People and “Characters”
Whether we refer to the persons who populate our fiction as “characters” or “people” (some folks get very sniffy about these terms), stories have to have them. They don’t all have to be human (as I mentioned before in reference to Jack London’s animal stories and the like), but they need to be there.
The most memorable exception to this rule is Ray Bradbury’s “There Will Come Soft Rains,” a story in which no people appear because they’ve all been killed in a nuclear war. A dog shows up but he’s gone after two paragraphs. If there’s a character at all, it’s the automatic house that keeps up its routine in spite of the absence of its owners. The story is a wonderful example of making a story element conspicuous by its absence for a very specific purpose: what would it really mean to “push the button”?
But that’s the exception.
So, if stories need characters, where do we get them?
Very few fictional characters are completely transported from “real life.” People we know may serve as models for our fictional creations, but in the process of writing a story the models get changed. They look like one person but we give them traits of someone else. We make them stand like a teacher we had in fourth grade, but we give them our grandmother’s laugh, and we make them say something that was really uttered by your best friend’s uncle.
Some characters are based on even less than this: they’re based on an author’s belief that although such a person may not exist in real life, if the world were a fairer place they would exist.
Some characters are ideal heroes. Some characters are ideal scoundrels.
It may be impossible to figure out what needs or impulses compelled Edgar Rice Burroughs to create Tarzan of the Apes, or Herman Melville to create Ahab, or James Joyce to create Leopold Bloom, or Frances Hodgson Burnett to create Sara Crewe, but there is one certain (and reassuring) thing we can say about fictional characters: when we need them, we find them.
The greatest difficulty for writers is that they don’t always come exactly when we want them to.
In the meantime, we sometimes create characters that “fill the space,” where a person should be, or we create a character, not as we see them, but as we imagine our readers want to see them.
Very often this produces very dull characters who are only capable of going through the motions.
In many cases, that’s enough. The most prominent element of some stories is the plot, and with certain kinds of plots you only need a person to be the foil of the plot.
But even in very plot-driven stories, characters don’t have to be dull and one-dimensional.
So, what can we do to make our characters “real”?
First of all, we can give them faces. We don’t always have to describe them in the story, but we have to be able to see them in our own mind’s eye. If we can’t see our own characters, how can we expect our readers to see them?
Next, it would help to give your characters names. I know this seems fairly rudimentary, but I’ve read dozens of stories in workshops where writers labor not to tell us the names of their characters, because they believe not telling us increases the “universality” of their characters. That sounds nice in theory except that it rarely works. I can’t at the moment think of a memorable work of fiction whose main character’s only name is “he.” “I,” maybe, but never “he.” Even Franz Kafka calls the protagonist of The Trial “Joseph K.” – that’s a name.
Okay, maybe you can get away without naming your central character, but ninety-nine times out of a hundred you are burdening yourself – and your reader – by trying to do without it. You’re making the job harder than it has to be.
What you observe in real-life people should be reflected in your fictional people. That doesn’t mean that all characters have to be based on real people (better that they’re not, because the demands of a story are not the same as the demands of “real” life), but that the characters in your story have to have enough “real” traits and quirks to convince your readers that they’ve had a life that precedes the incidents in your story. You don’t necessarily want cutout characters who seem more like game pieces being moved around on a board.
Except in cases where you’re trying to write a thoroughly “objective” story – one that imitates the approach of a journalist, perhaps – you need to add one thing to your characters that you can’t really observe: as E. M. Forster points out, you have to know their inner or “secret” lives. You have to know what memories obsess them, what desires motivate them. You even have to know, in some cases, their dreams – even the ones they can’t remember when they wake up in the morning.
It’s also important, as John Gardner points out in The Art of Fiction, for our characters to have free will. Stories are about change, about crucial turns in the lives of various persons. If a character is not empowered to “do otherwise,” he or she is a pawn, and pawns don’t often make interesting fictional subjects.
It might also help to remember what Muriel Spark has her novelist/narrator say in her novel Loitering With Intent: “Contradictions in human character are one its most consistent notes … to make a character ring true it needs must be in some way contradictory, somewhere a paradox.”
In many cases, especially with much modern short fiction, it’s just those contradictions and paradoxes that “make” a story. A character is, in a sense, defined by our description. The story then “tests” the definition. Is the woman who believes in doing good works and giving to charity just as charitable to her family? Does the man who tells himself he can’t love another person really incapable of loving, or is he hiding his vulnerability behind that declaration?
It’s very possible that when we create characters and then find ourselves unsure of what to do with them, it will go a long way in figuring out how to fit them into a story by trying to “define” that character, then stepping back to see if they really live up to that definition. Or else, look for the flaw in your character, then ask yourself what event or events would best bring out that flaw – and that’s where you’ll find your “conflict.” A character’s flaw is like the weakest link in a chain, and by testing that link you may find your story.
THIS JUST IN:
ADDENDUM in 2013: The other day in an in-service class with Nami Mun, I heard an interesting distinction about characters and conflict that may prove helpful to you. In a story, your character may have two kinds of conflict. The first is called “Chronic Conflict”: a conflict that has been in the character’s life since long before the story began. The other is “Acute Conflict,” which is the conflict that forms the immediate concern of the story. The two will most often be related to each other, the latter an immediate example of the former. The former may also be linked to the character’s motivation. For example, a character may have what’s popularly called these days “anger management problems” (Chronic Conflict); the story begins as he’s waiting in a long line, moving very slowly, where everyone ahead of him seems to have some silly bureaucratic problem, and the character is about to explode in a rage (Acute Conflict); the character’s goal is to control his anger. The use of the two kinds of conflict helps to shape and/or define the character.
Will this help you finish your story? Maybe not, but the distinction gives you an extra tool for working out what’s at the heart of your story.
As an exercise, create a fictional character. Imagine him or her as completely as you can, giving the character, a face, a name, a family, a home, a livelihood – the works.
Now, imagine a dream that your character would have – not an aspiration or desire – a real dream, the kind we have when we go to sleep at night.
What does the dream tell you about the character? Does it give you any additional insights into that person’s nature? Does it suggest any contradictions or flaws your character may have? Do those contradictions or flaws suggest any ways your character might be “put to the test” in a story?