Character is arguably the single most important component of the novel…nothing can equal the great tradition of the European novel in the richness, variety and psychological depth of its portrayal of human nature. David Lodge
When I was ten, I had a Latin teacher with skin like pallid, set jelly, so that she shone beneath the striplights in a clammy way. If I were to touch her with my finger – which I would never have done – there would be none of the firmness of bone, but a squashy, disappearing sensation.
Read the Classics and you’ll find the most common way to introduce a character is to give a physical description, and perhaps a biographical summary. The modern writer tends not to fill the first five pages of a novel with a character’s family tree, their multitude of ailments, the pitiable condition of their barouche, and the fact that they like their reading glasses perched low down on their nose to press at their nostrils in a way that alleviates their breathing trouble.
Modern novelists allow the facts about a character to emerge gradually. They’ve also diversified their technique beyond physical description, to convey character through action or speech. Rather than: Emily was eighty years old, we might read: Emily found the effort of stooping tired her; after taking a cup and saucer from the cupboard, she had to sit for a few minutes before making the tea.
My Latin teacher was convinced I was perfect for an all girls’ school in Dorset. On the rare occasion that I was able to answer a question correctly in class, she would beam at me. I could hear the crackle of her sticky mouth parting when she smiled. Her large teeth had a shell-like gleam to them.
A perfect Sherborne girl! she’d say.
As the words came out, I saw her dark gums.
I’M NOT! I would shout at her.
But it only made her smile broader.
What do we hope to derive from reading novels? Perhaps some knowledge of the human heart or mind? I often have a sense, when I’m reading a piece of fiction, that it must have happened. It isn’t because I find the story so convincing, but rather the characters. They’re unique, autonomous individuals – wholly responsible for their acts – operating as they do not because it serves the plot, but because they exist.
A few years ago, I wanted to write a story about a mistress who walks out on a relationship. The final scene happens at a greyhound track – amongst the heat and dust, and the sickly, foul stench of shit. It was the image of a woman, staring at a man who had suddenly become unknown to her – as he shouts and swears – tearing up his betting slip and walking up the steps to the exit, that made me write the rest of the story. Every scene was geared towards this denouement, but first I had to have the man, turning up on her doorstep at a little before midnight with a suitcase, saying: she’s thrown me out; the mistress wondering why he assumed this would be the place to come.
I took the story to my writing group, feeling very pleased with myself. ‘Mrs Mistress’ it was called.
We don’t believe it, they said.
There was nothing implausible about the plot: a woman ends a relationship that has become claustrophobic. It was the characters they didn’t trust.
Why is she with him in the first place? they wanted to know.
I’d been so focused on making her lover into a man she’d want to leave, I’d forgotten the side she fell in love with. I’d been focusing on plot – the fact that my mistress decides to be a mistress no more. Other than this one detail, I knew nothing about her.
Description in fiction is highly selective, choosing appropriate parts to stand for the whole. This was a short story – there was no place for the lengthy manner in which these characters had fallen into each other’s lives, but there needed to be a suggestion of something, which would allow the reader to imagine the rest.
If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them…A writer who omits things because he does not know only makes hollow places in his writing. Hemmingway
Characterisation is more than description and voice and mannerism, all of which my story had, it’s a suggestion of everything that has gone before; it is the glimpse of the breakfast laid out on the table with a hint of burning in the air, the fact that the toast has been scraped back from black.
A smile hides a grimace; pain lies beneath flippancy. There is a way to infer motive and also ways in which characters conceal their true motives from themselves. Details can tell more than a character might want. This woman, who originally chose self-sufficiency the moment she walked out of the races, is now revealing that beneath her mysterious mistress persona lies someone afraid of rejection. Now that she has her man, she asks herself if she could ever trust someone who cheated on his wife.
One morning at school, I was walking down to breakfast with some of the girls from my boarding house. Several meters in front was a prefect. The back of her skirt had caught in the top of her knickers. I pointed this out to my friends and for a minute we walked behind her, sniggering into our sleeves. Eventually, I called out the prefect’s name.
If this was fiction, the next part of the scene could be written in any number of ways:
Perhaps Gabriela is malicious enough to decide not to help. When she calls out Felicity’s name, and the prefect turns (and the reader thinks they know what’s going to happen) Gabriela might say: have you got the time?
A quarter past seven, Felicity says, turning and going on her merry, exposed way.
Or perhaps Gabriela is a good person – Felicity? she calls and the prefect stops and glares at her.
And then Gabriela sees the numerous times Felicity has given her detention for talking during prep. She wants to tell Felicity about her knickers, but a part of her, hungry for revenge, floats up and takes over.
Conflict is important to create interesting characters. It isn’t enough for Felicity to be a power-hungry prefect. If she was, then Gabriela’s decision would be easy, and the story would be a ‘saw it a mile off’ revenge piece. It goes back to what we hope to derive from reading novels – this deeper knowledge of the human heart or mind, and why character is the most important thing. The outcome of this situation is that either I tell Felicity, or I don’t. What makes it interesting is determined by why I choose to tell her, or why I don’t.
Character can also help you move plot in a way that you might not have seen.
Hey, Felicity! Your skirt’s hitched up at the back, Gabriela tells her.
The prefect stares at her for a second before winking and saying: I know – the boys love it.
We can have characters viewed from the outside by others, characters rendered from their acts, but these characters must be called something. David Lodge wrote about his experience of naming his female protagonist in Nice Work:
I hesitated for some time, however, about the choice of her first name, vacillating between Rachel, Rebecca and Roberta, and I remember that this held up progress on Chapter Two considerably, because I couldn’t imaginatively inhabit this character until her name was fixed.
I had similar difficulty inhabiting my Latin teacher as I was trying to put her in my book.
My Latin teacher’s hair was bristly. It sat like a triangle. There were clusters of wiry white hairs dotted about her head. Some of them floated, like the last few threads of a spider’s web enticed by the breeze.
We used to call her Medusa.
It was when I remembered this nickname that things began to work loose.
I’d hated her because of that line she always gave me about being a Sherborne girl. Because of that hatred I saw her mouth, her teeth – everything about her – from an extreme perspective.
I wasn’t a Sherborne girl. Medusa didn’t understand me – she was nothing like me. I was due to go to a mixed school – the same one as many of my friends. But my place depended on a scholarship and suddenly in the sixth form I felt under too much pressure. I stepped down from the scholarship class, forfeiting my place. As a result, I had to go to Sherborne.
Medusa had been right all along.
My Latin teacher became less of an archetype as I thought about the person behind the nickname. She must have been aware of what we called her, it was carved into most of the desks. I suddenly saw her going home each evening with that knowledge. And then I began to wonder if there was anyone at home, waiting for her.
I had begun writing that chapter in my book from the point of view of someone seeking revenge. Medusa began life as a character serving plot: the story of the sad schoolgirl and her vile teacher. But neither of those characters were real. It was only when I thought about actions and motives and everything going on beneath the surface that I saw us – Medusa and Sherborne Girl – for who we really were.
We were both labelled, both forced to live out that label against our will. This woman who I’d thought was completely different to me, was not so very different after all.
Read Anne Woodman’s brilliant portrayal of her daughter here – and I’m not saying this just because Anne happens to mention that I can do no wrong!
Characters are defined by how they react to certain situations: read Amy Knapp’s wonderful cheese story here.
And for some good solid tips for writers click here.
That was a wonderful read! Thanks for making me think about viewing characters from different perspectives. You are right, only then do they come to life. Emmy.
Emmy, thanks for your visit – it’s always lovely to have new followers and extra feedback on my posts.
I just wanted to let you know how increasingly magnificent I’m finding these posts. I think you could put them together later as a book. I have read nearly every writing book ever published(!) and these posts are more thoughtful, more engaging, more intelligently researched, seemingly more organically conceived and nicer to read than most of what’s out there. I look forward to them arriving.
I hope you are well otherwise.
I am very involved in therapeutic writing. I am soon to be on the board of Lapidus and have been running a group for MIND for 18 months. I got there and realised I was home.
Lots of love,
Liz – really made me happy to read your message! I know that the most important place to seek validation is within, but compliments are also very pleasing. But, the most wonderful part of your comment is that you are finally home. This has made me smile since reading – to think of you in a wonderful place. Yey! Well done for getting there. G xx
I read down the post, which I picked up from the “Reader” part of my dashboard muttering to myself about how well thought out it was, “Good point”, “Very True” and other exclamations of approval until I got to the end of the post and saw your picture. Then I realised who the post was by, and ceased to be surprised at the quality of it.
Glad to have such hearty approval! It seems I’ve lodged myself in your mind as a supplier of quality. It’s great to know, and I shall try my best to maintain that. Comments such as yours are motivation to keep going, stay true and write genuinely about what I think about, as it seems to be resonating with others. Thanks 😉
Oh, yes… this post is so good, Gabriela! We have many a discussion in writing group about characters that are too bad… where you can’t see the vulnerability or the human side of them… or too goody-two-shoes, where you can’t even believe that anyone is so vanilla.
When I started writing my first novel, I was in a group with a distinguished, many-times-published author. She said (very to the point), “You’re a good writer, but there’s absolutely no tension here.” What I realized was that I was writing character sketches… wonderful background for a novel–excellent! But not a novel. It was such a learning process!
I love how you’ve described the choices characters make and how we learn more about them through these choices. And also how modern writers let their descriptions be revealed more gradually–this is so true. I love the gradual reveal… my husband and I argue about it all the time, because he gets too far in the book, and the author will say, “Her auburn hair was falling out of the ponytail as she ran.” He yells, “She has BLOND HAIR! BLOND HAIR! Why did the writer wait until the middle of the book to tell us that???” So funny.
Thanks, too, for the kind words about my post. ; )
Great thoughts, Anne. I love it when I get such rich feedback. I know what you mean about characters that are either all bad, or all good. We are so focused on portraying the elements of them that are key to the plot that we forget about all the things that go in to making up a person. Your husband’s comment makes me chuckle. He’s have a really hard time with Agatha Christie’s last few books. She had become such an institution that no one was really editing her anymore and characters’ hair literally does change colour halfway through. Names change too!
I always seem to end up at the same place whenever I talk/think about writing – without a damn good edit it’s never going to be there.
Excellent as always. I think I do sometimes focus too much on what the character’s purpose is in driving the plot forwards – of course that’s an important consideration, but not at the exclusion of remembering that they have a whole life outside of the plot of this particular story.
You’re right – there must be a balance between purpose and life beyond the story. I was in my writing group last night and we’re looking at a historical novel one of the ladies is writing, which has a modern ‘envelope’ as they call it in the bookworld apparently. We were reading this frame/envelope, which is a female character who discovers a diary, which then takes us into the main part of the book. The writer said that she was having real trouble. We realised that this was because her purpose in writing this character was to provide a frame, so how to make it real, flesh it out? In this case, the more she fleshed it out, the more fake it sounded, and we agreed at the end that sometimes a character is there just to observe, to say: this isn’t about me. Tricky one for the writer because she has to make the reader believe the character exists – without having her take over and shadow the main point of the book, which is the diary. Well, no one said this writing lark was easy.
A great post. This actually helped me in the right direction with one of my stories because I just realised one of my characters was just a big old plot device – totally one-dimensional. Also, I can’t write characters until they have names (even if they’re only revealed to myself).
So pleased I could help, Rachel. The hard part is spotting where the problem is because often we don’t want to see it, because of the work involved in putting it right 😉
I BELIEVE IT! 🙂
Nice one – lovely to hear your shouting that out 😉
Such an intelligent and thought provoking post, thank you!
Voula, thank you. I’ve had some wonderful comments and feedback, which has given me plenty to think about too! Really glad you came over for a visit. Hope the writing is going well.
I love how you humanized your Latin teacher as your post progressed, thus proving your own point. I can just picture her (and the tone of her skin!).
Well spotted, Letizia!!
Gabriela, you have an amazing gift for writing beautifully precise pieces. I hope you don’t take offense to my use of the word “gift”… Only someone that has worked hard can polish and present it to the world like you have. I look forward to more!
Also, I agree with the other commentator that mentioned compiling your posts on writing into a book. I would add it to my library.
Hi Phillip. No offense at all – I’m flattered. Your comment is quite apt, considering the clip on your blog of the John Scalzi interview. I could really relate to the idea of doing something over and over and learning how to get it right – or good enough to present to the world.
Hmmm – two people asking for a book. It’s also something people who take my workshops ask about too. I shall think on that!
Another great post and another great title Gabriela!
This is a wonderful post, Gabriela! I love the knickers in the undies story because it doesn’t just give you an idea of what Gabriela is like it also paints a perfect picture of Felicity’s personality in very few words! Well done 😉
Thanks, Dianne! Your comment has made me realise one thing I struggled with when I first started writing autobiographical short stories – it was my own character. I was worried how people would read me and as a result I held so many of my actions back.
Oh, that story of being in classroom with the Medusa has a nightmarish quality to it for me — I suppose because it is reminiscent of the ogrish qualities I used to perceive in (project onto?) my teachers. It still chills me to recall the absolute power they held over me and my fate — or, at least, that’s what I perceived at the time, But hey, that’s something to be grateful for in my adult life, I suppose.
Hmmm the debate on whether our teachers really are ogres of whether that’s just what we project. For me, it was rules – they were the makers of the rules. My problem was that I really didn’t understand the rules. I understood life, feeling, following intuition. Everything else was a bit odd. Why do we have to do this? I would always wonder. And then I was apparently willful and disobedient, according to the rule-makers!! Then adult life comes along and you realise that you can be who you want! You can make your music, and I can write. No rules any more 😉
I’ve always loved how great characters can become – or, occasionally, already are – people. The idea of characters motivating a plot rather than merely servicing it: just my piece of pie.
Thanks for posting!
Thanks, Mayumi – I love it when people get my pie!
I have learn so much about WRITING from this post. There are always some books that I really love and others that did not work for me. Now I can know why and also to realize the kind of writing that can connect with me. Just like yours 🙂
Danny you always make me smile! I’m glad for your comment because it makes me realise that people can get a lot more out of their reading, just by knowing more about writing.
BY the time I got to the end, My heart was aching for Medusa rather than the schoolgirl…Your characters always suck me in !
Very thoughtful inspiring post, and beautifully written of course , Gabriela…
Hi Valerie. I think your experience really mirrors mine when I was trying to write about my Latin teacher. I had hated her for a long time, but now I feel sad when I think of her.
As others have commented another extremely well written post Gabs (should we expect anything less) In my prose I have learnt, since staring on WP to show more then tell, this took a lot of concentration on my part as I babble. I tried to confine my thoughts as much as possible, without losing the writer within me or the words that I feel must be said. With characters I try so hard to place myself in their shoes, down to their physical appearance, their personality. Something every writer needs to do. A lovely piece – thank you xx
‘I tried to confine my thoughts as much as possible, without losing the writer within me or the words that I feel must be said.’ Such a great sentence on the process!! And you are right about getting into characters’ shoes. Sometimes, my students use the fact that they don’t like a character for why they are not inhabiting them totally, but that’s no excuse – and probably a topic for another blog!
another timely post for me. I recently submitted a story for a reading and got some great feedback from the committee (who rejected it!) but they couldn’t believe that I intended my character to be a ‘selfish prat who didn’t deserve to own a signed James Brown record’ (their words), when in fact that was exactly what I was aiming for. I thought they couldn’t handle an unsympathetic character, but after reading your post I realise he is an unbelievable character and thus the fault lies entirely in my writing. Back to it now…….
Hi Eve! Yes – I’ve had the same experience. If one of my characters was criticised for being unlikable I would say – but that’s the point. It took me a while to realise that it couldn’t be the only quality about them. Back to the drawing board – but hey, if it was easy we’d get bored, right?
And I’ve got a whole 2000 word limit to round him out throughly, keep the plot moving and drop in the odd detail for back story, so it should be entirely straightforward really!
Simples – as the meerkats say!!
The English / Latin teacher at my high school was really pasty too. Wonder if that’s what happens when you study dead languages too long.
“I know – the boys love it” is the best! It is so unexpected. I want to know what happens next!
And thank you again for your comments on my Pocket Change writing excerpt. I am certainly trying to characterize my main protagonist Nissa by by her actions. Sometimes I wish I could do a book in the style of the Classics, getting into the story like easing into a hot bath.
Hey Tracy – thanks for visiting, and my pleasure regarding your extract. I think you might be right about the side effects of studying dead languages!!
Yes…loved this! I’m so glad you stopped by my place to leave a comment, so I could stop by yours to check out your character piece.
I adored this…”it is the glimpse of the breakfast laid out on the table with a hint of burning in the air, the fact that the toast has been scraped back from black.”
I am such a tease with my fiction. I love hinting and alluding, leaving the reader wanting to know more about that character. Just a lingering scent of bacon in the air, and a smattering of coffee grinds leading a winding trail to the imagination. So much fun!
Hi Britt! Nice to see you here. For me the fiction that suggests and leaves most up to me as the reader is my favourite – the way it coaxes my imagination into action, rather than makes it more and more lazy by spelling everything out.
Wow, brilliant post, lot’s to think about! I’ve been co-writing my first fiction novel with my brother over the past month and one of the most important things has been making sure that every character’s decisions, choice of words or actions has a reasoning behind it. Obviously we want to keep certain characters motivations ambiguous, but there’s nothing worse that someone doing something that doesn’t make any sense, and clearly just serves to forward the plot.
So I’m always asking “why, why, why”. Why would she do that? Why would she say that? And then the next challenge is to sprinkle the rationale into the prose in a natural manner so that the reader doesn’t roll their eyes and think “come on I’m not an idiot, I don’t need things spelled out for me”.
It’s been a fantastic process. I haven’t written fiction since I was much younger so this is a lot of fun!
Thanks for sharing, I’m glad to have found your blog 🙂
Rohan – what awesome comments. Sorry they’ve been sitting here a while without any appreciation from me. Busy busy recently. I think that whole why, why, why thing is a great way to make sure there is something beneath the veneer. But I totally agree with the whole spelling out thing. I’ll put a book down immediately the moment it starts on lengthy motivation explanations. Good luck with the writing – sounds like a very cool project.
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Medusa! : ) I love the visual of her hair sitting on her head like a triangle. <<>>
He he! It’s funny the things that each blogger will notice. I feel like each detail is my baby, so when someone mentions something specific I get a flush of pride. Thanks 😉
I LOVE this. So much to think about here in terms of language – which, for a word nerd like me, is heaven 🙂
Thanks so much! Likes and LOVES are always welcome here. Really appreciate you stopping by.
“I’ve lodged myself in your mind as a supplier of quality. It’s great to know, and I shall try my best to maintain that.”
You are not only a supplier of quality but one who inspires others to reach that level of excellence. As a result of reading this post, I came up with the following aphorism:
It isn’t enough to feel deeply. The writer needs to direct that deep feeling with empathy.
I started a blog some years ago elsewhere, but felt dissatisfied with it. I felt an acute attack of dissonance even though some posts contained some gems of wisdom. The blog focused on my ex-wife and how … I realized my mistake. I refused to explore the complex human side where life human nature is immersed in complexities often too difficult to untangle. When we make global assessments about others we are sure to lose. Take gentle care, Gabriela. Vincent
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A wonderful piece which will help me to add more depth and richness to my characters, I am sure! I absolutely love this:
” Characterisation is more than description and voice and mannerism, all of which my story had, it’s a suggestion of everything that has gone before; it is the glimpse of the breakfast laid out on the table with a hint of burning in the air, the fact that the toast has been scraped back from black.”
Thanks so much, Shirley! Your appreciation means so much – makes it all worthwhile 😉
Great post, and so true. I love the Hemingway quote – haven’t come across it before.
Thanks, Carol – I appreciate you stopping by and taking the time to comment.
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