Culling Character Is Easier Than You Think

cullingcieCharacters should be established first and drive a story, not used to fill a need in a predetermined plot. The characters’ needs, desires and abilities provide motivation for the story. Techniques for developing characters and letting a story evolve are described.
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I’ve got this idea for a story,” he says, his eyes trying to read my reaction. The pencil in his right hand moves in small arcs, a baton leading an orchestra of fleas. I nod. “Yeah, tell me about it.” I’m looking directly at him (at least he’s going to think I am), arms folded across my chest, left leg crossed over right. My wagons are circled, I’ve been here before, time and again. I’m willing to be convinced, but I’m not going to help in the process. There’s little in the way of anticipation: I could run his dialogue as well as mine, an old riff.

“Well, there’s this guy, ya know, and he finds the body of a woman lying in front of his door, and the cops, they think he’s the killer, so he’s gotta find out who did it, okay?”

“Which guy?”

Silence. The pencil moves in larger arcs. “He’s this guy who finds the body.”

“Which guy?” I lean back as if suddenly smelling something sour; my nose wrinkles. As his left hand swipes across his brow, I begin to lose interest. I can go on this way all afternoon and into the evening. But you and I don’t have the time right now so we’ll cut to the chase.

The young author sitting across from “I” has a story idea, a plot, a series of contrivances. But he doesn’t have people in the proposed novel – just “this guy” – and that leaves the events in a vacuum. The young author’s forgotten the most important principle in story writing: Events happen to, and because of, people. Characters. His “this guy” is a pawn, created to fulfill the needs of his plot.

Like 99% of the writers with whom I speak, from whom I receive manuscripts and proposals, this author started with what happens, rather than to whom it happens. His characters will never come alive and that means, for me, the novel will be flat. For the author it means that I will not work with him. One market gone.

How can you avoid being closed out? How can you help yourself write stronger fiction? Begin with the idea of a person and build from there; create people for your story and make them – not the events – what you write about.

In the Beginning Was the Game

There’s a game I used to play with my daughters when I was teaching the how to write: We’d be on a subway, or walking through a park, or in a supermarket, and I’d point to someone. Their task was to watch for a while and then tell me a story about that person. The tale, the events, would grow from particular and peculiar observation: the way the subject walked, the way he looked around the subway car, the things she put in her cart. Everything was fair game: The only rule was that all events in the story had to come from the storyteller’s conjectures based on a perceived psychology or, at least, visible actions and what they might mean.

The principle is an old one, but none the less valid for that: Heraclitus said that a man’s character is his fate. By creating character, motivation becomes easy. By theorizing about possible actions based on the character of the people in your tale, destiny – the story – falls into place. The people you are writing about cause things to happen. They are proactive. (Henry James, in Partial Portraits, put it this way: “What is character but the determination of incident? What is incident but the illustration of character?”)

Following the principle makes for more successful books. I’d guess (and it is only a guess) that Robert James Waller began with his couple before he set them loose to view The Bridges of Madison County. That’s why, I think, the novel worked. The readers (if not the critics, who had so much fun putting down the book) could relate to the characters because they were “real”; more than that, they were fully realized. We not only recognized them, we identified with them. That’s your task, too.

Here’s one way of going about it.

Begin by choosing your characters, not by choosing your story. No matter what genre or style you’ve decided to work in, discover the who not the what. Remember the way a journalist considers a story: Who, What, When, Where, Why. Think of your story in the same way. (A journalist friend adds the importance of another W to that: To What Effect? Without that, she says, you have a story that ends up buried after the obits rather than on the first page.) And, ultimately, something should happen in our story, some difference should be made. That “something” will come out of who your characters are.

Look at the people around you (but not your friends and relatives) and pick those who seem interesting. Create not only their biographies, but predict their futures, based on what you see and know about human nature. What does their dress tell you about them? Their body language? Their mannerisms? Having gone that far, fill in the back story: How do you think they got that way? What is it about people that goes into making them who they are?

The answer to that last question doesn’t have to be presented to the readers, but you must know it. You have to know who the character’s third grade teacher was, how many siblings she had, what disappointments he’s suffered. Those that impact on the story may be shared, those that don’t remain part of your creative process.

The result of that process is characters with viability. They are viable because they have dimension; in this instance, you’ve touched the fourth dimension: time.

Do you really have to know who Jamie’s third grade teacher was? Perhaps not. But you do have to know where she went to school: A parochial school education is going to result in someone far different from the child who went to a military school; the kid who went to upscale private and prep schools isn’t going to be the same as the one who went to the urban public schools. The friends each makes, the socialization processes each experiences, the propaganda each receives with his or her education is going to result in adults with far different sets of values, insights and experiences. But if that third grade teacher was particularly supportive and encouraging (or the opposite), that year is going to have an effect on Jamie. That effect will manifest itself in many ways – Jamie will try harder or will give up, for instance – and as you create her, you must be aware of those factors. They go into giving your character character.

Whether your readers have studied psychology or not, they possess insights. I’ve lost count of the number of manuscripts I’ve rejected because the story people do things that make no sense. Why does the heroine in a gothic novel go into the locked room? Usually, it’s simply to serve the needs of the plot; we know nothing about the woman to warrant actions like those on her part. Why does the gray-haired amateur sleuth in a cozy mystery react to the discovery of a corpse by investigating, rather than getting quite sick? In any novel or story I read, either by choice or as part of my job, if the actions do not follow from some knowledge imparted to me about the character presented, my willing suspension of disbelief comes to an abrupt end.

The Tools of Creation

The outline of your novel need not delineate every action and event before you begin – think of it as a road map that offers options on how to get from here to there, rather than a blueprint that offers none. Your character sketches, however, should be detailed – if you don’t know them, how can you tell readers about them and what they do?

Having established to your satisfaction who your character’s are, how do you tell readers about them? How do you establish their characters?

The tools needed are part of your stock in trade. Look back at the vignette that opened this piece. In just a few lines of dialogue and some quick descriptions, both speakers are pretty well delineated; they are characterized, but not developed – we’ll get to that soon. The writer is nervous, ill-prepared for challenge, not particularly verbal. He is not going to fight the “I” in the story, at least not yet. Odds are he never will. Why not?

What changes could be made to make him a battler? One small edit might turn the tables … and change the story, because the character’s character is his destiny. Having him put down the pencil, cross his arms, place his elbows on the table and lean forward changes him, allows him to challenge, to move into the other character’s space. Having him cross his arms and lean back serves to close “I” out, just as “I” is doing to him. The actions interleaved with the dialogue are important, serving to enhance what is being said. And the beauty of it is that you never have to explain what’s going on. The action carries the weight of what is happening.

“I” is jaded and arrogant: “I could run his dialogue as well as mine, an old riff.” Again, a little change can change the character. Perhaps my story will be about the worm turning; maybe it will be a tale of frustration leading to murder; perhaps it is a love story: “I” is sexless as presented (though probably male).

Indeed, there’s no physical description of either character, but the physicality of each can play a role. If the writer is a hulking individual, would “I” be as quick to be snide? If “I” is slight, would he be even more arrogant, more prone to a Napoleonic complex? Just show me who the characters are and I will see everything necessary. And if “I” is a woman, the choice of language begins the sketching of some of her attitudes. Misdirection has its place, too.

The Evolution of This Species

Knowing what makes your character tick, and knowing how a story must evolve because of that, how do you go about making it clear to the readers? How do you develop the characters, rather than just characterizing them?

You are not the same person at the end of the day that you were, when you awoke: The events and experiences you just lived through change you, even if only minimally. There’s also the thought that we continuously reinvent ourselves, adjusting to life based on things we’ve learned. A basic failing in many of the manuscripts I see is that at the end, the characters are exactly the same as they were in the beginning. Their circumstances may have been altered, but the people in the story haven’t kept pace – which means they haven’t “lived.” If they haven’t, your story hasn’t, either.

That is what made Bill Pronzini’s Blue Lonesome such a critical and commercial success: Jim Messenger, the hero, undergoes a clear-cut rite of passage through the course of the story; the troubled CPA we meet at the beginning becomes someone and something else by the end. Each step of the transformation is rational, understandable, the result of the action he initiates after coming on the scene. Each of those actions derives from the man himself; nothing he does is “out of character.”

In one sense, Messenger undergoes the hero’s journey as outlined by Joseph Campbell and others. It is in that evolution of the character that the difference lies between characterization – which is sketchy – and character development – which is richer and, for me, the ideal. Blue Lonesome, a play-fair whodunit on one level, is much richer than that overall; it is why, when all is said and done, I acquired it for publication.

Areas for Development

Physical attributes tell us a lot about someone; we may be wrong in our judgment, but we know, either innately or as a result of experience, that it is time to cross the street when we see someone “threatening” walking toward us in the night. Everyone reacts to the physical: We carry ourselves based on how we perceive ourselves. Extremely attractive people, as an example, command a room simply by entering it. It is not only because of our reactions to them, but because of their confidence built from self-assurance – the knowledge that because of who they are, others pay attention.

Such an attitude, to continue the example, is going to inform and shape a lot of what this attractive character is going to do through the course of your story. It will prevent her from doing certain things (she can’t, for instance, easily hide in plain sight; if that is called for, she will have to take certain actions, create disguises). It will result in being remembered. “Normal” people might consider her arrogant. At the same time, beautiful men and women tend to intimidate others; the result is that they are often lonely, which may be why the models I see going in and out of the photographer’s studio down the hall are so pleasant. The question inherent in that serves as direction for a story … and allows a character to develop.

Dialogue, too, serves our purposes in developing characters. The key to dialogue in fiction is that it consists of the heard, not necessarily in what is said. That’s why it is tricky, foolish and usually a failing to repeat overheard conversations verbatim. You are paying attention to every word; the people speaking, however, generally are not: They hear what is important to them.

When your character speaks, then, each word serves not only to advance the story, but to advance the reader’s image and understanding of that character. Whether it is in having street kids who never use profanity, an uneducated man speaking like William F. Buckley, or – at her club – the well-bred woman echoing a beauty parlor in Staten Island, any dichotomy must be explained.

Again, because characters aren’t static, their conversation should change to reflect the new insights and understandings they’ve come to as a result of the actions they’ve participated in. If someone witnesses a deadly accident en route to a rendezvous, that person may not want to make love, or may make love with a particularly violent passion; what he or she has seen will alter that person. That reaction will, in turn, alter the partner.

Too often, the accident is offered to readers as a way of showing the dangers of city living, perhaps, but the incident is not carried to its logical conclusion; it becomes an event out of any reasonable context in the story. A fight with a spouse will impact on the way a character relates to the next person he or she meets; no matter what the incident, it is a pebble thrown into calm waters: The ripples reach the shore. It is in those ripples that character develops. Still waters may run deep; they also begin to smell foul.

A fully realized character is going to cause events. You don’t, after all, spend your entire day reacting to things that happen. You set things in motion. Even minor movements result in everything within reach changing position. You can’t, then, allow your characters to act if you don’t take into consideration all the consequences of that action. Not all of them will fit the needs of your story. But they are all happening, the potential energy is present. If it doesn’t get released, both your story and your character will grind to a halt as a result of the inertia.

Description, dialogue and action aren’t the only weapons in your developmental arsenal, just the most effective because they allow you to show, not tell, especially in terms of characters’ emotions. Your fourth weapon is narrative.

Bringing the Past to Life

The past is what creates the character of your story people and thus is an important part of developing the actors in your fiction. You can fill us in on the important events in a couple of ways.

The simplest, of course, is to tell a linear story: it begins Then, ends Now, and everything in between ties the two together. More complex (and held in low repute by many, though not by me) is the use of the flashback. You can’t after all, relate the private eye’s whole story every time he or she goes out on a new case.

Peter Straub, in his novel The Hellfire Club, makes excellent use of backstory presentation by offering it from the point of view of the character. Davey Chancel reveals an important event of the past – one with direct bearing on the today of the story – by telling his wife of the incident. Even in the relating of the anecdote, however, Straub does not leave us in the past; through action, we are kept in the present as we watch the wife, react to something, Davey editorialize on it, and then pick up the thread. We already know or sense certain things about Davey; by living through a pivotal event in his life, we begin to see how and why he is the way he is. We see the character develop and begin to understand why he has taken certain actions and, perhaps, learn enough to think we know how he will react to something else in the future.

In Snow Falling on Cedars, David Gutersen presents a character at a trial testifying to an event, and easily shifts the narrative from the courtroom (told in the Now) to the event itself. More than just showing readers what happened in the past rather than simply telling them about it, Gutersen may also present someone in the courtroom recalling the same incident from a different perspective. Whatever happened has happened to more than one character; because this happening is important, it had an effect on more than one character. Through the flashbacks we see all the elements brought together for each of the people concerned. Their memories and experiences of the event are different, and are colored by who they are and who they have become since then.

A flashback can be very simple: Just having a character remember the feeling of a teacher bringing a ruler down across his knuckles during a verbal drubbing by a boss, or having someone remember the scent of a cologne when a man passes by her, serves to let us know the how and why of a particular action. These memories may be expanded later, depending on the needs of your story. As it stands, these memories create the motivation for a particular action (or inaction). The character does something because of who he or she is (which is, of course, his or her character). We aren’t simply told that so-and-so is nervous in certain situations, we begin to see why. And we can see changes that occur as confidence is gained through a series of small successes, accomplishments that the character may not be aware of as they happen individually, but that will have an overall impact in the end.

Blue Lonosome’s Messenger, who is an accountant and not particularly physical at the book’s opening, is forced to fight. His success gives him the confidence he needs later. The character develops and evolves, and his willingness to take a certain chance later makes sense based on his new knowledge of himself. If he had instigated something at the beginning of the story, the novel would not have been as successful.

On Character Spins the Plot

A plot is nothing more than contrivance: a series of events you set up in order to get from A to Z. And so, we’re back to making your character do something. Why does the woman in jeopardy not go to the police, why doesn’t she leave? Why does the next victim always go into the lightless cellar? What is the motivation? Love may conquer all, but after several rejections, most people I know go on to other more willing targets for their affection. If your character doesn’t, if his character is such that the never gives up, you must consider the results of that on the people surrounding him. When a character causes events, there must be a reason and that reason must go beyond the needs of the contrivances of plot.

In his play, Modern Love, George Meredith writes, “Passions spin the plot. We are betrayed by what is false within.” Passions are a result, a concomitant, of character. In her excellent Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott advises us: “… no matter what, you are probably going to have to let bad things happen to some of the characters you love or you won’t have much of a story. Bad things happen to good characters, because our actions have consequences, and we do not all behave perfectly all the time. Get to know your characters as well as you can, let there be something at stake, and then let the chips fall where they may.”

Our actions have consequences. Your characters must do something, and they must do that specific “something” because it is the only thing they can do in a given situation – not the only thing you can think of having them do.

Even in genre fiction with its guidelines and reader expectations your character’s actions must be inevitable. Knowing that your goal is to write in a particular category does not preclude creating the character before the story or the plot or the outline. (How do you know what’s going to happen if you don’t know the characters? Beginning from the occurrences results in pawns, not people.) Having decided who is in your story, and how to depict them in all the aspects that matter, the tale becomes not only easier, but more exciting to tell; it creates those times when the characters take over. They surprise you and, therefore, they surprise the readers, causing that sense of wonder that drives customers to the next book.

No matter how closely you delineate the biographies of your characters, no matter how well you think you know them, they will, like children, kittens and well-tended plants, grow and change. Those changes may (and probably will) alter aspects of your story. That’s fine; don’t worry about it. It means that you’ve been successful, that you’ve accomplished what every writer worth reading has done before you – written about people who matter and told their stories. By extension, it becomes the story of each of us. And that is, after all, the point.

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