Who Are These People? Knowing Your Characters

By Susan Mary Malone

I talk a lot about characterization. A whole lot. Because characters drive your story, and without a great protagonist (and hopefully, small supporting cast), your reader has no one to root for; no one with whom to catch a ride and travel the course of the novel. And without that, you have no book—no matter how compelling the story.

Every story has to be someone’s. If Earth blew up and neither you nor anyone you knew and loved were on it, would you care? Would you even know? But if a friend were stuck on a small island and the sea were rising around it, wouldn’t you panic?

The characters in your story have to be so real, so visceral, that when they’re in peril, when one dies, your reader reacts as if to a loved-one’s passing. And to accomplish that takes great skill from the writer.

You, as that book author, must know everything about anything that has ever happened to your characters. Not at the outset, of course—many authors write from discovery, getting to know their characters as they go. But in the end, know them they must. And then in revision go back and add textures, layers, nuances, in order to breathe life into the skeletons on the page. The more important someone is in the story, the more depth you must evoke.

Say you’re writing a moral-twist tale about a thirty-something woman running for Congress. She truly believes in her agenda, rather than politics for power’s sake (suspend all disbelief here—this IS fiction), and of course, is forced into a box at some point (pick a topic as to what), a la Willie Stark. How will she react? Do you, the author in charge of novel development, know how she responds to not only backing into a car in the parking lot when no one sees, but also what she does when her best friend comes to her with a shocking revelation? Does she deem it more morally right to turn in the friend (whether national security is at risk or not), or to hold to the confidence?

To know these answers, you must know our trusty heroine well. Otherwise, she’ll come across the page as contrived. Even though our story takes place with her in her thirties, what was she like as a child? A teenager? What happened on her first day of school? Did she get along with her brother? Is she a classic Leo, always bossing everyone around? Did she cry for days when her pet Springer Spaniel died? Or did she conduct the funeral for her friend’s cat?

Go back and write a short story that takes place during her childhood. Write another when she reached adolescence, and another revolving around her first sexual experience or college days. Get to know her through all stages of her life. None of these are to be included in the book—they’re for your benefit, as the author. And ultimately, your readers. Because the nuances you learn about your hero through this process will serve to bring subtle character traits to the surface as the story progresses.

Do this to a lesser degree with the supporting players. Another major problem I often see is too large of a cast of characters, the number of which precludes any from really being fully fleshed-out. Pare down your cast. Only a handful can ever really be formed into fully functioning folks with much depth. The rest need to step back a hair. You can have a lot of people with bit parts—it’s the handful of main ones I’m talking about here. Just know that it’s often more difficult to make a bit player come alive than the hero, with whom you have much more time to spend.

This brings us, as always, around to viewpoint. Giving a character a viewpoint signals to the reader that this person is hugely important. Again, each one has to have his own arc in the story, her own piece of the story question. Strictly limiting this will help you keep close tabs on each one, and how each fits into the plot.

Plot and characters cannot be divorced, and we’ll talk soon about the Story Question, and how characters propel that along.

Writers tend to give their people traits in laundry-list fashion. Again, this is GREAT—for you, as the author. But your reader is trusting you to tell her only that which is truly important to these characters in this story, and then to create and evoke it, rather than telling her about it. The reader should get a sense of the Protagonist from the get-go, but then you shade and deepen her as the story goes—in the exact same fashion that you get to know a real human. As a manuscript editor, I strongly encourage my writers to keep notebooks or lists or flashcards (whatever works for you) of each character’s physical descriptions, mannerisms, major and minor traits, etc. That way you can always flip through and remember, which imprints the information on your subconscious mind and brings it to the surface at the exact time you need it.

A lot goes into fashioning great characters. You can’t just “think ‘em up.” That may be how it begins, and indeed, these exercises help with that, but the depth, the nuances, the intangible points that make folks in books seem real bubble up from the author’s deeper self. You have to get quiet and listen to your people talk and think and move and be.

Willie Stark, so the story goes, was based on the Louisiana political figure Huey Long. I never knew that man. But I do know ol’ Willie. And I’d be willing to bet he took off under Penn Warren’s hand in a way that the real politician never could have. Now, that’s great characterization.