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.