Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Lacking in Character

There are a few things you've learned about characters, the ones you've created and the ones brought to life in the novels and short stories of other writers.

You would do well to have something momentous having happened to them in the past such as, say, Ahab's encounter with you-know-who in you-know-where, simultaneously galvanizing his behavior and providing him with a purpose. You could also cite Jane of Reader, I married him fame, who grew up in an orphanage and is sent out into the world with few prospects, plus the burden of the head of the orphanage telling her she was, er, a plain girl, and so you'd better take the job with this Rochester fellow.

They should want something, perhaps someone; they should have something to prove. They often have some weakness which will come around to test them at some point. They probably should not feel too sorry for themselves over things that have happened to them in the past, although they can be seen as working on overcoming some imperfection or affliction or weakness, perhaps even failing along the way.

At all costs, they should not seem to be ordinary, even if they happen to think of themselves as ordinary; ordinary just doesn't get it in a character, even the walk-ons who more or less bring messages on stage.

The character is in many ways of construction like an onion, layered, tightly held, perhaps even a tad secretive, not wanting to reveal his or her real agenda or, conversely, so given to promoting his or her agenda as to give off the unmistakable scent of the insecure and phony. Characters do not always know what is good for them or why they do what they do.

Characters define themselves through their actions, which are often at some odds with what they say about themselves. You may describe them to the reader, provided you find a way to do so without making it seem that the observation came from you, rather another character instead. Which gets you to the major point: What a character says of another is the best possible way of description. You realize this is a bit tricky in that the first-person narrator may be seen as an adjunct of the writer, but you will take that wrestling match on by arguing that the I in a first-person narration has to be as well articulated and developed as any other character, regardless of the offered point of view.

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