This guest post by writer Robert Hebditch is excerpted from a workshop he recently conducted on developing characters for fiction. I’ve added a few examples in italics.
My way of creating character is pretty wasteful and I don’t recommend it to anyone, particularly beginners. My method leads to a lot of re-writes, restarts and a lot of cut and pasting. I often end up throwing it all away. But maybe some pieces of it will work for you!
Following Flannery O’Connor’s famous dictum that you’ve gotta “Write it down, then see what you’ve got,” I tend to write my ideas for the story first, maybe including vaguely defined characters. Then I start writing, fleshing out the characters as each new situation demands.
I draw on my own experience more than any other source. In a lifetime we are exposed to an awful lot of people—friends, lovers, neighbors, people on the street, at the club, at social gatherings, and yes, even in libraries. Most of us already know many more character types than we can invent. I take bits and pieces from these different sources and lace them together with a strong dose of imagination.
Experienced writer or not, asking yourself questions about your characters is certainly necessary, but there’s no need to have all the answers before you start. For me, the old journalistic maxim “Who, what, when, where, how and why” works well. You can selectively apply this where the situation dictates until you’ve filled out your character sufficiently to fulfill the demands of the story.
Ten Basic Points in Developing Characters in Fiction
- A character, especially a main character, should be “believably real,” so that the reader will suspend disbelief (Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1817).
- Some information about how characters look, and not just significant physical attributes, like body type and face, scars, tattoos, but also how they walk, dance, run or scratch their face.
- Robert pointed out that a great many contemporary writers prefer not to provide much physical description, following Stephen King’s advice to let the readers supply it. “If I describe mine, it freezes out yours,” King says.
- Similarly, Ian Rankin, in Knots and Crosses, also prefers to leave the physical appearance of his main character to the reader’s imagination. Detective John Rebus is described as having “brown hair and green eyes, like his brother.” And that’s it.
- What characters say, how they say it, how their speech differs from other characters, and whom they talk to. Also, what other characters say about them—a device that works best when it reveals as much about the observer as the observed. Because Robert’s insight about observer and observed prepared me to appreciate it, I found this perfect example, in which a son is talking about his tyrannical father: “My mom had to lay [my homework] out for him next to his breakfast plate, to the left of the juice but not touching the fork, so he could scan through it with those gray eyes of his, searching for mistakes, tapping his long finger against the papers like a clock-tick.” From those few lines, you know the father’s horrible and mom and son are terrified. (from The Far Empty by J. Todd Scott). “To the left of the juice but not touching the fork”—brilliant!
- What characters do (their actions.) This is the key element, of course, because this is how they move through the plot.
- How characters act, which can be at odds with what they do, sometimes helping to create mystery or tension. For example, a man whose appearance is quiet and calm may suddenly reveal his true self by a violent action, such as knocking someone’s teeth out or kicking a cat.
- How character live—where they live, where they go, their history and habits, friends, relatives, work associates, hangouts and whom they hang out with.
- How and what they feel—emotions, moods and perceptions. At the extreme, writers have shown the emotions and perceptions of people who are insane—think of Chief Bromden’s belief in the black machinery behind the walls in Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Or cognitively impaired Benjy Compson’s stream of consciousness in Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. Or Dr. Jennifer White, narrator of Alice LaPlante’s masterful murder mystery Turn of Mind, who suffers from progressive dementia.
- Minor characters are not unimportant characters. They should always serve the story by helping the protagonist move through the plot in some way, no matter how small. In Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, the little we know about the man Thursby is from the established liar Brigid O’Shaughnessy. He makes no real appearance in the novel, yet without his death early on, the whole mystery of the black bird could not unfold.
A final thought. There are so many ways to create character and no one way is the right way. What works for us is what we must go with, with the proviso that there is always something new to learn. What matters most is how our characters make a good story better.
Guest poster Robert Hebditch is a writer of short stories, a local author and is published in US 1, The Kelsey Review and Genesis. He is a member of Princeton Public Library Writers Room and Room at the Table writing groups and a retired staff member of Princeton University.