Bang out a good story, and you may have a bestseller on your hands, a catchy plot about spies in Latin America, for example, that’ll be forgotten in 10 years. But create a memorable character, and people will read you long after you yourself have published your final word.
Let’s take a look at a character who has captivated readers for a number of years:
He was a most exemplary man; fuller of virtuous precept than a copy-book. Some people likened him to a direction-post, which is always telling the way to a place, and never goes there; but these were his enemies, the shadows cast by his brightness; that was all. His very throat was moral. You saw a good deal of it. You looked over a very low fence of white cravat (whereof no man had ever beheld the tie, for he fastened it behind), and there it lay, a valley between two jutting heights of collar, serene and whiskerless before you. It seemed to say, on the part of Mr. Pecksniff, “There is no deception, ladies and gentlemen, all is peace: a holy calm pervades me.”
Something about certain characters, such as Mr. Pecksniff in Charles Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit, makes readers care about what they say, whom they fall in love with, and even what happens to them after the last chapter. Does Celia ever tell off her mother and move out of Cleveland? Why did Josh have to choose that night to dine at the Lemon Tree, when he runs into Lauren, his vengeful ex? What’s Chad’s next job going to be, after he walks out from the real-estate office with his only love, the coffeemaker, cradled in his arms?
OK, so how do you come up with these rare creatures? One of the predictable questions the audience asks an author after a reading is “Where do you get your characters from?”
Unquestionably, you put a lot of yourself in your characters, one reason that writing is often so draining. In Aspects of the Novel, E.M. Forster says that characters are merely word masses roughly describing the author. The 19th-century French writer Gustave Flaubert, when asked how he could have dreamed up a bored doctor’s wife in a backwater province in his novel Madame Bovary, declared, “I am Madame Bovary.”
But maybe that’s too narrow, too egotistical, an outlook. A good response (and formula) I once heard after a reading and have since adopted for my own purposes is: “A third are family and friends, a third are me, and a third I make up.”
To borrow a term from biology: Characters tend to be recombinant. You might take Aunt Hilda’s way of making a point, her forefinger jabbing the air or any soft flesh; your high school history teacher’s nicotine-stained teeth after too many years of sucking on Camels; and your boss’s job at Wal-Mart, where you once worked as a cashier. Oh, and add the messed-up marriage you left behind 10 years ago.
Is your resultant character real? G.K. Chesterton once defended Dickens against charges that his characters weren’t from real life: “A fictitious character ought not to be a person who exists; he ought to be an entirely new combination, an addition to the creatures already existing on the earth.” If this advice sounds biblical, so be it: When it comes to characterization, be fruitful and multiply.
For more about creating well-rounded characters, see Roy Peter Clark’s “Keeping it real,” in the March 2012 issue of The Writer. Check back here next month for how to reveal character within your story.
David Galef, the director of the creative-writing program at Montclair State University, is a shameless eclectic, with more than a dozen books out. His latest short-story collection, My Date With Neanderthal Woman, is available now.