Monday, March 5, 2012

Mentor Monday: Developing Characters

“As you go about bringing your people to the page, remember this: Human beings are extremely complicated. Characters are enormously simple.” Bill Roorbach, Writing Life Stories.

A strong main character is the cornerstone of any novel. By strong, we don’t necessarily mean the hero-type. We mean a character that is so well-developed that the reader feels they have entered the body and soul of the protagonist. These feelings keep us up at night, turning one more page, when we should be turning off the reading lamp. They make us “miss” the character when the book is over almost like missing a friend that we will not see again.

We are often told, as writers, to first write a good story. It will find its audience. That audience finds our books because they become invested in our characters. Keep these ideas on character development in mind as you write your story:

1) Your characters should be distinguishable. The reader doesn’t need to know every mole and scratch on the character’s body. But, age, hair color or skin tone, tics or stutters, an odd choice in clothing, a constant sniffle, etc. can help the reader determine who’s saying (or doing) what. Authors writing in the first person often use the mirror technique whereby the character describes what s/he sees in the mirror:

“There is one mirror in my house. It is behind a sliding panel in the hallway upstairs. Our faction allows me to stand in front of it on the second day of every third month, the day my mother cuts my hair…

The strands fall on the floor in a dull, blond ring…

I sneak a look at my reflection when she isn’t paying attention—not for the sake of vanity, but out of curiosity. A lot can happen to a person’s appearance in three months…I see a narrow face, wide, round eyes, and a long, thin nose—I still look like a little girl, though sometime in the last few months I turned sixteen…”
(Divergent, Veronica Roth)

Other writers use the method of showing us how other characters view the protagonist:

“Daddy named me Billie Jo.
He wanted a boy.
he got a long-legged girl
with a wide mouth
and cheekbones like bicycle handles.
He got a redheaded, freckle-faced, narrow-hipped girl
with a fondness for apples
and a hunger for playing fierce piano.”
(Out of the Dust, Karen Hesse)

2) Your characters should be human—meaning flawed. Even anthropomorphized characters need human frailties. They might be self-centered; have a weakness for chocolate or sports cars or be easily distractible.

The title of Barbara Seuling’s The Great Big Elephant and the Very Small Elephant gives us the most obvious difference between the main characters. The story wouldn’t resonate, however, if we didn’t know more about these two-similar shaped characters. We soon learn their personalities are quite different. When the GBE must go away for a while to help a family member, the VSE is not pleased:

“…the Very Small Elephant arrived at the Great Big Elephant’s house with a huge bandage on his head.
“What happened?” cried the Great Big Elephant.
“I’m sick,” said the Very Small Elephant. “I need you. I have a headache.”

In three sentences Sueling has let us know that the GBE is kind, and the VSE is dependent on his friend and scared to be alone. Throughout the book, we learn more about the VSE’s lack of self-confidence. In a later story, VSE’s actions will show that he is also a very good friend.

3) Your characters should create an emotional connection with the reader. Here’s the crux. Once we know a character is, say, a lighter-skinned African American teenager with dyed blue hair who chews her fingernails we have a mental picture but we don’t necessarily care about her. Now it’s the writer’s job to place that character in situations that show who she is: lonely even when surrounded by friends? quick with a joke even though she’s insecure? quiet until she sees that someone weaker is being threatened?

Situations are the third part of the character/reader connection. By placing your character in various situations, you not only show the reader the truth about the person you’ve created, you’ve allowed the reader to become part of the character’s world.

“Gilly,” said Miss Ellis with a shake of her long blonde hair toward the passenger in the back seat. “I need to feel that you are willing to make some effort.”
Galadriel Hopkins shifted her bubble gum to the front of her mouth and began to blow gently. She blew until she could barely see the shape of the social worker’s head through the pink bubble.
“This will be your third home in less than three years.”
(The Great Gilly Hopkins, Katherine Patterson).

On the very first page of this novel Patterson has managed to make the reader feel conflicted. After all, who wouldn’t feel sympathy for any foster child? On the other hand, Gilly seems like a handful. We read on, wondering whether we’re going to like this kid or not. The situation (another move) and Gilly’s reaction (hiding the social worker’s head behind a gum bubble) tells us a lot about this character. We already know she’s tough.

As you revise your novel or short story check to see if you’ve given your reader enough knowledge about your characters. Get the reader involved in your character’s life.


I'm Jet . . . said...

I love strongly written characters, and I love this post . . .

Good work, M!


Barbara said...

Great examples, Mur. The reason I remember stories is because of the characters in them.