Pretty much everyone who knows me knows that one of my all-time favourite reads is The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, and so this week I would like to talk a little bit about the portrait of a character. In mainstream fiction reviews there is always a lot of negative talk about wooden dialog and one dimensional characters, or even worse, caricatures. There is a lot that goes into the perfect portrait of a person, some of it mundane and some of it extraordinary. We need our characters to be relatable on some level, or so the readers tell us, but relatability can come dangerously close to boring. I don’t know about you, but the last thing a book needs is a flat boring character. A boring character just becomes part of the scenery, and I find that boring enough.
So how do we meet these interesting people? The people we find so damn interesting we have to write about them? Well, I meet them just like I meet real people: Happenstance. Basically, they stumble onto the scene while I am mulling over the complexities of my Thesis and how I want to plot that into a story. We knock heads in the street, we spill a drink or two on each other at a party or in a bar, we grab for the same book in the library, and then after the awkward introductions are dispensed with, we play the “get to know me and my friends” game. My characters tend to come at me in dribs and drabs over time, just like in life: a conversation here, and argument there, an accusation, maybe a rebuttal accompanied by a manipulation in the form of a smooth apology. Just like I got to know myself during the process of life, I in turn get to know them through the process of the story, which is their life. And the more comfortable I get with them, the more they reveal themselves to me. In the first draft, I often get just the outstanding characteristics, you know, the snappy things you notice right away about someone, those little things that stand out and draw you to them, but as time goes on during the editing process, other subtle personality traits reveal themselves. People rarely explain their motivations, and the rare occasion that they do, it’s nothing but a muddled mess of delirious guilt with a smattering of justification and delusion tossed in for good measure. You can’t make any logical sense out of it. People are contradictory at best, and because we over-think shit all the time, we are comprised of layers upon layers of conscious and unconscious subterfuge. If it weren’t for the tells, we wouldn’t know anyone at all. People might define themselves and proclaim they are this and that, but in reality, self-perception may be self-serving and gratifying but it’s far from accurate. So we really can’t trust our characters to tell us who they are. We have to glean that from the details.
As for the details, there are a few basics we need to keep in mind while we are exploring our characters as they are exploring us, if you will, and every character, even the author and narrator, will define themselves by the short list, at least:
Immediately we can attend to: Image -- or rather the physical representation of the character in question. How do they project themselves physically, and do they represent some aspect of the story or are they the antithesis of it? How a character appears physically is never an arbitrary choice for me. I have always been a face appreciator. How someone projects themselves in the physical realm is fascinating to me, and so I try to give my characters a presence, one that either compliments or contradicts their nature: Nature being the characters’ emotional attitude and their normal everyday state of mind. Beyond that there are a host of other intricacies to consider: complexities, contradictions, habitual behaviour, style, values, tastes, interests, hobbies, passions, clothing, religious and political convictions ... the list could go on an on as we pick the scabs of their psyche.
It’s a lot to take in, but if we pay particular attention to the little details, we can take all these bits and bobs and create truly believable and fully three-dimensional characters ... and we don’t need a plane crash, dragons, and/or burning children to do it either. Yes, we can use the trivial and the mundane to pull it off. Why someone does something or acts the way they do is a very complicated question to ask. The answer is different from person to person, character to character, and just like in real life, you won’t get a straight answer out of any of them. I know, readers might ask, “How is this possible? You are the author, you created those characters, so how can you not know them?” Well, parents give birth to children, and as they raise them, they project an image onto them. That image being bits and pieces of their own psyche as well as the trickle down from society at large and what they generally think they know about humanity and the collective unconscious. In reality, forty years pass and we can all ask ourselves, “How well do our parents actually know us?” As adults, as the unique individuals we have become, moulded by our own life experiences, they don’t know us at all. This is what happens with characters too. We create them, but as they live in our story, they grow and change ... and oftentimes, they do it in very surprising ways. An author has to be forever conscious of their characters, forever analysing them so that we can make course corrections as we see fit. Yes, we created them, but we only know them as much as they let us, which amounts to as much as we take notice of them.
For example: in my novella The Thin Wall, I noticed a bit of mundanity that upon closer examination really revealed the essence of the relationship between two of my characters. There is a scene early on in the book where Laleana, my POV character, visits her friend Ioan for supper at his flat. She picks up take-out Indian food on her way, and the meal is eaten in silence. After the meal, they share a glass of wine and get into what seems to be a trivial discussion that quickly accelerates into an argument.
I must have read that scene a million times, and it was during that millionth time that I noticed what it said about the characters. Sure, on the surface, it was an intimate moment between friends who rarely got the chance to be alone. But she got take-out? Not that there is anything wrong with take-out, but it indicates that there was no personal investment in the meal, not to mention that he had invited her over ... why didn’t he cook? We can assume she was rushed and that she didn’t call to ask what he wanted because they always did this and she knew him so well, and we can also assume he was a terrible cook, but as the scene progressed, I began to think differently about it. After the meal, which was quick and silent, the conversation they eventually embarked upon was equally impersonal and detached, not about the weather but damn close to it, until one of the parties attempted an underhanded confession of a sort, which only led to a misunderstanding and a subsequent argument. I was baffled: these two veteran friends of twenty years had all the finesse of strangers. The meal, the conversation, the sharing of the same drink ... neither party had invested even the minutest amount of attention to the situation let alone to understanding each other, and this contradictory element plays out over and over throughout the story: as lifelong friends, they all claimed to know each other so well, and yet, they only knew each other’s subterfuge.
Now I could have struck the scene claiming that it was just an everyday ordinary life scene -- two friends eating take-out and talking trash -- but in reality, the scene wound up being very telling. Subtle things had been revealed to me about my characters and their true nature, and no matter how this happens, we shouldn’t arbitrarily write it off because there isn’t enough action. Now this doesn’t mean that we should bombard the reader with character detail either, we just need to sift through it and give the reader what’s insightful. Yes, we need to be a bit Sigmund Freud, because in this case, the devil is in the details.
So my writerly friends, do you checklist your characters or do you discover them over time as I do? And do you find that the most telling characterization comes from the mundane situations or do you find your characters come to life more in the crisis situations? People might say that a character shows their true colours when under duress, and that might be true to some extent, but I think that when a character is relaxed and comfortable -- when their guard is down -- that is when their most interesting personality traits surface. What do you think, and was there a time during the writing process when you took notice of a character and it made you sit straight up with a “Hmmmm, that’s very interesting” smile on your face.
Cheryl Anne Gardner
For those who have dabbled in psychology, the image this week is Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs.” When analysing my own characters during the editorial process, I find Maslow, Jung, and Freud to be most helpful.