Posts Tagged ‘characters’
In a lecture he delivered at Cornell University, Vladimir Nabokov said this:
“A work of art shouldn’t make you think, it should make you shiver.”
And yet in reply, one must obviously ask: what about those of us who actually like for a book to make us think? What about those of us who genuinely enjoy, for example, Gilbert and Ernest and Oscar Wilde’s aesthetic dialogues? Are we in error for getting satisfaction from this? And is Oscar Wilde in error for writing it?
The answer is of course no, and here’s why:
While it is unquestionably true that a work of art, no matter its genre, must appeal to something real in the body of human experience, there is nonetheless within that body of human experience an enormous range of diversity, and complexity — and one person’s nightmare is another person’s dream.
And, as a matter of fact, some of my very favorite characters — Nikolai Stavrogin, Natasha Fillipovna, Ivan Karamazov, Jean Valjean, Rachel from Bladerunner, Tom Regan, Gilliat, Dominque Francon — they leave a great many of my friends and acquaintances completely cold.
Characters, it is also true, are the soul of every story, and I don’t know of anyone even passingly acquainted with the subject who would seriously argue that readers must on some level connect with the characters. But the issue isn’t quite so cut-and dry. Why? Because people (like characters) are diverse and complicated — which is to say, we have different values, and our brains operate on different levels, in different ways.
Establish your setting early on. Give us The When, The Where, The Weather — the overall tone. Is your story happy, soft, somber?
John Steinbeck does this so well in the beautiful opening of Of Mice and Men:
A few miles south of Soledad, the Salinas River drops in close to the hillside bank and runs deep and green. The water is warm too, for it has slipped twinkling over the yellow sands in the sunlight before reaching the narrow pool. On one side of the river the golden foothill slopes curve up to the strong and rocky Gabilan Mountains, but on the valley side the water is lined with trees — willows fresh and green with every spring, carrying in their lower leaf junctures the debris of the winter’s flooding; and sycamores with mottled, white, recumbent limbs and branches that arch over the pool. On the sandy bank under the trees the leaves lie deep and so crisp that a lizard makes a great skittering if he runs among them. Rabbits come out of the brush to sit on the sand in the evening, and the damp flats are covered with the night tracks of ‘coons, and with the spreadpads of dogs from the ranches, and with the split-wedge tracks of deer that come to drink in the dark.
In the beginning, let us also see your main characters — or, at the very least, let us glimpse them, or hear about them in an intriguing way. For example:
“But at the last moment, she left him for a man no one knew, a dark-horse from nobody knew where, a man of great strength and strange habits…”
“See the child. He is pale and thin, he wears a thin and ragged linen shirt.”
In the beginning, show us your characters in the face of some adversity. (“Plots stem from characters under adversity,” wrote Crawford Kilian.) Show us your characters struggling.
Remember always: the greater the struggle, the better the plot.
Early on, differentiate for us the protagonist from the antagonist. Let us know in whom we’re to be emotionally invested. Which character is good? Which bad? For example:
“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”
Your hero — even if she’s an antihero — must be someone with whom we can identify, at least on some level. There must be good qualities in your protagonist, or qualities with which we can relate.
Conversely, your antagonist, who can indeed be remarkable and even admirable, must in some way be pitted against your protagonist. (A la Javert.)
In the beginning, give us a hint of your story’s Situation. Show us something of the nature of the struggle that is to come. Let us glimpse what’s at stake — as Nabokov does in the following excerpt, which is from the beginning of his book Laughter in the Dark:
Once upon a time there lived in Berlin, Germany, a man called Albinus. He was rich, respectable, happy; one day he abandoned his wife for the sake of a youthful mistress; he loved; was not loved; and his life ended in disaster.
This is the whole of the story and we might have left it at that had there not been profit and pleasure in the telling.
Finally, if your protagonist bleeds badly in the last chapter, have him cut himself in the beginning of your story. This is called foreshadowing.
Foreshadowing is effective and poetic.
Lastly, don’t feel as if you need to cram all this into your beginning. Think of it as a way to structure your beginning, so that it flows and gives you a method by which you tell your story.
If plot is the skeleton — that vital framework upon which the rest of the body is built — then characters are the soul.
Characters are the reason we ultimately love or hate a story.
“I’m sick to death of the inarticulate hero,” said John Fowles. “To hell with the inarticulate.”
Characterization is in essence the depiction of those distinguishing characteristics that make a person individuated and distinct.
In real life, we are each defined by our actions and by what we say and do, and our actions are in turn defined by what we think. Thoughts shape actions.
In literature, that same basic thing is true: a character is shaped by his or her actions and words, and that is precisely why plot and dialogue are the sine-qua-non of character development.
But plot and dialogue are not the only tools we have at our disposal. Physical descriptions and narrative passages that tell the reader what the character is thinking are also important. Though neither of those two alone can completely flesh out a character, it is not true that you should never tell but always show. Narration exists for a reason.
Here, for example, is a short narrative description of one of the most unctuous and repugnant antagonists in all of literature: Pyotr Stepanovich, in the novel Demons, by Dostoevsky:
No one would call him bad-looking, but no one likes his face. His head is elongated towards the back and as if flattened on the sides, giving his face a sharp look. His forehead is high and narrow, but his features are small — eyes sharp, nose small and sharp, lips long and thin. The expression of his face is as if sickly, but it only seems so. He has a sort of dry crease on his cheeks and around his cheekbones, which makes him look as if he were recovering from a grave illness. And yet he is perfectly healthy and strong, and has never been ill.
He walks and moves hurriedly, and yet he is not hurrying anywhere. Nothing, it seems, can put him out of countenance; in any circumstance and in any society, he remains the same. There is great self-satisfaction in him, but he does not take the least note of himself.
He speaks rapidly, hurriedly, but at the same time self-confidently, and is never at a loss for words. His thoughts are calm, despite his hurried look, distinct and final — and that is especially noticeable. His enunciation is remarkably clear; his words spill out like big, uniform grains, always choice and always ready to be at your service. You like it at first, but later it will become repulsive, and precisely because of this all too clear enunciation, this string of every ready words, you somehow begin to imagine that the tongue in his mouth must be of some special form, somehow unusually long and thin, terribly red, and with an extremely sharp, constantly and involuntarily wriggling tip.
One page later in the same book, the reader is then treated to a narrative description of the protagonist — surely the damndest (anti)hero in all of literature:
But there are, it seems, such physiognomies as always, each time they appear, bring something new, which you have not noticed in them before, though you may have met them a hundred times previously. Apparently he was still the same as four years ago: as refined, as imposing, he entered as imposingly then, even almost as youthful. His faint smile was as officially benign and just as self-satisfied; his glance stern, thoughtful, and as if distracted…. Before, even though he had been considered a handsome man, his face had indeed “resembled a mask,” as certain vicious-tongue ladies of our society put it. Whereas now — now, I don’t know why, but he appeared to me, at very first sight, as decidedly, unquestionably handsome, so that it could in no way be said that his face resembled a mask. Was it because he had become a bit paler than before, and seemed to have lost some weight? Or was it perhaps some new thought that now shone in his eyes?
That, reader, is how you introduce with firepower your significant characters.