“The creations of a great writer are little more than the moods and passions of his own heart, given surnames and Christian names, and sent to walk the earth.” – William Butler Yeats
A novel is only as strong as it characters, We can have the best plot, but if the characters fall flat, so will the story.
Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer, Charles Dickens’ Ebenezer Scrooge, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby – all examples of people who live in our hearts and minds as surely as if they were family members.
And like family, they all had flaws and/or obstacles to overcome. If not, why would they have been interesting to us?
Ernest Hemingway wrote about ‘collecting people’. He found them in cafes, on the street, next to him during war. He captured their ways of speaking and subtle hints of body language. He also gave advice on ‘character creation’.
“When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters. A character is a caricature.” – Ernest Hemingway
That is easier said than done.
Mary Higgins Clark is famous for the extravagant biographies she creates for each of her characters before she begins writing a suspense novel. She knows everything about them, whether or not these details are revealed to the reader.
Few among us has that kind of discipline or time.
So how do we choose our characters and portray them accurately through actions in a novel? What attributes connect us emotionally with the characters in a novel?
James Chartrand, (don’t let the name fool ya, James is a ‘she’), presents a terrific list at menwithpens. What makes our readers care about our characters is recognition, personality, humanity, enrichment, and pain, according to the post. I recommend that you read this for the full description, but the case is made for inner strength and growth along with how well they are portrayed as relatable.
And if the range of characters you are interested in creating are ‘out of this world’ or of total fantasy, I would recommend Maisha Foster-O’Neal’s post on character development at elfwood.
Ms. Foster-O’Neal has a list of exercises there as well, including opening a telephone book, choosing a name, and writing a description of that person based solely on the name. She also has tips for avoiding cliches, and deciding on the flaws your characters will have.
I once received a critique from a contest that I had entered where one of two judges didn’t like my main female character. (The other judge LOVED her by the way!) The reason given was that I had made her sound unattractive to this particular judge – middle-aged and pudgy.
Wow. To that judge, I say read James Chartrand’s list above. How the character looks is not on the list. The reasons the other judge loved her was because of her relatability, spunkiness, work ethic, and how she overcame the enormous obstacles that she faced. And the love interest – a middle-aged, wealthy, playboy used to dating shallow socialites – also fell in love with her.
I don’t think this would have the same impact if I had made her beautiful on the exterior, twenty-two, independently wealthy, and svelte. In fact, I believe the readers would hate such a character and fail to see why they should care about the next list of wonderful events to appear in her lovely world of perfection.
The lack of money, social standing, and youth were her flaws among the well-heeled Charlestonians. That sense of not belonging to the community we have been thrust into is relatable to many women in the world today.
Victoria Holt began most of her gothic romances with the description of the heroine as being plain and unattractive by the standards of the day. They didn’t have the best families – if any at all – they didn’t have the right clothes or the right physical features. But boy were they spunky and independent for the time period, always going to places they shouldn’t, looking in forbidden rooms, and narrowly escaping death.
Nora Roberts began her career by making common people the heroes and heroines. Maybe they grabbed a beer instead of a cocktail, or dressed in boots and jeans and sat out on the porch for evening entertainment, making them completely relatable to the average woman – the most likely reader of her genre.
Perhaps the creative geniuses of character development are those in the genre of fantasy and science fiction. J. K. Rowling has given us some of the most beloved characters of our day; wizards, witches, trolls, dragons, giants, shape-shifters, and other mythical beasts. Her main characters may be gifted with powers we can’t imagine, but their struggles of making friends, fitting in at school, their first kisses, heartbreaks, missing their families, being taunted by peers, even name-calling, are all themes that speak to us.
Stephenie Meyer took us through the world of vampires with her Twilight series. The underlying current seemed to be the inability of young Bella to fit into a world turning upside down – divorced parents, her mother remarrying and moving away, having to go to the rainy Northwest to live with her father. Finding another group of people who also don’t fit into society – the Collins vampire family – she finally feels at home.
Before them, we had the great J. R. R. Tolkien with his world of Kings, Hobbits, Middle Earth and characters so wonderfully developed that they had their own language – one that he created. Wow!
These authors have given us characters required to face tremendous battles and inner conflicts while having typical emotional journeys that we can identify with. We may not have to deal with vampire clans, fire-breathing dragons, or armies of Orcs, but we all have conflicts that can seem as monumental at times.
Which characters from novels have lasted in your memory, and why? What made them special or how did you identify?
Renee Johnson is the author of Acquisition, and The Haunting of William Gray. She is currently working on a Young Adult novel, while editing a suspense novel which has international flair–an homage to her love of travel and foreign food. She lives on a farm in North Carolina with her husband, Tony Johnson, and one very spoiled German shepherd named Gretel.