On Character In Novels: Part 2, by Robyn Bavati
As outlined in last month’s post, when developing your characters there are five principles worth bearing in mind:
1. There is a difference between character and characterisation and both are required.
2. Character is best revealed through action.
3. You don’t need to know everything about your character, but only those details that provide insight, advance the plot or in some way enhance your story.
4. Character does not exist in a vacuum but is inextricably linked to plot – character motivation drives the story.
5. In a novel (as opposed to, say, TV sitcom), characters must be allowed to change over time.
In my last post I wrote primarily about the first of these principles, and explained that characterisation deals with outward characteristics and physical attributes, while character expresses personality and the inner workings of the heart and mind.
Once you have established who your character is (eg. a mischievous eight-year old girl, a blind ten year-old boy, a middle aged woman with a limp), you’ll probably want to convey a few significant details about your character’s personality. It’s at this point you’ll want to make use of the second principle – that character is best revealed through action. But what does this mean? Here are some examples:
1. Gerald is an extremely frugal old man, but instead of “Gerald was frugal”, try “Gerald searched the attic for his box of used matches – there was no point throwing them out when he could use them again”, or “Gerald folded the piece of toilet paper over again and again; it would be a waste to flush it away after just one wipe.”
2. Ten-year-old Beth has a big heart, but instead of “Beth was kind”, try “Ignoring the rumble in her stomach, Beth gave her only sandwich to the beggar. He did look hungry.”
By describing Gerald as frugal or Beth as generous, you’re telling your readers what to think about these characters. By showing them in action and allowing the reader insight into the inner workings of their minds, you’re allowing readers to reach their own conclusions, which is much more satisfying.
Of course, if your characters are ruminating on their own frugality or kindness, that too can be a way of allowing the reader into their minds, and is not the same as the author telling the reader what to think. Likewise, other characters in the story may share their opinions about the main character, which is also acceptable, as it will then be up to readers to form their own opinions based on the way a character acts.
How much information do readers actually need in order to form their own opinions? And how much do you, the writer, need to know?
Writers are often told they must know everything about their characters. In some writing courses, students are encouraged to write extensive character profiles, several pages long. Such lengthy profiles are not only time-consuming, they are often unhelpful. Do you really need to know what school your character went to, what childhood diseases he had, whether he prefers chocolate or vanilla ice cream, how many first cousins he has and whether he broke his leg at the age of three?
This brings us to the third principle: You don’t need to know everything about your character, but only those details that provide insight, advance the plot or in some way enhance your story.
You probably don’t need to know what your character ate for breakfast, unless she is suffering from an eating disorder, in which case it might be highly relevant. Likewise, you may not need to know that she has researched the properties of the plants in her garden, unless one of them is toxic and she uses it to poison someone later in the story.
You do need to know what she is doing in a particular scene, and it can be helpful to know what she was doing just before the scene began and what she is planning to do next.
Always remember that you are telling a story. The information you reveal about your character is relevant only insofar as it serves the story. It is this idea of serving the story that is the backbone of character development, to be continued in next month’s post…
In the meantime, here are a couple of exercises you might like to try:
- Choose a couple of character descriptors from the following list (or come up with your own): mean, shy, extroverted, happy, miserable, frustrated, guilty, grumpy, ecstatic, loving, rude. Now write a sentence or two for each that reveals that attribute through action (as in the Gerald and Beth examples, above).
- Write a list of 5-10 things you need to know about your main character, and another list of 5-10 things that are irrelevant to the story you want to tell.
*There is an opportunity to attend a novel writing retreat in Tasmania with Robyn in October. For details, see https://www.facebook.com/NovelWritingRetreatsAustralia/posts/489199181237686.
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