This will be a five part post, and in each I will discuss one of the above elements using examples from some of my favorite pieces of classic literature. The pieces selected will apply to each element.
When we discuss a book with our friends, we don’t usually say things like (except us writers who have a tendency to over analyze), “I think the story would have been better had the author not described the heroine in such detail; and her thoughts on page forty one seemed out of character.” Instead we say things like “Why didn’t she marry so and so? And why did she give up her only chance of happiness?”
This seems to show us that one of the greatest foundations of a novel is it’s characters. Why? Because it’s people we identify with, not houses or events. As writers, we should put this knowledge to use by putting time and effort into writing interesting and believable characters.
There are numerous articles about the different types of characters and how each should interact in the story. So, rather than adding another article to that pile, I will explore two characters from classic literature. Using their thoughts, dialogue, and additional components, we can discover exactly who they are. Like archeologists who don’t spend their time excavating houses built only last year, we as writers should look not only to modern literature. Some of the most well loved characters are found in the pages of literature penned by Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, etc. I will give a few examples below. These are not necessarily physical descriptions of characters, because one of the best ways to discover a character is to “see them in action.”
1) Here is example number one.
The promise of a smooth career, which my first calm introduction to Thornfield Hall seemed to pledge, was not belied on a longer acquaintance with the place and its inmates. Anybody may blame me who likes, when I add further, that, now and then, when I took a walk by myself in the grounds; when I went down to the gates and looked through them along the road; or when, while Adele played with her nurse, and Mrs. Fairfax made jellies in the storeroom, I climbed the three staircases, raised the trap-door of the attic, and having reached the leads, looked out afar over sequestered field and hill, and along dim sky-line--that then I longed for a power of vision which might overpass that limit; which might reach the busy world, towns, regions full of life I had heard of but never seen--that then I desired more of practical experience than I possessed; more of intercourse with my kind, of acquaintance with variety of character, than was here within my reach. I valued what was good in Mrs. Fairfax, and what was good in Adele; but I believed in the existence of other and more vivid kinds of goodness, and what I believed in I wished to behold. Who blames me? Many, no doubt; and I shall be called discontented. I could not help it: the restlessness was in my nature; it agitated me to pain sometimes. Then my sole relief was to walk along the corridor of the third storey, backwards and forwards, safe in the silence and solitude of the spot, and allow my mind's eye to dwell on whatever bright visions rose before it--and, certainly, they were many and glowing; to let my heart be heaved by the exultant movement, which, while it swelled it in trouble, expanded it with life; and, best of all, to open my inward ear to a tale that was never ended--a tale my imagination created, and narrated continuously; quickened with all of incident, life, fire, feeling, that I desired and had not in my actual existence.
Without knowledge of the identity of the narrator, or of her past or current circumstances, we know something about her, just by getting a glimpse into her head. Charlotte Bronte’s character Jane Eyre, in other circumstances, appears to be what she at one time calls herself “a plain quakerish governess.” But when we get a glimpse into her real thoughts we gain a new understanding of her character. By doing this, Charlotte Bronte gives Jane a deeper layer to her character, making her three dimensional: a solid real human being.
2) The next is slightly different and comes from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.”
The other girl, Daisy, made an attempt to rise — she leaned slightly forward with a conscientious expression — then she laughed, an absurd, charming little laugh, and I laughed too and came forward into the room.“I’m p-paralyzed with happiness.” She laughed again, as if she said something very witty, and held my hand for a moment, looking up into my face, promising that there was no one in the world she so much wanted to see. That was a way she had. She hinted in a murmur that the surname of the balancing girl was Baker. (I’ve heard it said that Daisy’s murmur was only to make people lean toward her; an irrelevant criticism that made it no less charming.) I looked back at my cousin, who began to ask me questions in her low, thrilling voice. It was the kind of voice that the ear follows up and down, as if each speech is an arrangement of notes that will never be played again. Her face was sad and lovely with bright things in it, bright eyes and a bright passionate mouth, but there was an excitement in her voice that men who had cared for her found difficult to forget: a singing compulsion, a whispered “Listen,” a promise that she had done gay, exciting things just a while since and that there were gay, exciting things hovering in the next hour.
The above differs in several ways. First of all it is told by the narrator describing someone else, thus giving us a more impartial view. Also, there is dialogue which also gives us a glimpse into how the character responds to those around her.
How can we use the above examples? We can study them and then try some exercises in our own writing to help us create characters that also speak to the reader with the depth that past writers have accomplished.
If you feel your characters are lacking the depth they need, try a simple exercise. Write two scenes that may or may not pertain to your story. In the first, give the character something to think about such as another person or the events of the day. Then write what your character would think. This is especially effective when you have your character meditate on something that does not pertain to your story. Doing this will add a layer to your character that he/she may never have thought of in the actual story, but will help better your understanding of the character and add realness and depth. Characters must appear to the reader as full bodied individuals and not just words on a page.
In the second scene have another character think about and observe your character. This will better your understanding of how your character appears to others. This will also add a three dimensional aspect to your character. All of us are in one way or another a product of those around us.
Characters are a complex lot and it takes time and effort to delve into their minds. Doing a character profile before writing your story is also a good idea. However, this should not be the only tool used to develop and expand characterization. Good characters are created just like human beings and they should be seen by the reader as fully functional, well rounded, relational creatures.
In our next post we will look at good examples of the use of Setting.
Please share with all of us some great literature where the characters are very well done/ and or tell what techniques you use to develop believable characters in your own writing.