Crafting Memorable Characters

Absolute Blank

By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

A convoluted, exciting plot or exotic, sensual setting is worthless without compelling characters. It doesn’t matter what happens in the story if the characters are boring, flat caricatures whom readers care nothing about. But like an episode of Seinfeld, a story “about nothing” can be entertaining if the characters are interesting. If readers care about the characters, they’ll keep reading.

Without a reason to care, readers will secretly hope a rogue Mack truck or pesky asteroid will swoop in and pulverize everyone. When this fails to happen, they’ll end their misery by closing the book—forever. If they don’t care what happens, why should they keep reading?

In his review of Accordion Crimes, Walter Kendrick of the NY Times lavished praise on Annie Proulx’s way with words, her attention to detail, and her impeccable research. He praises her prose as “brilliant”. And yet, he sums up his review by saying “Ms. Proulx wrings glorious language from her characters’ agony, yet in the end the spectacle is both repellent and trivial.”i

Accordion Crimesii is a novel without a single compelling character. The book follows an accordion as it passes through a series of owners, but these characters are generic and uninspired. They appear to exist only so that they can meet increasingly more ludicrous fates—even if they manage to generate an iota of sympathy, they aren’t around long enough for readers to bother. The lack of intriguing characters in Accordion Crimes makes the quality of the writing and the depth of the author’s research irrelevant.

One of the many negative reviews at Amazon reads, “I have been reading this book for months, am almost done with it, and I still don’t know if I’ll ever finish it, it is that uninteresting. This author writes marvelous prose and I loved “The Shipping News”, however, I have been totally unable to develop an interest in the characters, the accordion, the crimes; the total absence of humanity in any of these characters is remarkable. Should one become slightly interested in the fate of one of these families, it is too late, as they will be devastated by a weird calamity and that will be the end of them. This book was eminently putdownable.”iii

Naturally, we want to prevent this from happening in our own writing. We want to create characters so convincing that they keep readers turning pages, characters who, like Holden Caulfield, Scarlett O’Hara & Rhett Butler, Heathcliff, Huck Finn & Tom Sawyer, Anna Karenina, Jay Gatsby, Ebenezer Scrooge and Jo March, are so memorable they stick in our minds long after the details of the plot have faded.iv

A memorable character is composed of three basic elements: they must have a history, they must need or want something, and they must have both good and bad qualities.

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A HISTORY. Characters must have a history and you, the writer, must know this history. Based on their past, you know how they’ll act and react in whatever situation they find themselves in. But even though you may know such minutiae about your character as their favorite brand of toothpaste, the color of their hair at birth or how their front tooth was chipped, it’s not necessary for your readers know all these details. Many times even more significant information can be left unsaid. In Death in the Afternoon, Ernest Hemingway said: “If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of the iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. The writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.”v

To use Hemingway himself as an example, in The Sun Also Risesvi, we know that Jake Barnes is unable to perform sexually, but Hemingway never actually comes right out and supplies us with all the gory details of Jake’s injury. That in itself is not important. What is important are the consequences of that injury: how the characters react to it.

A NEED. Characters must want or need something. It’s what makes what you’re writing a story! Sometimes characters may not know what they want, but you, the writer, must know. Characters may achieve what they want/need or they may be stymied in their attempt to possess it, but regardless of how the story turns out, they must be given a choice of actions on the way to the conclusion. They can make the wrong choice, the right choice or choose not to choose, but if they don’t have the opportunity, you don’t have a story. Readers don’t want to feel that the character’s fate has been predetermined. There needs to be an element of surprise, the possibility that things could turn out more than one way—that’s what keeps them reading.

Anne Shirley, the orphaned protagonist of Anne of Green Gablesvii, wants a place to call home and a family who loves her. When she is selected from the orphanage by an acquaintance of people who are looking for a child, she thinks her dreams have been answered. But it turns out a mistake has been made—the bachelor brother and spinster sister wanted a boy to help out on their farm, not a girl. Do they keep her or send her back? And so it goes through the book. While the story ultimately has a happy ending, Anne faces a series of obstacles on her road to happiness and each time there is a choice to be made.

BOTH GOOD & BAD QUALITIES. The more “human” characters are, the more believable they’ll be. Real people are not 100% good or 100% evil; they fall somewhere in between. Let your characters exhibit inconsistencies in behavior: an otherwise perfect priest may be unable to keep his vow of celibacy, a sweet stay-at-home mom may clean her house in the nude, a straight-A college student may be addicted to methamphetamines.

In Belovedviii by Toni Morrison, Sethe kills one of her children. But this terrible act doesn’t make readers hate her, instead, we feel more deeply for her and her plight and we wonder what we would we do if we were in her situation. It’s the protagonist’s defects that endear them to readers. Real people are not martyrs; they behave in ways that are not always admirable. No one can relate to a character who’s perfect.

Readers need to see a little bit of themselves in the characters, and that goes for antagonists too. Give your antagonist some good qualities—this will make them human and real, rather than impossibly wicked: a serial killer may break down when his cherished dog is run over, a cliquey high schooler who torments less popular students may be the primary caregiver for an ailing parent. Don’t tell your readers to hate your antagonist; let them make up their own minds.

If you provide your characters with a history, a need, and both good and bad qualities, your readers will be engrossed to the last page and will close the book dreaming of sequels. And perhaps your characters will even become iconic, like Jake, Anne and Sethe. Characters that have transcended the books they live in. Characters that everyone recognizes and no one can forget.

iWalter Kendrick, “The Song of the Squeeze-Box”, The New York Times, June 23, 1996

iiE. Annie Proulx, Accordion Crimes, Scribner, 1996 reviews of Accordion Crimes

ivHolden Caulfield (The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger), Scarlett O’Hara & Rhett Butler (Gone With The Wind, Margaret Mitchell), Heathcliff (Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë), Huck Finn & Tom Sawyer (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain), Anna Karenina (Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy), Jay Gatsby (The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald), Ebenezer Scrooge (A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens), Jo March (Little Women, Louisa May Alcott)

vErnest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon, Scribner, 1932

viErnest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises, Scribner, 1926

viiL.M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables,1908

viiiToni Morrison, Beloved, Knopf, 1987

Setting Yourself Up

Absolute Blank

By Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

I set the first short story I wrote for my first undergraduate writing class on a New York subway: a woman fell madly in love with the guy across from her until he opened his mouth. Not a bad story for an eighteen year old with no training, but I had never been on a subway. Most of the class did the same kind of thing, setting stories in New Orleans, Atlanta and, like half of us, New York. For the next assignment, our instructor specified, “Write about a place you know.”

So I started with setting. Writing teachers often preach “begin with character.” I agree, to a point. Character is essential to your story. Without memorable characters you could have the world’s greatest story but no one would care about it. However I don’t think it’s a starting place. When starting a story from scratch, I recommend beginning with setting.

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There are two parts to setting: place and time. Time might not seem like part of setting. Yet if you set a story in present day, someday it will be dated and the details you use will create setting for future readers. Think of this example from The Sun Also Rises:

It was a warm spring night and I sat at a table on the terrace of the Napolitain after Robert had gone, watching it get dark and the electric signs come on, and the red and green stop-and-go traffic-signal, and the crowd going by, and the horse-cabs clippety-clopping along at the edge of the solid taxi traffic, and the poules going by, singly and in pairs, looking for the evening meal.” i

Hemingway juxtaposes modern wonders (electric signs, traffic lights, taxicabs) with old-world staples (horse-cabs, prostitutes). He shows us a city, caught between embracing its history and accepting post-war innovations. In this way, the setting reflects the characters he’s created.

Place, in setting, should be familiar. A writer can “know” a place without having visited. Your place can be “familiar” without existing. You can invent a town from scratch or you can place your characters in your own backyard. Setting should be subtle and a writer should know it intimately. If you don’t know your setting inside and out, it will show in the writing and become a distraction. If you’ve done it right, your readers will say, “I felt like I was there.”

Consider this example – the opening paragraph from Wise Blood:

Hazel Motes sat at a forward angle on the green plush train seat, looking one minute at the window as if he might want to jump out of it, and the next down the aisle at the other end of the car. The train was racing through treetops that fell away at intervals and showed the sun standing, very red, on the edge of the farthest woods. Nearer, the plowed fields curved and faded and the few hogs nosing in the furrows looked like large spotted stones. Mrs. Wally Bee Hitchcock, who was facing Motes in the section, said that she thought the early evening like this was the prettiest time of day and she asked him if he didn’t think so too. She was a fat woman with pink collars and cuffs and pear-shaped legs that slanted off the train seat and didn’t reach the floor.ii

We see a familiarity, a level of comfort in the setting. Not every tiny detail is thrown at us but through the simplicity of “plowed fields” and “hogs” we know that this place is rural, agricultural. It also piques our interest. Is Haze headed for a rural life? Leaving one? Or is he merely passing through it, as the train is?

Once your setting is familiar, think about the people who live there. Think about a place’s history, geography, climate, prevailing religion, economic circumstances and so forth. For example: if the weather is hot, people may move more slowly. How would this affect the actions of your characters? Have there been recent wars? How do neighbors get along? Does everyone go to the same church? Is there a “rich” section of town along the river?

There are many ways to establish setting by using all senses. For example, think of the earth itself: Is it muddy? Packed? Crumbling? Black? Brown? Red? Purple? Does it smell of fertilizer? Is it that “clean dirt” smell? Can you see any soil at all? Is the ground covered in concrete? Has it been scorched?

When describing setting, remember to embrace all the senses. The Wise Blood paragraph is quite visual; this becomes bittersweet as Haze blinds himself later in the story. Sensation may also used effectively, as in this slice from The Great Gatsby:

The prolonged a tumultuous argument that ended by herding us into that room eludes me, though I have a sharp physical memory that, in the course of it, my underwear kept climbing like a damp snake around my legs and intermittent beads of sweat raced cool across my back.iii

Nick describes the heat of the room but this heat underscores not only the heat between Daisy and Gatsby but also the tense heat of Tom’s boiling disdain. Tom suspects Daisy and Gatsby, but at this point has said nothing. With jazzy music emanating from the wedding reception downstairs, the setting is ripe for an explosion. Nick doesn’t notice his shirt or pants clinging to him, but his underwear, described as a “damp snake.” So much imagery and symbolism packed into one sentence, all basically used to put us in this place.

In the Gatsby example, setting underscores the characters themselves. Characters and setting are intertwined. Without characters to add color and life to your setting, all you have is a postcard. However, you can use a postcard to show us changes, to highlight mood or to foil what is happening in your story.

Setting becomes a character in the best stories. Consider this fictional Alabama community:

Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it. In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop; grass grew on the sidewalks, the courthouse sagged in the square. Somehow it was hotter then: a black dog suffered on a summer’s day; bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square. Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum.iv

Maycomb provides a steady undercurrent for the whole of the book. Maycomb lives and breathes as much as Scout, Jem and Atticus do. Without this setting, none of To Kill A Mockingbird could have unfolded in quite the same way.

Once you have the elements of setting in place, move along to characters. From there you can layer everything else that sets your story apart.

i Hemingway, Ernest; The Sun Also Rises, New York: Charles Scribners’ Sons, 1926

ii O’Connor, Flannery; Wise Blood (from Three by Flannery O’Connor: Wise Blood, The Violent Bear It Away, Everything That Rises Must Converge) New York: New America Library, 1983. First copyright 1949 by Flannery O’Connor

iii Fitzgerald, F. Scott; The Great Gatsby, New York: Charles Scribners’ Sons, 1925

iv Lee, Harper; To Kill A Mockingbird, Philadelphia J. B. Lippincott, 1960