Characters & Setting Part I
by Lisa Paitz Spindler
There are many different ways to discover your characters, from creating characters as amalgams of traits from friends and acquaintances to basing a character on a figure from history. Even getting ideas from song lyrics. Many of us have to start somewhere when it comes to building the people in our stories and the following are suggestions on how to reveal characters to ourselves and to our readers.
Joanne Reid’s article ‘How to Write a Novel in 10 Weeks’ says that characters have four sides which are needed to make them three-dimensional:
- general traits formed by heredity and environment
- physical traits
- emotional or mental/psychological traits
- social or ethical traits
She then lists several ways in which characters can be revealed. Both of these lists are very important to charactization, but paramount is something Reid doesn’t mention: point of view.
POINT OF VIEW
The point of view (POV) from which a story is told is the window through which your reader experiences your story and so shapes the story in a way nothing else can. Viewpoint is the primary tool with which to reveal your main character.
While there are many different ways to reveal character, the POV character is the person your reader (and you) will know best by the end of the story. You and the reader will be inside this person’s head, knowing their thoughts and feelings. It’s important at the beginning of a writing project to decide which character will tell the story.
Types of POV
The following are the options for choosing a POV in your story:
Writer Robert Sawyers in his article ‘Point of View: Two Heads Aren’t Always Better Than One’ describes this as a story told by an "unseen narrator." This storyteller sees all, knows what every character is seeing, thinking and feeling and could tell the reader so, but will only reveal bits and pieces. This is rarely done because it’s rarely done well. When not done well it can be condescending to the reader. (Note from Lisa: I call this the Oz Viewpoint: ‘Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.’)
This is when the story is told from the viewpoint of "I" and the reader’s knowledge is limited to only the knowledge of the main character. While in some ways this is a suspense-builder, it can also be a suspense-killer because the reader assumes the main character will not die in the end — or they wouldn’t be around to tell the story in the first place. Perhaps this is why it’s popular in mysteries with recurring main characters.
This is by far the most popular choice for writing POV. Many aspiring writers make the mistake of writing in third person omniscient, however, instead of third person limited. Third person omniscient means that the majority of the story is told from one character’s point of view with tidbits slipped in from other characters. Not only can third person omniscient be confusing to readers, but writers may not even be aware that they’re switching POVs.
Number of POVs
Depending on the genre, it’s sometimes appropriate to have more than one POV character, however a good rule of thumb is the shorter your story, the fewer POV characters you should have. An epic-length novel has much more flexibility with POV than a short story does and so it has more room for numerous POVs. Even in a longer novel, however, one character should stand out as the main POV. Never switch POVs in mid-sentence, mid-paragraph or even mid-scene. Each scene should be clearly told from one one character’s viewpoint.
HOW TO REVEAL CHARACTER
Reid’s categories of character traits from the beginning of this article can be broken down even further. Characters are revealed by:
- How they look
- How the feel/what they think
- What they do
- What they say/how they say it
- Physical Appearance (Description)
- Emotions and Thoughts (Interior Monologue)
- Actions (Exposition)
- Speech (Dialogue)
Physical Appearance (Description)
First impressions may not always be accurate, but nevertheless we do judge a book by its cover very often. Stereotypes can work to your advantage in that readers are familiar with them and so they’ll already know your character. To avoid creating cardboard characters, however, contrast a stereotypical physical trait with another trait.
For example, your heroine may be a leggy blond or your hero may have six-pack abs, but maybe in school they were ugly ducklings and inside still feel that way and don’t see their own beauty. Surprise your reader and create tension between various character traits. Reid makes a very good point that a character is very tall (physical), but her appearance and character are revealed by the fact that she is also untidy with her hair a mess and a runner in her pantyhose.
A character’s name also can reveal a lot about them if it has meaning to the character or setting. If you’re writing an historical novel, research popular names for that area and time period, but don’t pick something that will confuse the reader. For example, ‘Dervorgilla’ may have been a perfectly acceptable Medieval Scottish name, but so was ‘Margaret’ and it’s much more pronounceable. (Note from Lisa: ‘Dervorgilla’ is pronounced /DYAIR-VOR-gil/, by the way.)
Appropriate name usage also can lend credibility to your story. For instance, in ancient Rome all children were named after their father, including girls (i.e., ‘Julia’ from ‘Julius’ — second daughter would be ‘Julia Secunda’).
In some cultures and time periods names might refer to (1) an area a person hailed from (i.e., ‘Hamilton’ in French means ‘from the mountain town’), (2) what they looked like (i.e., ‘Linka’ a female Hungarian name meaning ‘mannish’), or (3) their occupation (i.e., ‘Gotzon’ Basque for ‘messenger’).
Emotions/Thoughts (Interior Monologue)
What Reid terms ‘self-discovery’ could also be called self-confession or interior monologue (IM). According to SELF-EDITING FOR FICTION WRITERS by Renni Browne and Dave King, "[I]nterior monologue is an intimate, powerful way to establish a character’s voice- and personality." IM is a powerful tool, but Browne and King caution that it should not be used when dialogue can demonstrate the same thing. IM should add to characterization and should not interrupt the flow of a scene.
Browne and King use the example of "Laura felt herself becoming angry at him and his intrusion into her life." This is telling, not showing. A better way to demonstrate Laura’s feelings is: "She slammed the notebook down on her desk." In othe words: "Interior monologue is best served up a little at a time, especially in a dialogue scene, as a support for dialogue rather than a substitute" (p. 77).
Also delve into the psychological underpinnings of your character. Does your main character have any hang-ups? Any phobias? Why? Did she get along with her parents and/or siblings?
Even in real life we can tell a lot about a person through their mannerisms, habits and facial expressions. A fidgeting person is nervous, someone who is frequently late may not estimate time very well or be absent-minded, and a crying person is unhappy for some reason. Does your character often stand with hands on hips or in their pockets? Does your character touch her temples when nervous or frustrated? Pick actions for your characters that will put some flesh on their bones, that will show the reader what type of person they are.
*Not the way the way Reid uses exposition.
Dialogue will be covered in much more detail in lesson four, but how a person speaks can reveal a lot about who they are. Using forms of dialect is generally discouraged in main characters, but can lend depth to secondary characters.
More importantly, you can reveal much about a character in what they choose to say and what they choose to keep to themselves. The same goes for dialogue of other characters, you can use what they say to describe the main character.
EXERCISES & DISCUSSION
1) Which point of view is your story written from? Which character’s viewpoint is your story written from?
2) If you’re writing in third person, take a look at each scene. Whose head are you in? Do you stay in that head for the length of the scene?
3) If you’re writing in first person, how reader-friendly is your viewpoint character? Is it someone you would want to spend three or four hundred pages with?
4) Create a profile of your main character(s) or interview your main character(s). Cut out pictures from magazines that resemble your characters.
A good guide to character interviewing can be found at Alicia Rasley’s web site: http://www.wire.net.au/~melinda/biaw/interview.htm
You also can download a character biography worksheet from: http://www.applewarrior.com/peregrine/character_bio.doc (32 KB).
Or you can fill out a personality test such as this one: http://www.spods.net/personality/tests/engine.php3?testid=1
Or Complete this character worksheet: http://www.webcom.com/wordings/artofwrite/feature.html
5) How much interior monologue do you have? Do you vary monologue with dialogue?
6) Do you think that genre publishing puts too many restrictions on character development and/or POV?
Browne, Renni and King, Dave. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. Harper Collins Publishers, 1993
Reid, Joanne. Write a Novel in 10 Weeks: Characters & Setting, http://www.reporters.net/jbreid/novel10/three10weeks.htm
Sawyer, Robert J. ‘On Writing: Point of View: Two Heads Aren’t Always Better Than One,’ http://www.sfwriter.com/ow07.htm