Sitting down and thinking through my ideas for blog posts (of which there was a horrendously long list, so apologies) I had to move this idea to the top of my pile. Characters are, for me, the most important parts of a story—and I don’t feel like I’m exaggerating to say that in some way, characters are the main things you should focus on in your planning stages. Let me explain myself. There was a vague theory I remember agreeing with whilst I was studying for my degree, in which it was suggested that there were actually only a small handful of plots available to the hard-working author. Although these plots could blend into each other, try to make a difference with their twists and turns and blend of genres, there could never be really anything new to come out of them. So, how, if a plot has been read so many times over the centuries of human existence, do they feel fresh and invigorating every time? My answer: the characters.
Think about your favourite books. What’s the main thing you remember from them? If I asked you—what happened on page… 63, let’s say, could you tell me the important plot point that was happening? I’m assuming, and honestly hoping, you’re saying no (although if you do remember, kudos to you, my friend). Now, if I ask you to tell me the name of the lead character? ……. Did you get it? If I asked what s/he was like? … If I continued to ask what you liked about them? … And then, if I asked you what they got up to in the book? Could you now answer what the plot was? Can you get closer to what may have happened on or near the theoretical page 63.
Now, you see, plot doesn’t drive characters—characters drive the plot. They are the only difference to a plot and so they are the integral part to the story. But, how do you write them effectively?
Well, the key is in how well you as the author know them. Now, you may or may not have been told about the iceberg theory (if you have, I’m sorry, as you’re going to have to sit through it again). The iceberg theory includes a drawing of an iceberg—the tip is showing above the sea (we’ll say 15 to 20 percent) and then there is a giant bulbous piece of iceberg underneath the water (the rest of the percentage, of course). Now a ship coming towards this iceberg will only be able to see the tip, a primitive mind may think that’s all there is, but a good navigator—a proper seaman or woman, will know that there’s plenty more that they can’t see. It’s a feeling, a suggestion that the tip gives.
To explain the metaphoric rambling: the tip is the amount of information you share about your character in the story, it’s the amount that the reader (or ship) will receive and that you have to steer them towards. The bottom of the iceberg is the large quantity you as the author should know about each one of your characters. The proper seaman/woman, the readers of your work, they need to feel the rest without you blatantly showing it. You do this by using your tip to hint at more—give your character a complexity, a hypocritic quality, a fault, a background that affects everything that they do.
Don’t sit there and make a list of all their attributes. Okay, okay, let me give you an example:
‘Annie was brave, yet gentle and calming. She had long pink and brown hair and her smile was very white. She often went to get them whitened at a local dentist called Hollingbrook’s. She was always willing to go on an adventure and was the complete opposite of Anne in her favourite book ‘The Famous Five’. She liked this book because…’
You see how this information deluge is bad? How is knowing this adding anything to what Annie is doing? In fact, it will, it all will, but it’s not important enough to spill in your work. You should know it, but the reader should only get the suggestion that they exist. And then one day, when Annie is seen reading a Famous Five book or going to the dentist to her weekly teeth-whitening appointment it will make complete sense because you have built that up in the tip.
‘Annie smiled at the man sat across from her, her dazzling white, almost plastic teeth, blinding him as she bent over the map of the island. Her little scarred finger leant on the drawing of the compass at the top and her pink-streaked brown hair laid playfully, sprawled across the coffee table. She reached out a bold, determined hand and rubbed the sweat from his cheeks. ‘It’ll be okay,’ she told him.’
Now, I’m not going to say it’s a perfect example, as I don’t know this Annie that well yet but it is getting closer to the correct way to write. You see how the things mentioned at the top are almost inferred here? She has shown herself to be kind as she comforts him, brave as she looks at the map, her teeth are even brought into the action and develops their relationship. I’ve even added an extra detail, a flaw of a scarred finger, which suggests something else that’s happened in her past. This excites your reader’s imagination, helps them form their own interpretation of Annie, and isn’t that what makes reading lovely? Even though it’s written by one person and given to many, the many can make their own story as they read it. It’s truly amazing, and the main difference between the written word and visual interpretations of words (films, televisions etc.).
What else is important for a character? As I’ve shown, flaws often help to make them more well-rounded. Even the Ancient Greeks, some of our earliest known writers, knew this—making their Gods flawed and interesting. Zeus a womaniser, Hera’s jealousy, Aphrodite’s cheating ways and narcissism, Athena’s blunt manner. Even Kronos, a Titan, is afraid of his children and of them copying what he did to his own Father. Give your character a flaw and they become realistic—they become something your readers can understand. It doesn’t even have to be anything big to be a good choice. And again, don’t blatantly say what the fault is, but show it to your readers at the opportune moment.
To finish, as this is getting a bit lengthy, here’s a few bullet-points which should help you get an idea of how complex this area of writing actually is:
- Remember that flaws are important.
- Build a backstory. Spend time with your characters (if you love them it’s easier to connect).
- Act like they’re your imaginary friends.
- Characters are what fuel a story. There are only so many plots but there are millions of characters.
- Remember that real people tend to be hypocritical. There is no such thing as entirely bad or good. People are confusing.
- Think about social pressures. People change their character in real life depending on the situation and where they are.
- If doing it from first person or from close-up third person, remember that people often think one thing/one way and act completely different. A timid person is often confident in their head because they’re used to speaking there. An open extrovert may be more likely to speak whatever they’re thinking before they even get a chance to think it.
- Iceberg theory—show 20% but know 100%. I cannot reiterate enough times how important this theory is.
- Write some practice short stories with those characters to figure them out. Put them in different situations.
- And remember, a name will be the first guide to their personality (more on this in another blog post).
- A narrator is always a character, including an omniscient, which moves us onto next week’s post—‘The Importance of an Omniscient’.
Thank you for reading and…
A Bientot, les ecrivians.