THE CHARACTERS IN YOUR FICTION are people. Human beings.
Yes, I know you make them up. But readers want your characters to seem like real people. Whole and alive, believable and worth caring about. Readers want to get to know your characters as well as they know their own friends, their own family. As well as they know themselves.
No – better than they know any living person. By the time they finish your story, readers want to know your characters better than any human being ever knows any other human being. That’s part of what fiction is for – to give a better understanding of human nature and human behaviour than anyone can ever get in life.
So let’s go through the ways that people get to know each other in real life, and see how each method shows up in fiction.
A CHARACTER IS WHAT HE DOES
If you’re at a party and you see the same guy spill a drink, talk too loudly, and make inappropriate or rude remarks, those actions will lead you to make a judgment of him.
If you see a man and a woman meet for the first time, and then a few moments later see him stroking her back to see her with her hand resting on his chest as they engage in intense close-up conversation, you reach conclusions about them.
If you tell a painful secret to a friend, and within hours three other people act as if they know that secret, you have discovered something about your friend.
People become, in our minds, what we see them do.
This is the strongest, most irresistible form of characterization. What did we know about Indiana Jones at the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark? He was a taciturn guy with a wry smile who took an artefact out of an ancient underground temple. When he was left to die, he figured out a way to escape. When a huge boulder rolled toward him, he didn’t freeze – he ran like a madman to get away. None of this required any explanation. Within ten minutes of the beginning of the movie, we knew that Indiana Jones was resourceful, greedy, clever, brave, intense; that he had a sense of humour and didn’t take himself too seriously; that he was determined to survive against all odds. Nobody had to tell us – we saw it.
This is also the easiest form of characterization. If your character steals something, we’ll know she’s a thief. If he hits his girl friend when he catches her with another guy, we’ll know he’s violent and jealous. If your character gets a phone call and goes off to teach a third-grade class, we’ll know she’s a substitute teacher. If he tells two people opposite version of the same story, we’ll know he’s a liar or a hypocrite.
It’s easy – but it’s also shallow. In some stories and with some characters, this will be enough. But in most stories, as in real life, just knowing what someone does while you happen to be watching him or her isn’t enough to let you say you truly know that person.
When you watch the guy at the party who spills a drink and talks loudly and rudely, would you judge him the same way if you knew that he was deliberately trying to attract attention to keep people from noticing something else going on in the room? Or what if you knew that he had been desperately hurt by the hostess only a few minutes before the party, and this was his way of getting even? You may not approve of what he’s doing, but you won’t necessarily judge him to be an ignorant boor.
What about your friend, the one who told your secret to others? Wouldn’t it make a difference if you found out that she thought you were in serious trouble and told others about it solely in order to help you solve the problem? You would judge her very differently, however, if you were a celebrity and you discovered that she tells your secrets to other people so they’ll think of her as the closest friend of a famous person.
And the man and the women who met and moments later were stroking and touching each other with obvious sexual intent: You’d judge them one way if you knew that the women, a government bureaucrat, was lonely and had a terrible self-image, while the man was an attractive flatterer who would do anything to get this woman to award his company a valuable contract. You’d judge them very differently if you knew that his wife had just left him, and the woman was rebounding from a failed affair. The same acts would take on a completely different meaning if you knew that she was passing government secrets to him while they only pretended to be romantically involved.
What about a person who tries to do something and fails? He aims a gun at the governor and pulls the trigger, but the gun doesn’t fire. She dives into a pool to pull a drowning man, but he’s too heavy for her to lift. Don’t we then think of him as an assassin and her as a hero, even though he didn’t actually kill anyone and she didn’t actually save a life?
Motive is what gives moral value to a character’s acts. What a character does, no matter how awful or how good, is never morally absolute: What seemed to be murder may turn out to have been self-defence, madness, or illusion; what seemed to be a kiss may turn out to have been betrayal, deception, or irony.
We never fully understand other people’s motives in real life. In fiction, however, we can help our readers understand our characters’ motives with clarity, sometimes even certainty. This is one of the reasons why people read fiction – to come to some understanding of why other people act the way they do.
A character is what he does, yes – but even more, a character is what he means to do.
Knowing a person’s past revises our understanding of who he is today. If you’re introduced to a man at a dinner, all you know about him is what he does and says at that dinner.
But what if, before meeting him, a friend had whispered to you that this man had been a prisoner of war for seven years, finally escaped, and recently made his way to safety by crossing 300 miles of enemy-controlled territory?
What if your friend told you that the man was the corporate raider who just caused the layoffs of many of your friends who worked for a company he tried to take over?
What if, as you conversed with him at dinner, he told you that he was just getting over the death of his wife and infant boy in an automobile accident several months before?
What if he mentioned that he’s a critic for the local paper, and you realized he’s probably the same critic who wrote that vicious review of your last book?
Wouldn’t such bits of information about a person’s past cause you to look at him differently?
People are what they have done, and what has been done to them. That’s how we contrast our images of ourselves. We all carry around in our memory our own story of what has happened in our past. Some events we disregard – oh, yes, I did that, but I was such a child then – whereas others loom over us all our lives. Our past, however we might revise it in our memory, is who we believe that we are; and when you create a fictional character, telling something of her past will also help your readers understand who she is at the time of the story.
Isn’t it awful when you’re introduced to somebody who says, “Oh, you – I’ve heard so much about you!” It’s an unpleasant reminder that people are talking about you when you aren’t there – and you can be sure that not everything that gets said is nice.
You have a reputation. If enough people tell stories about you, we call it fame; but even if it’s just your neighbours, the people in your workplace, or your relatives, stories are being told about you, shaping other people’s judgment of you.
We all take part in the process of building up or tearing down reputations. We do it formally sometimes, as with letters of recommendations or employee evaluations. Mostly, though, the process is informal. When others do it, we call it gossip. When we do it, we call it conversation.
“Wasn’t it terrible about poor Mrs. Jones getting sent to the sanitorium? To think her son did that to her after all those years she took care of him.”
“Did you hear Bill’s been hitting on JoBeth for a date? What a waste of time – she’s such a cold fish. She probably bathes with her clothes on and waters down her ginger ale so it doesn’t get her too high.”
You “know” a lot of things about people you’ve never met, just from what others say about them. The same process works in fiction – your readers will form attitudes and opinions about characters they haven’t “met” yet, just by what other characters in the story say about them. When you finally bring the character into the story in person, readers think they already know him; they already have expectations about what he’ll do.
As a storyteller, you have the option of fulfilling those expectations, or violating them – but if you violate them, you also have to show your readers how the character got such an incorrect reputation. Maybe he’s a con man who deliberately created a positive image. Maybe he was the victim of jealous gossip, whose perfectly innocent or well-meant behaviour was misinterpreted. Maybe he made a serious mistake, but can never seem to live it down. Whether his reputation is deserved or not, however, it must be taken into account. Part of a character’s identity is what others say about him.
The moment we see a stranger, we immediately start classifying her according to the groups we recognize she belongs to. We also, unconsciously, compare the stranger to ourselves. Is the stranger male or female? Old or young? Larger than me or smaller? My race or another? My nationality or another? Richer than me or poorer? Does he do the same kind of job as I do, or a job I respect, or a job I think little of?
The moment we have identified the stranger with a certain group, we immediately assume that he has all the attributes we associate with that group. This is the process we call prejudice or stereotyping, and it can lead to embarrassing false assumptions, needless fears, even vicious unfairness. We may wish that we didn’t sort people out this way, that we could be colour-blind or gender-blind. Indeed, in our society most of us regard it as uncivilized to treat people differently because of these stereotypes, and most of us try to live up to that standard. But no one can keep his mind from going through that sorting process.
It’s built into our biology. Chimpanzees and baboons and other primates go through exactly the same process. When a chimp meets another chimp in the wild, he immediately classifies the stranger by tribe, by sex, by age, by relative size and strength. From this classification the chimp will decide whether to attack, to flee, to attempt to mate, to share food, to groom the stranger, or to ignore him.
The difference between us and the chimp is that we try to keep ourselves from acting on all our immediate judgments. But make the judgments we will, whether we like it or not – it happens at an unconscious level, like breathing and blinking and swallowing. We can take conscious control of the process, when we think about it, but most of the time it goes on without our noticing it at all.
The more like us a stranger is, the safer we feel, but also the less interested; the more unlike, the more we feel threatened or intrigued.
Strangeness is always both attractive and repellent. Chimpanzees show the same contradiction. A stranger is frightening at first, yes – but as long as there is no immediate attack, the chimp stays close enough to watch the stranger. Eventually, as the stranger causes no harm, the chimp’s curiosity overcomes fear, and he approaches.
Readers do the same thing with characters in fiction. A character who is familiar and unsurprising seems comfortable, believable – but not particularly interesting. A character who is unfamiliar and strange is at once attractive and repulsive, making the reader a little curious and a little afraid. We may be drawn into the story, curious to learn more, yet we will also feel a tingle of suspense, that tension that comes from the earliest stages of fear, the uncertainty of not knowing what this person will do, not knowing if we’re in danger or not.
As readers, we’re like chimpanzees studying a stranger. If the stranger makes a sudden move, we bound away a few steps, then turn and watch again. If the stranger gets involved in doing something, paying no attention to us, we come closer, try to see what he’s doing, try to understand him.
Characters who fit within a stereotype are familiar; we think we know them, and we aren’t all that interested in knowing them better.
Characters who violate a stereotype are interesting; by surprising us, they pique our interest, make us want to explore.
As storytellers, we can’t stop our readers from making stereotype judgments. In fact, we count on it. We know of and probably share most of the prejudices and stereotypes of the community we live in. When we present a character, we can use those stereotypes to make our readers think they understand him.
The old man was wearing a suit that might have been classy ten years ago when it was new, when it was worn by somebody with a body large enough to fill it. On this man it hung so long and loose that the pants bagged at the ankle and scuffed along the sidewalk, and the sleeves came down so low that his hands and the neck of his wine bottle were invisible.
She heard them before she saw them, laughing and talking jive behind her, shouting because the ghetto-blaster was rapping away at top volume. Just kids on the street in the evening, right? Walking around outside because finally the air was cooling off enough that you could stand to move. One of them jostled her as he passed. Was it the same one who laughed? A few yards on, the stopped as if they were waiting for her to catch up with them. The one with the boom box watched her approach, a wide toothy grin on his face. She clutched her purse tighter under her arm and looked straight ahead. If I don’t see them, she thought, they won’t bother me.
Both of these descriptions – of the old man, of the city kids – rely on stereotypes. You immediately recognized the old man as a bum, a wino. And if you’re a white American in the 1980s, you probably thought of the kids in the second paragraph as black, even though I never actually said so. I gave you enough subliminal clues to awaken the stereotypes in the contemporary white American mind: “jive,” “ghetto-blaster,” “rapping,” the city setting, the “wide, toothy grin,” and the women’s fear – all of these draw on the countless movies and television shows and news stories that have played off of and reinforced racial stereotypes.
As writers, we find stereotypes are useful, even essential – but I’ll discuss that more in another place. It’s important to remember that you can also play against stereotypes. For instance, what if the paragraph describing the old man were followed by this passage:
“Hey, old man,” Pete said. “You’ve lost some weight.”
“It wasn’t the cancer, Pete, it was the cure,” he answered. “I’m glad you’re here. Come on upstairs and help me finish this Chablis.”
Kind of turns our understanding of the old man around, doesn’t it? That’s part of the power of stereotypes – they set up expectations so you can surprise your reader. To use stereotypes, either by working with them or playing against them, you have to know what they are. Keep in mind that while no stereotype will be true of every member of a group, most stereotypes grew out of observations that are true as far as they go.
Jobs: Plumbers generally work with plumbing. Doctors usually wear stethoscopes when making rounds or doing physical exams. Barbers and hairdressers usually chatter as they work. Most newscasters take elaborate pains to make sure they look good for the camera.
Sex: Adult women generally have developed breasts and fuller hips than men; adult men usually have more facial hair, are generally taller, and, in our society, have less elaborately coiffed hair. The sexes usually dress differently. People of opposite sex often judge each other according to sexual attractiveness.
Age: Old people are generally more frail, more likely to have poor hearing and eyesight [Eye = economics or air], more likely to forget things or lose the thread of the conversation. Little children are more likely to fidget, to say embarrassing things, to wander off, to misunderstand or ignore instructions.
Family role: Parents usually tell their children what to do. Siblings usually quarrel with each other. Teenage children are usually rebellious, or chafing under parental rule.
Racial or physical type: Blacks usually have dark sin, full lips, and wide noses, and, in America, have commonly had some experience with racial discrimination; a higher percentage of blacks live in poverty. Orientals usually have straight black hair and epicanthic folds. Redheads usually freckle and turn bright red when they blush or get angry. Navaho and Hopi Indians tend to be heavy-bodied as adults.
Ethic and regional traits: Italians tend to gesture a lot as they speak. Oriental Americans are disproportionately successful in mathematics and science. To northerners, southerners seem to drawl; to southerners, northerners jabber. Westerners speak with a twang. Foreigners usually speak English with an accent.
All of these stereotypes have a few – or even many – exceptions. The actual stereotypes a community believes in will change over time, as community needs and fears and other attitudes change. What doesn’t change is the fact that humans identify people according to stereotypes, whatever they happen to be, and you will, consciously or not, use stereotypes as part of characterization in every story you write.
However, in fiction as in life, the better we come to know a character through other means, the less important those initial stereotypes will be.
When I was growing up, my mother used to tell us that you never know a man until you see how he treats his sister. The immediate purpose of this was, of course, to get us boys to treat our sisters better. But the deeper truth is that we are different people in different relationships.
Children experience this most sharply in their teens, when they start putting on a different persona with their friends. A girl whose friends call her “Rain” and who is cool as can be would rather die than let her friends come home, where Mom calls her “Lorraine” and tells her that her room’s a mess, and where her little sister still wants her to play dolls sometimes. She’s a different person with her friends than she is with her family.
The same is true, to one degree or another, of almost all of us. We have one personality at work, another on the phone, another with the children, still another with our spouse. This can become hypocrisy, if we deliberately try to deceive somebody into thinking we’re something we’re not. But usually it isn’t hypocritical at all. With each set of relationships, we have a different history, different in-jokes, different shared experiences. We act with different motives. We do different things.
Our “self,” then, is a kind of network, many threads connecting us to many different people, who are always shifting. We grow within any relationship that remains close; when relationships are interrupted or fade away, the self that belonged in that relationship stays the same. Getting together with old buddies you haven’t seen since school, you tend to become the same person you were when you all used to hang out together.
So you may think you know a person because of frequent contacts in one setting, but in fact the taciturn fellow at work may be a cut-up at the bowling alley; your tough-guy buddy may be embarrassingly sentimental with his kids; your quiet, polite daughter or son may curse like a truck driver (note the stereotype) with friends.
It is also one of the most startling and effective devices in fiction to take characters out of one setting and put them in another, where different facets of their personality come to the fore. The character himself may be surprised to realize who he becomes when circumstances change.
HABITS AND PATTERNS
A person’s habits and patterns of behaviour are definitely a part of who he is – especially if those habits drive you crazy:
She always drums on the table with her fingers.
He always clips stories out of the paper before anyone else has read them, and then leaves the clipped stories lying around in piles, saying he’s going to file them someday.
She never replaces the toilet paper roll when she finishes it.
He always stops at the newsstand on the way home and spends fifteen minutes deciding whether or not to buy a magazine.
She finds your half-worked crossword puzzle and fills it in, incorrectly, in ink, because she can’t stand to see empty squares.
He always insists on saying grace, loudly, in restaurants.
Other habits aren’t necessarily annoying, but they tell you something about a person:
She carries a can of Mace with her wherever she goes.
He always parts his care on the dividing line between two spaces so it won’t get dented by other car doors.
She always takes the garbage out on Tuesday night.
When she writes a check, she always draws three lines after the amount.
Every one of these habits or patterns implies things about a person. You may not know why or how a habit began, but you come to count on the person always acting the same way in the same situation. The habit is part of who he is.
It works just the same way with characters. Habits not only make the character more realistic, but also open up story possibilities – a change in pattern might show an important change in the character’s life; other characters might take advantage of her habits; curiosity about or annoyance at a habit might lead to an interesting relationship between characters.
TALENTS AND ABILITIES
A large part of who you are is what you can do. Often a person can seem quite ordinary and uninteresting – until you hear him play the piano, or get a look at her paintings, or see him stuff a ball through a hoop, or watch her give a dynamic sales presentation. If a person has an extraordinary ability that sets him apart from most other people, that ability becomes who he is, at least to people who don’t otherwise know him well.
Your readers will also perk up when a fictional character turns out to be unusually good at something. A certain kind of fantasy and science fiction depends on the hero who has some unique gift that enables him to do great things. But talents don’t have to be extreme to make them a vital part of a characters’ identity. Superman can leap tall buildings in a single bound. On the other hand, Robert Parker’s series character Spenser doesn’t strain credibility, yet he is very good with his fists. We see him work hard to stay good at boxing; we also never see him perform feats beyond what we’d expect of a tough middle-aged former cop in Boston. After reading all of Parker’s Spenser novels, I feel like I know Spenser very well; and when I think of him, one of the first things to come to mind is his ability as a fighter.
TASTES AND PREFERENCES
Another thing about Spenser that sticks in my mind is his penchant for quoting poetry. You don’t know Spenser until you know his love of literature. You don’t know Rex Stout’s great detective Nero Wolfe until you know that he’s a gourmet and that he spends certain hours every afternoon tending his orchids.
Nero Wolf’s tastes border on obsessiveness, so that they dominate his character. But in real life, with ordinary people, our tastes are part of who we are. But in real life, with ordinary people, our tastes are part of who we are. If you happen to love Woody Allen movies, don’t you feel an instant kinship with somebody who says, “I walk through the valley of the shadow of death – no, I run through the valley of the shadow of death.” “Love and Death,” you say, and then the two of you toss favourite scenes and lines back and forth for a while.
What somebody likes does not define who they are – I mean, what do you really know about me when I tell you that my favourite modern plan is Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and that my favourite movies are Far from the Madding Crowd and The Lion in Winter? Somebody could like all the same things as you and still be the kind of person you would allow to babysit your children.
Still, real people do have preferences, and so should fictional characters. Not only do such tastes help the reader feel like he knows the character better, they also open up possibilities within the story.
On a trivial level, knowing your character’s devotion to wines will give her something to chat about at dinner; a chance to show a flippant attitude – or resent someone else’s flippancy; a reason to disdain another character’s lack of taste or knowledge. A character’s tastes can even be endearing, like Dagwood Bumstead’s mammoth midnight-snack sandwiches.
On a more significant level, a character’s love of skiing gives you an excuse to get her into the mountains in the winter; gives heer at least a few friends she met on the slopes, friends who might phone or visit during the story; allows you to show her escaping from someone on skis without the reader doubting for a moment that she could do it. Skiing is already part of who she is – it’s perfectly in character for her to ski away from trouble.
It’s no accident that I’ve listed physical appearance last among the ways we come to know other people. A person’s body is certainly an important part of who he is. Physical handicaps can force changes in a person’s life. More minor physical problems – weakness, thinness, overweight, lack of beauty – can have powerful effects on how a person feels about himself and on how others treat him.
This sort of thing is vital for a writer to know about his or her characters. A character with arthritis or a mental plate in his leg or a severe case of sinusitis is going to behave differently from one with no physical problems or limitations. Chronic or permanent physical problems – or physical strength and beauty, for that matter – will shape all the character’s actions and relationships throughout the story.
The reason I listed the body last is not because it’s unimportant, but rather because far too many writers – especially beginners – think that a physical description of a character is characterization. If they have a woman stand in front of a mirror and comb her long brown hair with the comb delicately balanced in her slender fingers as she looks into her own flashing brown eyes [Eye = economics], such writers think they’ve done the job. I put the body last on the list so it would be clear that physical description is only one factor among many in getting to know a character.
And such matters as hair colour, complexion, eye [ economics] colour, length of the fingers, size of the breasts, or hairiness of the body – those are usually pretty trivial, unless there’s something exceptional about them. If readers know a character’s actions, motives, past, reputation, relationships, habits, talents, and tastes, they can often get through a whole story without ever knowing a character’s eye colour, and they’ll still feel as if they know the person.
Remember that of all these different ways of getting to know people – and therefore getting to know characters – the most powerful of them, the ones that make the strongest impression, are the first three: what the character does in the story, what his motives are, and what he has done in the past.