3 : 4 April 2004

Success of Your Story Depends Upon Your Chrarcters!
Todd J. Holcomb


In this article, I will present some of the salient points that a budding writer should remember when he or she wants to write a story. These points especially relate to the ways that can help the writer to build the chracters of his or her story. In my presenttion, I depend heavily on Janet Burroway's excellent exposition on writing, Writing Fiction. I believe that every person who intends writing fiction should read this book. Christian readers and writers can take advantage of the techniques offered in this book to write fiction that will be superior to the labored writing that we see a lot in these days. Yet, remember that our story should flow from the anointing we receive through the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Remember that our goal as Christian writers is to help people to see the hand of God in their lives and to turn to Him in repentance. Our goal is to help people see that Jesus is Lord and Savior even in our mundane life.


Story form, plot, details, etc, all work together to create a world for a reader to enter into, but they are only the structure in which the characters come to life. It is the characters of a story that move the fiction and allow the reader to experience the world and be a part of the story. Therefore, fiction is only as successful as the characters that propel it. In her fourth chapter of Writing Fiction, Janet Burroway expounds on character development through credibility, purpose, complexity, change, and indirect methods of character presentation.


Characters are portals into a fiction story (or any story), so they have to be interesting and believable, and the reader has to care about what happens to them. The more details that an author knows about his characters, the more he can bring them to life. Perhaps not all of the details will be revealed, but they will help the author understand and communicate the character's quirks and motives. The more an author knows his character, the more intimate he can become with that character; he can step into that character, "live in his or her skin," and produce actions that are clear and natural to the reader.

One of the great things about fiction is that readers can enter a story through characters vastly different from themselves. Age, race, gender, geography, and century are all barriers that the reader can cross in relating to a character - or at least they should. Sometimes, in an effort to make a character universal, an author will end up with a weak narrative, or a vague or dull character. Burroway emphasizes stressing the development of the particulars of a character. Readers want to read about themselves, says William Sloane, and that is better accomplished through individual characters rather than universal ones.


Another strength of a character is his credibility. Does he act appropriately? A Southern Baptist preacher will act differently from an Italian nun. Likewise, a schoolboy behaves differently than a professor emeritus at a university. Here again, details will serve to establish credibility. Burroway writes that credibility is established by a combination of appropriateness and specificity.


As the reader connects with the character, he begins to develop a sentiment towards that character. The character's purpose will determine whether that sentiment is sympathy or judgment. Fiction allows the reader to wander around in the author's world, seeing things from the protagonist's point of view; oftentimes, the reader will grant an amoral character a goodness that he would not grant in real life because he is "becoming" that character temporarily.


Just like with the plot, conflict is at the core of character. A complex character's purpose or morality can be shifted by a change in power, thus making them capable of change. The conflict of a character is not like that of the plot, as in it is not external so much as it is internal. The personal traits, beliefs, and desires of a person often come into conflict with each other, and it is this conflict that develops a fictional character. It is the consistent inconsistency of inner conflict that brings a character to a crucial dilemma. An author's personal inner conflicts often become the basis for that of his characters'. Or he might pit his personal conflicts against each other as two different characters.


All of this inner conflict, along with external circumstances, is bound to bring about change. If a story does not change, then it does not go anywhere and it will lose the reader. If characters do not change, then they do not grow, and they remain flat. This also disengages the reader and makes for a weak narrative. The whole point of the climax is to bring the character to a place where he or she must make a life altering decision, or take on an action which invokes irreparable change.


At the close of her chapter, Burroway discusses two indirect methods of character presentation. The first is authorial interpretation, when the author tells the reader about the character's background, motives, values, etc. This method allows for a lot of information to be communicated, but it limits the reader from being able to draw his own conclusions. Each reader brings his or her own worldview through which to filter the character, so the reader may interpret a character's qualities in an entirely different manner from the author. This can be afforded through the second method of indirect character presentation: interpretation by another character. The opinions or observations of another character may serve to present a character. However, in this method, the character doing the observing has his or her own filters through which they see the character being presented. Also, the observing character will as well be characterized by the reader. Both methods are good and to be used, but the latter is preferable to engaging the reader.


A full and rich fictional character needs to be both credible and complex. As authors, we are complex people but believe ourselves to be credible, so our characters need to be the same. That way they fit into the human race. A character's purpose will show his morality and invoke an emotion response from the reader. And characters change. In the end, that is what keeps people reading, and that is what keeps us writing: the drama of change.


You can tell me all day about your private eye uncle, how he is tall and quiet, strong and dark. But I cannot really know him until the conversation stops when he walks into the room, stooping to get through the door, flashes his badge at us, and takes a seat in a chair that groans under his muscular weight, and a chill runs down my spine when his black eyes lock with mine. The difference is indirect characterization verses direct. Direct characterization utilizes appearance, action, dialogue, and thought to transform a character from a concept in an author's mind into a living presence in a reader's.


We receive more nonsensuous information by sight than any other sense because our eyes are the most highly developed means of perception. This makes appearance the most important method of direct presentation. Everything we see on the outside represents some aspect of a character's inner self, so what they wear and own says something about who they are. For example, a woman with a cigarette holder is telling us something different from a woman with a palmed joint. And a man wearing an Ultrasuede jacket communicates something different from the one in a holy sweater.


Sight is not the only thing that determines the way a person appears. Tastes, smells, and touch also develop a character's appearance. A limp handshake, or a soft cheek will help shape a character in a reader's mind. So will an odor of decay, or perfume. There are several other components to appearance as well, such as the sound of a character's name, or the sound of their voice. The way a character physically moves will also build their appearance. However, physical movement should be different from change-producing action. The latter will move the plot forward, while the former may serve to set up a scene.


Basically, a story is a record of a process of discovery and decision motivated by desire. In other words, a character makes an action based on his or her desire, they encounter some outside force that brings discovery, then they must decide on another course of action, and the cycle repeats. Movement is mere event, but the internal or mental moment of change is where the action lies. Significant characters must be capable of causing an action and of being changed by it.


Speech also characterizes, but in a different way than appearance because it represents deliberate thought. Sometimes, speech is summarized in narrative in order to condense the conversation for purposes of speed, suspense, or when the emotional point of a conversation is such that it has become tedious. Dialogue can be reported in the third person as indirect speech, as well. When the exchange contains discovery or decision, it is usually presented in direct quotation for maximum impact. William Sloan clarifies that fiction dialogue must do more than one thing at a time; otherwise it is too inert for the purpose of fiction. Dialogue must simultaneously characterize, provide exposition, set the scene, advance the action, foreshadow, and/or remind.

How characters say what they say will establish their personalities. The trick to writing good dialogue is hearing voice. How would a well-polished businessman greet their friend in the morning as compared to a hardened construction worker? Can you hear their voices?


As well as establishing personality, dialogue can also set the scene within a story. Shakespeare used dialogue in this way to a great deal. His plays were done on stages without a lot of set construction available. Actors would often move props around the stage in order to transition between scenes, so their dialogue carried most of the visual setting. The same thing can be done in fiction. If you want the sun to be setting beautifully in the background, then have one of the characters comment on it.


Dialogue will also advance the action if it changes the relationship between the teller and the listener. In other words, dialogue is action when it contains the possibility of change. If two characters have made up their minds and know each other's positions, then the dialogue is going to be bland and go nowhere. The reader will not be asking, "What happens next?" Increasing the emotional stakes will involve the reader more. Also, remembering that people change their tactics when trying to get something they want can help liven up the conversation.

Tension can be built with a couple of methods of dialogue, too. By not stating what is being talked about, or by having the characters not say what they mean, you can add force to a dialogue. Another way to add tension to a dialogue is to have one or more characters constantly saying "no" to each other. Remember to avoid getting stuck in the rut by having the characters change their tactics.


In the same way that details give credibility to narrative, they also give credibility to a character's dialogue. This makes sense when you consider that when a character talks, he is just telling his own story. "Details are the rocks characters throw at each other," says Stephen Fischer. Arguments are spiced up by details, and so are proclamations of love, hate, commitment, etc. Details reveal emotion, which is the medium for conveying information in dialogue.


An important aspect to writing dialogue is format. When written, dialogue should be easy and clear to read. Follow the rules for quoting audible speech and italicizing thoughts, or leave thoughts unaltered in the narrative. Start a new paragraph for a new speaker, and include their actions in that paragraph. Remember to put punctuation inside the quotation marks. Use a dialogue tag when necessary, but be careful not to make it redundant. "Get off my case!" she said angrily, is an example of a redundant tag because the reader understands the phrase to be an angry one. Finally, guard against misspellings for the sake of dialect.


Finally, thought will characterize the people of your story. Unlike film and drama, fiction is liberated to be able to conceal or reveal as much of a character's thoughts as the author wants. Like speech, this can be done directly, indirectly, or in summary. Aristotle says that a man is his desire, so a character is defined by his ultimate purpose. By working from the desired end result backwards to the present choice, a person's character will be revealed in his thoughts and decision-making.


Here are three things to keep in mind when working with these four methods of direct characterization. Conflict between methods of presentation can create tension, i.e. there is tension when a character appears contradictorily from the way he acts. Second, if you are reinventing a character, and that character is someone other than yourself, find some emotional point to connect on. If that character is you, then in some way make the character drastically different from yourself. Typically, this is done with appearance. Lastly, when creating a group or crowd, start big and zero in on one character from there. If you start with one character, and linger there too long, the reader will begin to see that character as being alone. If you add more people at that point, the reader has to make uncomfortable adjustments to the images in his mind.


In retrospect, now I can see how tall your uncle is as he stoops through the doorway of the office where we sit, opposite each other at my desk. His sleeves and pants stop just shy of his wrists and ankles. Wordlessly, he flashes his badge and takes a seat beside you, truly a quiet fellow. The groan of the chair beneath his weight settles into the pit of my stomach as I look back into his black eyes. The chill running down my spine betrays my guilty conscience, something that my speech would doubtlessly give away. This form of characterization is much more direct, wouldn't you say?