The Indie Novella Writing Course
Lesson 4 - Characters
In Lesson 3 we briefly discussed the concept of the unreliable narrator – the notion that the novel’s narrator is deliberately economical with truth because they either have something to hide or are avoiding something. We see the world the way one character and one character only wants us to see it. Some authors go even further, depicting characters deliberately reassessing their perspectives to lessen the aspects of their lives which they themselves find disappointing, as a coping mechanism, or contradicting themselves for one reason or another. This playing with narrative point of view says so much about both characterization and storytelling. How we mould our main character shapes our narrative, and the facets of our other characters shape what information we are giving our reader.
When it comes to deciding which narrative perspective to write a novel, Kazuo Ishiguro says he auditions all his characters before deciding which to make the first person narrator. A detective story written from the perspective of the killer is a very different story compared to that same story told from the detective’s point of view. The choice you as a writer make about who your narrator is will greatly influence how the story comes across. Adopting a different point of view to tell the story can produce a completely different kind of story, with a different tone and effect, from the same events.
What a Character should be
I know we say there are no rules when it comes to writing, but when it comes to character, it helps to remember one thing – Every character has a vital part to play.
Readers wants to read about interesting people. They want larger than life characters. They want a character they will remember. That is not to say a writer’s job is not to make every single character so unbelievable they jar and together seem implausible, but rather to allow the readers imaginations to fly.
The difference between real life and a novel is that a novel resolves events into a pattern, usually with a strong sense of cause and consequence. Real life moves continuously with its ebbs and flows and certain conflicts go on unconfronted or evaporate in an underwhelming way. In a novel, however, something happens. Actions occur and produce outcomes and further actions. And we reach a conclusion, in most cases anyway. And it is the same with characters – in a novel your characters will respond to conflict. They pounce into action. Things don’t happen to them passively. It is much more satisfying to see them play an active role in events.
Creating memorable, engaging characters is an essential part of the art of creative writing and exaggeration is an essential tool. Characters can be created from just a handful of details which make them unique in the eye of the reader. Key features to stimulate character development include: physical appearance or quirks, clothing and accessories, attitude, poses or gestures, how they speak or sound, or even how they smell. Small details like if they have bad breath can help create your character vividly and help tell a story.
In Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, the tarnished hero, Nick, describes himself as having a villainous chin which makes him not only a bit difficult to believe, but also hints at the central conflict of the novel. A familiar example regarding clothing is The Devil Wears Prada where Andrea’s character arc closely follows her wardrobe choices. Author, Simon Ings, told students at Creative Brown Creative that a great tip to subtly introduce physical attributes – i.e. not to begin a novel with ‘I am John, six-foot tall, in my mid-twenties and from Epsom’ – is to introduce a character by describing how they’ve changed. Try telling the reader that your hero has grown fatter, thinner, or sadder ‘than before’. By keeping referencing change in you character’s appearance, you also remind the reader who the character is and what actions/conflicts they are involved in. Don’t worry about being polite - create written portraits with embellished features as you work on creating distinctive characters.
Regarding how your character sounds, a lot of fun can be had with words such as breathy, croaky, smoky, nasal, fragile/brittle, plummy (posh). The range of the character’s vocabulary – limited, verbose, ostentatious – also helps to indicate information regarding their attitude, their education, political view and how they handle personal relationships. Adjectives like this are helpful, but remember to show not tell. Consider Hemingway’s A Farewell To Arms and Hemingway’s seemingly constant use of the phrase “You Goddamn son of bitch!” when his lead character converses with his Italian counterpart, or Holden Caulfield’s many catchphrases in A Catcher in the Rye. Giving your character their own signature through a catchphrase they use, or particular language and how they use, can help distinguish their dialogue and to own it in unforgettable ways.