab the trailing string.
The untethered kite disappeared, driven out to the sea by a gusty off-shore wind.
“I didn’t mean too,” the boy said, “Please don’t hit me.”
Dramatization in plotting is accomplished by (1) presenting characters with conflicting desires, emotions, actions, thoughts, and (2) inserting conflict in dialogue of verbal exchanges.
For example of dialogue without conflict:
Jane says to her father: “I’d like to hike to the top.”
Her father says: “A smashing idea.”
Now two examples with character-revealing conflict embedded;
Jane: “Let’s climb to the top.”
Father. “I’m too weak. And you know I hate heights.”
Jane: “Stay here then. I knew I shouldn’t have brought you.”
OR (different character revelation, more muted and kinder)
Jane: “I want to climb to the top.”
Father: “I can’t. You know what the doctor said.”
Jane: “We can stop for a coffee then.”
In successful literature, characters’ strengths, weaknesses, fears, lack of experience, failures of intuition, etc., frequently drive plots.
Character-based plotting in narrative telling may often augment opportunities for characterization. Compare these examples:
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 and fulfills an opportunity for character development.
Aaron, a wealthy business man excessively proud of his invincibility and with inflated belief in himself and his abilities, chooses to fly his private airplane at night with limited experience in bad weather and crashes killing himself and his passengers .
A major element of great character is character-based plot where a character’s thoughts, feelings, and actions are often integral to logical plot-progression rather than a character simply reacting to fatalistic or serendipitous plot events.
A. Character reacting to plot events:
Pablo spotted the meteorite as it plunged through the atmosphere and he unsuccessfully ran for his life.
2) Serendipity. Homeless Harry was starved and he walked the streets for a handout when he came across a ham and cheese sandwich wrapped in cellophane lying on the sidewalk.
B. Character-motivated plot progression.
Mary, fed up with her lying abusive husband, drove with her children to live with her mother in Canada and when she came to the mile-long narrows suspension-bridge her life-long fear of heights made her ignore a “road closed” sign and she detoured onto a wintery road in an attempt to reach the ferry. The car skidded on black ice plunging over a cliff killing all.
In essence, a meteorite kills the man (fatalistic), a hungry man finds food (serendipity), a mother’s fears and distress kill her and her family (character-based plot).
IN-SCENE CHARACTER-BASED PLOTTING: Example from classic literature.
Flaubert (in Madame Bovary) has a character-based scene development that reveals attributes of both Emma and her husband Charles that add to their individuality and complexity. The basic plot of the scene is: Emma Bovary convinces her husband, Charles, she needs piano lessons as a ruse to meet her lover in town… and, after a few weeks, everyone thinks her piano playing improves. From Madame Bovary–Part three, chapter four (text abbreviated).
One evening when Charles was listening to her [Emma], 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.
“Madame Liegard assured me that her three young ladies who are at La Misericorde have lessons at fifty sous apiece!”
[Emma} 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 [. . . ] my good friend [. . .] by inducing madame (Emma) to study; you [would be] economizing on the subsequent musical education of your child,” [the chemist said.]
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.
The plot progresses revealing Emma’s deceitful clever, selfish, unscrupulous behavior and Charles’s doting, clueless, naive, yet caring nature; writing that adds to the composition of unique, lasting, memorable characters.
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 of a truth, realization of consequences from an action, a change in morality, a coming of age, a new way of thinking, etc. And characterization is also enhanced when a character faces but fails the opportunity for change.
A young girl goes to court with her brother, younger sister and aunt to attend the indictment of her father for the murder of her mother and discovers truth that forces her to take on maternal-caring for her siblings.
Dr. Greiner’s Day in Court (free)
The son, long embarrassed by his father–an illiterate stonecutter of funerary statuary, falls in love with a woman client of his father. The woman, who is twice the boy’s age, wants a tributary statue of a famous man she worked for. The tributary statue by his father is so revealing of the dead man’s true complex but not totally malevolent nature that it helps the woman forgive the man’s sins against her, and the boy discovers repressed pride and love for the father.
The Stonecutter (free)
An older man lives with a divorced woman he is unwilling to marry. Although he finds her interesting and companionable, he is not sure a commitment to marriage would satisfy her need for a surrogate of her former husband. While the couple are touring India, the theft of a valuable necklace results in the death of a fellow traveler and the circumstances brings the man to realize his partner’s love and need and he makes a commitment to marry by giving her a necklace symbolic of his love.
The Necklace (free)
The husband attending a funeral to give a eulogy for his dead estranged wife meets a young college student also present to deliver a eulogy who helps him forgive his dead-wife’s transgressions so he can deliver a remarkable tribute to the flawed, dead woman.
Speaking of the Dead (free)
Effective fiction requires dialogue specific to character speaking. It is a common trap for an author to write dialogue the same for all characters (and narrator), often just creating as she or he (the author) would essentially respond in conversation. A character’s dialogue should be consistent with the experiences, worldview, intellect, morality, memory, imagination, and education of that character. This requires authors to write dialogue imagined from, and specific to, the brain and soul of each of their characters.
In this example, from the short story “Reddog.” Two characters.: a criminal charged as accomplice to a hate-crime murder and a young woman researcher in graduate school pretending to be studying the wants and motivations of murderous criminals (but also secretly seeking facts that would help abolish capital punishment). The prisoner, the researcher, and the assistant warden each speak with identifiable, specific characteristics.
Interaction between assistant warden and prisoner.
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?”
“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,” he said.
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.
And a later interaction of the prisoner with the graduate student.
She wrote on her pad for a while.
“You a real doc?” I asked her.
“Does it make a difference?” She still stared at her pad. Her voice was a little squeaky.
“You ain’t one, or you would have said so.”
She shifted in her chair. “Please try to keep to the subject.”
“You my subject, sweetie pie.”
“Ms. Pearlstein,” she said angrily.
“You got a first name. Like Virginity?”
“Where were you when you first saw Sean McGarity?”
“Maybe you called Chastity. Chastity Pearlstein!”
“Answer my question!”
“I love the way your lips wiggle,” I said.
She slammed her folder on the table. “I don’t like smartasses,” she said. “I’ve got too much to do.” She nodded to the guard and she picked up her papers and her tape recorder. She’d spent less than five minutes with me. That was no session!
“Up yours,” I said, but she was already out the door. The guard pointed at me, his first finger straight out like the barrel of a gun. The bastard. The guard closed the door and called for transfer. In a few seconds, I’d be on my way back to maximum.
Here’s another example from “The Activist.” Eleven-year old Ether Mae is with her mother and her older sister, Pearl Anne, in a double-wide trailer immediately after Pearl Anne delivers an aborted dead fetus.
“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.”
“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 to 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?” she asked.
Note: character specific dialogue is dependent on word choice, syntax, ideation, but as important is the dialogue segment, when it’s delivered, is logically and credibly related to the character’s worldview, experience, education, intellect at the moment in story time. And for the most part, dialect and speech impediments should be used sparingly.
The perspective of a scene can be close or distant. Variations of use depend on authorial style and purpose of the scene (and story). Close perspective, by bringing the reader into the scene, reveals character traits. By contrast, distant perspective so essential for delivering broad perspective of setting, perspective contributes to imaging but not so much to characterization. See these two examples:
Close perspective. From short short story, 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.
Distant perspective. From Herman Melville’s novel Moby Dick.
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.
Circumambulate the city of a dreamy Sabbath afternoon. Go from Corlears Hpok 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 week days 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?
Characters in fiction are often stimulated by real-life persons and events but are most effectively rendered not by remembering and describing alone but through authorial skill in creating characters through imaginative, accurate, objective prose-storytelling when the engagement, entertainment, and enlightenment of the reader are the prime considerations. Authors of literary stories, to achieve best results, should have altruistic reasons–usually void of authorial ego, catharsis, need for attention or guilt-relief–to tell their stories, and seek for the story and the characters to stimulate new or renewed reader-thinking about facing the human condition.
To LEARN MORE about characterization and fiction writing, visit: Essays on Writing.
EXAMPLES OF PRINCIPLES (Short Stories and Novels)
Read or listen:
ACTION: “The Miracle of Madame Villard” (free)
CONFLICT: “Inside the Matryoshka” (free):
CHANGE: “On the Road to Yazoo City” (free)
PERSPECTIVE (close): “Speaking of the Dead” (free)
PERSPECTIVE (distant): “The Necklace” (free)/
DIALOGUE: “Facing Grace with Gloria” (free)
CHARACTER-BASED PLOT (SHORT STORY): “Reddog” (free)
CHARACTER-BASED PLOT (NOVELS):
- The Spirit of Want. (Novel) by William H. Coles
- McDowell (Novel) by William H. Coles