What makes you believe that the character you’re reading about is a real person? And what makes you want to find out more about them?
For me, these are two crucial factors for a fiction writer to consider. If you don’t believe in the character, you won’t be interested in what they’re doing or care what happens to them. And if you don’t want to find out more about them, then the story will have no real ‘guts’.
So how do you establish a level of characterisation?
There are two main tactics that writers can employ: speech and action.
When our characters speak in inverted commas, we hear them directly. There is no mediation by the author, no commentary by someone telling us what to think – we simply ‘hear’ the person speaking. So to make our characters real, they must use the language we expect them to use. Crooks don’t, on the whole, talk like college professors, and vice versa. Consequently we have a number of tools we can use:
– diction: the choice of words
– pace: the length of sentence together with punctuation
– structure: how the words are put together
“‘Man, I don’ lend my sled to nobody!’
‘Then who’d you lend your 12-gauge pump shotguns to? Boy, you spill on that.’
‘Man, I tol’ you I don’t own no shotgun!’
Jack stepped in. ‘Tell me about the Purple pagans. Are they a bunch of guys who like purple cars?'”
(James Ellroy, LA Confidential)
Here, the contrast between Jack’s slang-free speech and that of Leonard and Denton, crook and cop, sets him apart and is a ‘voice of reason’ whom the reader can identify with. Whenever he speaks, we listen and know that he’s using logic and rationality to gather evidence and filter information. He’s characterised as the good guy.
“‘Well, that’s a barn all right, and a beautifully drawn barn. I very much like the pattern of light and dark. You’re very talented, Sanford.’
‘And that’s a tobacco plant growing. That’s what they look like. See, it’s shaped like a triangle. They’re big. That one’s still got the blossom on top. It’s before they top it.'”
(Philip Roth, The Plot Against America)
Here the Rabbi’s more languorous sentences are compared to the young Sandy’s, which are choppy, eager, each sentence replicating a thought as it occurs to the young mind. The immaturity of his teenage mind is captured in sentences which also are immature, not shaped in the same way as the rabbi’s are. Notice also the rabbi’s more mature diction – ‘I very much like’.
“‘What do you think?’ he demanded imperiously.
He waved his hand toward the book-shelves.
‘About that. As a matter of fact, you needn’t bother to ascertain. I ascertained. They’re real.’
‘Who brought you?’ he demanded. ‘Or did you just come? I was brought. Most people were brought.’
(F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby)
In this extract we see the man characterised by his repetition of phrases. Fitzgerald has structured his speech to show how the man’s mind works. He makes an observation, then uses the same word to enlarge on the observation – ascertain, ascertained; brought, brought. This slight structuring of his dialogue is enough to fix him in our minds as someone probably small-minded or precise and probably a little smug.
The second tool we writers have at our disposal, apart from speech, is action.
We get involved with the lives of a character when they do something out of the ordinary – whether it’s risky in a physical or psychological sense, or simply unusual in that we couldn’t see ourselves behaving in the same way. When that happens, we try to attribute a motive to their actions because it’s a human trait to want to understand why other people behave the way they do.
Why does Gatsby say he was driving the car that killed Myrtle Wilson instead of Daisy? Why does Yossarian act the way he does when asked to fly more missions? Why does Holden Caulfield abscond from school to visit his sister Phoebe? All of these are actions that help characterise the hero as ‘different’. And in the same way that we’re attracted to the ‘bad’ boys and girls at school, this refusal by our characters to follow a traditional, safe pattern of behaviour is what draws readers to them.
So characterising our heroes and heroines, and the lesser personae, isn’t just a case of making them look different physically (a common trait of beginning writers). It’s also a case of putting them in situations where they can make strong decisions that we don’t expect or even understand. And making them speak in ways that differentiate them from each other using different vocabularies, length of sentences and structured phrases. Then the reader begins to really see how they are different from each other – and interesting to want to read more about.