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Crafting Effective Characters Part Four

At the lowest level of the Character Development Chart, created figures almost by definition begin to lack life of their own. Here, characters are accident-prone, suffer grief and impotence, anxiety, and have only the barest functional control of themselves. A liability to society, they are potentially suicidal; utterly careless of others, they obey almost anyone. They listen little, mostly to apathy or pity and take little heed of what is said, but easily have the realities of others forced on them. They may engage in wild lying to gain sympathy, while any remark made to them may act a “positive suggestion” hypnotically. Not liked, but only pitied by some, their belongings tend to be in very bad condition generally. Their short lives end in utter failure.

Wuthering Heights has many characters who eventually are worn down to this point —here Heathcliff has descended so far that he has given up on revenge, no longer having the will for it:

My old enemies have not beaten me; now would be the precise time to revenge myself on their representatives —I could do it, and none could hinder me. But where is the use? I don't care for striking, I can't take the trouble to raise my hand.

Rochester’s first wife in Jane Eyre exemplifies it; Captain Corelli's Mandolin details a society in which this level is reached, as does War and Peace. The pitiful madness of many characters in literature such as Treasure Island, The Count Of Monte Cristo, and Far From The Madding Crowd probably belongs here. As far as settings or landscapes go, these can also fall into these bands: the boy’s island in Lord of the Flies and the societies of Clockwork Orange and Of Mice and Men seem to fit in many respects into this lower range —but the emotional keys of the settings of stories are a separate study altogether.

These bands represent, then, emotional keys which characters demonstrate which can then be “played” by master authors to produce certain emotional effects in the same way that a musician plays a range of chords to produce a similar response.

Of course, characters move within these bands and from one band to the next and back again —that is how we, as readers, are manipulated emotionally, as we have seen. But this isn’t just a random process, or merely a matter of grabbing a reader to instil any kind of emotional effect: just as in music, chords are structured and sequenced to lead attention on toward a given result, so authors use these standard bands to guide the reader to predetermined ends.

In the same way, readers are continually looking for signals to determine what character fits in what band —and therefore how that character relates to the story model we are examining— writers need to give sufficient evidence through what a character says and does early enough in the piece to keep a grip on the reader. Jumbling up these characteristics doesn’t work; of course, to be real a character may display characteristics from more than one band, but the bands fit together in the same way as chords fit together in music —jump from one to another in a random way and the result will be discordance and loss of audience. Move skilfully through the bands, however, and the reader will actually be “moved” with that motion.

Using these character bands with superlative accuracy makes readers turn the pages of your work to find out what happens to them.

Staying true to the character you've developed becomes then a matter of listening to the character’s “voice” rather than having to consciously invent things about him or her. Even if the individual you’ve spawned is utterly revolting morally, a voice will become apparent to you —and quite often it’s the villain of the piece who most captivates the reader.

Even characters, though, no matter how convincing, have to be placed in situations which test them or reveal things about them. The best-crafted character in the world will not communicate emotion if he or she remains static and unexplored in the story. A truly suspenseful book, short story or other literary work is a piece of theatre, keeping the audience on the edge of their seats until the end; a suspense-filled epic should hold the reader until the final word. (This is another reason for the partial dramatisation of reading your work aloud.)

Stay tuned for more about the Character Development Chart soon.


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