Crafting Living, Breathing Characters

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There are, of course, plenty of books on writing. The best, in my humble opinion, is On Writing by Stephen King. It’s no coincidence that it happens to be the title of this Blog (thank you, Mr. King!). I would encourage you to read his book, and three other favorites – Writing The Breakout Novel, by Donald Maass; The War of Art: Winning the Inner Creative Battle, by Steven Pressfield; and The Elements of Style, by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White. Because if you want to write, you need to read. Simple as that. But if you’re like me, you’re looking for regular reminders of what works, and what doesn’t work, in the art and craft of story-telling – reminders that provide proven, practical tips in the time it takes to finish that first cup of joe. So, if you are an aspiring writer – or simply want to improve your craft – I encourage you to visit this space often.

Let’s begin with the driving force of any story – the characters.

CRAFTING LIVING, BREATHING CHARACTERS

When writing a novel a writer should create living people – people, not characters. A character is a caricature.” – Ernest Hemingway.

Hemingway’s style – simple, direct, unadorned prose – is often attributed to his early newspaper training where reports routinely focused on immediate events with little room for context or interpretation. Just the facts, ma’am! It became known as the “Iceberg Theory,” sometimes called the “theory of omission.” Hemingway’s characters reflect his stylistic approach. Protagonists like Jake Barnes (The Sun Also Rises), stoically accept not only their war wounds, but the pain of losing those they love as well.

What you’re going for is three-dimensional characters, like Jake Barnes – characters that embody the physiological, sociological, and psychological. So, think detail here: physical characteristics, birthplace, family ties, occupation, hobbies, religion, music/food preferences, clothes, quirks, phobias, hobbies – anything and everything that brings him/her to life. Create a Word document that can be updated as your story unfolds and your characters reveal more of themselves. They will speak to you. They will become your friends. They will lead you down roads you never expected to travel.

Next, dig deep into their psyche: What is their ultimate goal? What drives them to achieve it? What personality traits or other obstacles stand in their way? What is their worst fear? Their biggest regret? Their deepest desire? Do they have an obsession/addiction? (And, please, if it’s a crime story avoid the tired cliche of a cop with a drinking problem – it’s been done to death). Remember that great characters are, in fact, “real people” who are larger-than-life. They say, think, and do things we wish we could say, think, and do. But they must be sympathetic, and, above all, there must something at risk, some inner conflict, conflict in the form of confrontation – with themselves, with other characters, and/or with their environment as in Moby Dick. It is essential to dramatize the personal struggle. Maybe there’s a terrible secret. If there is, FIND it and EXPLOIT it. Think: Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs.

Once you know your main characters inside and out, begin a dialogue with those characters. Ask them questions, get inside their heads, channel their thoughts and ideas. And make them memorable, different, unusual, arresting. Maybe it’s an angry scar running from cheek bone to chin… or, dueling personalities…or, a nasty disposition…or, quirky behavior that seems at odds with who he/she is, or seems to be (Alfred Hitchcock, so the story goes, insisted his wife and collaborator, Alma Reville, have a window installed in their oven door because he couldn’t stand the suspense of not being able to see what was cooking inside).

Finally, as you begin crafting dialogue with your characters READ PASSAGES ALOUD to get a more natural feel, and to avoid sameness among your characters. Give each a distinct voice through word choice, cadence, and grammar.

NEXT UP: TO OUTLINE, OR NOT TO OUTLINE, THAT IS THE QUESTION.

 

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