I read on a website recently that character is the most important part of fiction, and that what makes a story ‘great’ is the characters. The article then went on to put forward the most mechanical and uninspired approach to characters that I’ve ever seen. That is, until I went to another website which quite put the first one in the shade.
Actually, both websites are wrong. A lot of highly memorable stories, including virtually every fairy-tale you’ve ever read, don’t so much have characters as figures: hero, villain, princess, wise mentor, smooth-talking rogue, comic relief (often as a pair of comic characters), and big hairy walking carpet — well, ok, clearly I’m just talking about Star Wars here, but aside from the Wookie, these are all well known types. The mechanical approach favoured by both websites (and, no doubt, hundreds of other sites and books for budding writers), is really about developing novel figures. You can spend all the time you like dressing up the stock figures, but you are doing little more than putting toy clothes on Barbie.
However, character is a crucial part of the writer’s art, but it’s important to understand why this is.
Essentially, the art of fiction is to tell stories which are compelling. They have to be compelling, for the simple reason that the story fails if the reader or listener gives up before it is complete. Once the plot gets going, the teller can usually rely on the plot itself to keep the audience involved. However, not every worthwhile plot is instantly promising. What’s more, as well as keeping the audience present, the teller has to actually make them feel involved. Again, particular kinds of plot may engage the audience early on, but, clearly, not all stories which are worth telling are engaging at the plot level until they reach their climax. A skilled writer has a range of techniques to keep an audience interested — irony, discoveries and reversals (as Aristotle puts it), suspense, laughter, an intriguing setting. However — and anyone who has ever told a personal story to their friends knows — it is the sense that the story is somehow real (especially when they know that it is not) which has the greatest attraction.
Historically, writers have tried a large variety of approaches to achieve this sense of reality. These include adopting biographical or documentary styles, and, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, either recording every possible external detail (naturalism) or recording only the fleeting thoughts of the protagonist (stream of consciousness). The mature opinion of critics is that realism and naturalism are not the same, and that realism is always preferred. More than anything else, convincing characters create a sense of realism in even the most unlikely scenarios. Thus, the naturalistic, almost photo-realistic characters of Emile Zola are almost instantly forgotten, but Rat, Mole and Toad live long in the imagination along with Winnie the Pooh and Paddington. This is not because they are children’s characters — there are acres of pages of out of print books devoted to entirely unconvincing (and therefore entirely unmemorable and uncompelling) children’s characters. However, as a rule, children’s authors have fewer words to play with before the children lose interest, if they are not given a reason to keep it.
Character is one of the keys to compelling writing, but good character writing never forgets that it has a job to do — keeping the reader engaged.
Back to the mechanical school of writing we began with. These characters are really a throw-back to the naturalism of 20th century writers. By specifying attributes and physical traits, the author hopes to create a realistic character. However, intuitively, we know this method to be false. Ask yourself, who is the best guide to a person’s character: someone who knows them well, or someone who has only just met them? But the attributes and physical traits are exactly those things which someone who has just met them encounters. In a conversation between two people, one who has just met a person, and one who knows them well, we often have the person who knows them well countering the first impressions with contradictory insights. “He may dress like a tramp, but his mind is as sharp as a razor.” A sophistication of the mechanical school is to create contrasting external and internal traits, such as ‘a cold blooded killer with the manners of a rabbit’. However, this is still constructing characters from the outside in.
Arguably (well, actually, very hard to argue against) the greatest writer who ever lived was William Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s characters are a source of endless fascination, going vastly beyond what was needed to keep the audience engaged. But Shakespeare very seldom gives us anything approaching a physical description of a character. What’s more, he does not expound or explain his characters, rather, they are breathed out by the demands of the plot, revealing themselves as they go, in much the same way that we get to know real people, though in a much more compressed fashion. Some characters, such as Falstaff, Sir Toby Belch and Richard III, grab us immediately. Others, such as Brutus, are more diffident, giving us glimpses one by one. From a mechanical point of view, Shakespeare does not seem to have a method at all. One might of course suggest that Shakespeare’s characters are only potential characters, brought to life by those who play them. This is almost certainly in some sense true, but it is also true that the great characters of Shakespeare are vastly richer than those of other playwrights, and actors long to play them.
If you’re still wondering about the connection between character and plot, consider this. Imagine that you took the three most interesting characters in all of history or literature or mythology. Who would they be? Three biographical characters leap off the page like no others: Jesus in the Gospels, Socrates in Plato, and Johnson in Boswell’s Life of Johnson. What would happen if you put those three characters together, for example, on a train going through Turkey? The answer is obvious: they would have a conversation. You might speculate that it would be the most wonderful and amazing conversation in history. If you could accurately imagine that conversation, and write about it, it would certainly make a remarkable essay. But it would not, in any sense, create a story that was worth telling. The result would, in fact, be a symposium, of the kind made famous by Plato’s own Symposium, featuring, as it happens, Socrates.
Perhaps putting the most interesting characters together would not be enough. Supposing that you took three characters who were more unlike each other than any others. Let us imagine that we have Rasputin, Mother Theresa, and Hugh Grant’s character from Notting Hill (or any of his other films — they’re all basically the same). Nonetheless, although the conversation would be rather different, we would still be left with a conversation.
Now consider two farmers who start digging a tree root out of a field. They are two sons of the same parents, have lived together and worked together for twenty years. Their figures of speech are the same, and they look remarkably similar. As they dig the tree root, they find a box, and in the box is a pile of gold coins. One instantly says that they must go to the police, but the other says that they must divide the coins between them. Neither will budge from their position, and tempers rise.They start to fight, and the brother who wants to divide the gold hits the other one, so that he falls, and hits his head on the tree root. He loses consciousness, and the other brother believes he is dead. Quickly, he buries him by pushing him back into the hole and filling the earth in over him. The next day, however, guilt ridden, he goes back to recover the body, but it is gone. In terror, he goes home and immediately takes the coins to the police, in the belief that he is about to be arrested for the murder, and hoping to support his case. The police know nothing about a murder, and tell him that the coins have to go to the coroner’s court to determine if they are treasure trove. Subsequently, the coroner rules that the coins belong to the farmer. He sells them to a jeweller for a large sum, and with the proceeds he moves away from the farm and lives in a big city. All goes well, until, one day, he begins to receive threatening letters…
Here, the characters are so similar they are almost identical, but a chance event demonstrates one small difference — or perhaps it is only a difference in how they are thinking on the day itself. What follows leads one character into a radical development which would never have otherwise taken place, while leaving the other as an enigma: did he survive? If so, why did he not come back immediately to confront his brother, or perhaps to be reconciled? If he did not survive, how is it that his body disappeared? Who took it, and what is the connection between that person and the threatening letters?
The psychological novel is written to give the impression that the plot follows directly from the characters and the situation they are in. But in fact our understanding of the characters follows directly from the actions we see them taking. The characters have no existence outside the story: they are as the plot defines them.
For the writer, it is tempting to create as you write, and to put onto paper the thoughts that come into your mind. By doing this — and this is exactly what the two websites I referenced recommend — you are creating character by description, in other words, by telling the reader what the character is like. One might imagine that telling is all a writer is able to do — after all, is the writer not telling the story? In fact, the opposite is true: the skilled writer shows rather than tells. The method for this is by telling us what the character does, and presenting what the character says, rather than by telling us what the character is like.
Successful characterisation has other requirements. On the one hand, the author must show how the character is uniquely themselves — otherwise they are no more than a figure— but, if they are to excite our sympathy and therefore our involvement, the author must also enable us to think ourselves into their lives. Here, the novelist has the advantage over the dramatist or the script-writer, because the novelist can present the thoughts of the character, and to some extent their feelings. But this power must be used judiciously, else the author is once again telling rather than showing. Early on in the novel it may make sense to say ‘Jennifer felt sad, because…’, but once the character and situation is established, we will only accept this if the situation is one which we would expect to cause sadness in Jennifer.
One of the reasons that very few leading characters are compelling is that the author’s desire to make us sympathetic to the protagonist leads them to create a sort of Everyman, that anyone can relate to. For all the immense strengths of the Harry Potter novels, especially in the characterisation of Ron and Hermione, we never develop a real sense of the character of Harry himself. He is just like us, or just like we think we would be if we had been mistreated for years by the Dursleys only to discover that we were a hero in a magical world. But the characters who really fascinate us are those who are distinctively unlike us.
Looking again at the three characters we mentioned earlier — Boswell’s Johnson, Plato’s Socrates, and the Jesus of the Gospels, we instantly see one thing in common: the biographers were themselves fascinated by their subjects, and felt it an intense privilege to write about them. Thinking of fictional characters, it is certainly not the case that Shakespeare was devoted to Macbeth or to Richard III, but it is clear that he was fascinated by them. In writing of The Secret Agent, Joseph Conrad explained how he was fascinated by the sequence of events which led to the situation at the end of the book, which he had read (and added together) in the newspapers. The close of Nostromo shows his fascination with that character, and, equally, Conrad writes elsewhere of his fascination with Lord Jim.
It is clear that the reader will never be more engaged with the characters than the author is. Tolkien is clearly thrilled by the character of Bilbo in The Hobbit, but his main interest in the Lord of the Rings is in Gandalf. It is Gandalf’s doings, Gandalf’s absence, Gandalf’s death and Gandalf’s return which occupy us for the first three books, and our interest fades in book IV (the second part of The Two Towers), before returning stronger than ever in Book V. This fascination exists at least to some extent in The Hobbit, and the reader’s despair matches that of the dwarves when Gandalf tells them that he will not travel with them through Mirkwood.
At the start of the 20th century, Constantin Stanislavski of the Moscow Art Theatre developed a new method of character acting which is now so universally applied that it is known at ‘The Method’. Stanislavski’s books My Life in Art, My Actor Prepares, Building a Character and Creating a Role are well worth reading for their own sake, as they are lively and compelling accounts of Stanislavski’s own journey. However, for the author, Stanislavki’s key contribution is that he insists that a character must be completely imagined (that is, imagined to completion, not “imagined with no ‘real’ components”) in order to be credible. Interestingly, although Stanislavski recommends that the actor imagines the whole pre-history and emotional memory of the character, he does not suggest that the actor deviate from the part in order to present this to the audience. Rather, the completely imagined character behaves in a different way from the actor who merely retells the lines as given to him.
Ultimately, there is no mechanical method of creating characters. If there were, then Dungeons and Dragons and other role-playing games would have spawned a thousand first-rate novels. But there are three organic processes which the author can be aware of. First, there is imagining the character. Characters will seem real in the story in proportion to how completely and how perfectly we imagine them. Second, there is fitting them credibly into the story. Not every character makes sense in every story, although some characters will fit into almost any story, and some stories will accommodate almost any character. Third, there is presenting the character in such a way that they fascinate the reader as much as they fascinate the author. These three things must work together.
Possibly the best general rule for character writing is to remember the sound of the character’s voice. Most people speak in quite a distinctive way — we recognise our friends instantly on the phone, more quickly than we pick them out from a crowd of people.
If, however, you are left struggling to make your characters live, then leave them to their own devices: just tell the story. Better a good story told impersonally, than an overcharacterised account that takes the reader nowhere.