Crafting Effective Characters Part 1
Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counsellors, and the most patient of teachers.
-Charles W. Eliot (1834 - 1926)
Being a writer is about all kinds of things -- on a mechanical level, it’s about rules about subject/verb agreement, punctuation, grammar, spelling, while on a not-so-mechanical level it’s to do with the archetypes and patterns which you actually absorb as a reader all the time but to which you perhaps don’t assign much conscious importance. You’ve been able to understand the secret language of fiction even while perhaps not being as able to communicate using it.
Words are the key, of course, to unlocking what you have flowing through your inner mind, but, just like the language you use at word level will captivate your reader or not, it is the models, the guides, moulds, blueprints, and patterns which will attract or repel your reader through the whole work. And that’s the foundation upon which great masterpieces are built, believe it or not.
However, even if you really feel what you’re writing, effectively capture it using exactly the right words, and then strive to follow the guide almost exactly, you can miss the mark in creating emotions within your readers.
So how do you do get an emotional commitment from your readers?
The first thing is NOT to do what you’re probably (if you’re like hundreds of thousands of other writers) tempted to do: get over-emotional with your language and style. Here’s a tip:
The best way of creating an emotional effect is to avoid emotionalism.
Ernest Hemingway was a master at this —his novels are apparently so dry, so free of outward emotional entanglement or linguistic emotional techniques, yet he is hailed as a major influence on writing in the twentieth century because his writing ends up conveying such powerful feelings.
In this excerpt from The Old Man and the Sea, the case is just plainly stated:
The old man was thin and gaunt with deep wrinkles in the back of his neck. The brown blotches of the benevolent skin cancer the sun brings from its reflection on the tropic sea were on his cheeks. The blotches ran well down the sides of his face and his hands had the deep-creased scars from handling heavy fish on the cords. But none of these scars were fresh. They were as old as erosions in a fishless desert. Everything about him was old except his eyes and they were the same color as the sea and were cheerful and undefeated.
Approximately 14% of the words in this passage are adjectives, and even they are straightforwardly presented: only two are figurative, the rest are simple physical descriptions. There is no particular drive to stir up the emotions of the reader. Rather, the technique is to be understated.
But apart from not being overtly emotional, what are the main tools for transmitting emotion to your readers?
The main tools are perhaps obvious, but the extent to which their usefulness is really known is limited to only the great authors or writers who know this secret:
The primary communicators of human emotion are carefully-crafted characters.
If fiction books or stories are attention-capturing devices, then the main mechanism in them that is used for capturing emotion is the characters.
The study of characters, like the study of rhythm, is worthy of a separate book, but for the moment let’s take a look at a Character Development Chart.
Basically, the chart is a tool for working out the typical characteristics of an individual in a way that will make that character far more convincing. There’s still plenty of room for you to add in whatever details or quirks you wish, but the secret of effective characters is having them be consistent in all their attitudes, dialogue, behaviour and every aspect of how they appear to the reader, especially if the full extent of this consistency only becomes apparent later in the plot.
Of course, fully consistent character traits can be boring. But here vacuums (as described at length in my book How Stories Really Work) come to our rescue as well: revealing apparently inconsistent personality traits which later turn out to be consistent is a mainstay of successful literature and a very effective way of surprising and entertaining your reader while remaining completely true to the foundations of your theme and tale. This ability to craft a character with firm and believable foundations and then hide those foundations, to dramatically reveal them later, is a principle found throughout effective fiction. This technique sabotages itself, though, if those underlying foundations turn out to be not believable —which is why the Chart is so useful.
Well-crafted characters, then, are one of your chief instruments for vastly improving your writing.
Most writing guides, though, without the Chart, ask you to immediately choose one or more of your characters —not necessarily the lead character— and write down some relevant facts about him or her. They advise you to ask questions like Where did the character grow up? Did he or she go to university? Do they have any favourite pursuits? What is his or her greatest fear or love? As you answer these questions, you do begin to get a very well-rounded view of your own creation.
The problem is that ‘well-rounded’ does not necessarily mean ‘well-crafted’ — in fact, the two can be opposed to each other.
A ‘fleshing-out’ exercise is useful and can give you more of an idea of how your character would behave in simple, practical terms, but you may be surprised at what you can create, crafting what appears to be an actual living being, by taking a different approach:
Craft characters around gaps, losses, missing things, unknowns, mysteries, and watch them come to life.
If you fully flesh out a character, you can kill him or her off — remove some key elements from that character and watch them come to life. Do this properly and your story will virtually write itself: it will leap off the page and demand to be written.
Work to give characters vacuums, if done properly, will create individuals who demand that their story be told, regardless of what plot you might originally have had in mind. Interestingly, almost without exception, the story a well-crafted character insists on telling will probably be better than the one you thought up on your own.