People often tell me they feel they know my characters, as if my story people were a part of their lives, which is always wonderful to hear. It means I did my job. And it means the readers did their job. Incredible but credible characters are a combined effort. Characters are conceived in the author’s imagination, but they come alive in readers’ imaginations.
A character’s story begins with a gleam in her parents’ eye and ends with her death. The story we tell is but a fraction of that life, and where we choose to begin and where we, the writer, choose to end defines the story. If we begin with a crime and end with a resolution of that crime, we have a mystery. If we begin with a girl meeting a boy or a woman meeting a man and end with happily ever after, we have a romance. If we chronicle the rise and fall of the character’s fortunes, we could have a tragedy, a family drama or any number of stories.
The illusion of a well-told story is such that, whatever the genre, by the end of the book readers know the character as well as they know themselves and their friends. Readers know, or think they know, everything in the character’s life that brought her to crisis and how everything in the character’s life will work out after the story problem is resolved. By giving readers the essence of the character, we give them the means to continue the character’s story long after the book has come to an end.
How do we work this sleight of hand? By showing the character in action and in relationships. By defining the character through decisions in moments of crisis.
In the prologue of Light Bringer, Helen comes home from working a double shift at the hospital to find a baby on her doorstep. She shows her nurturing characteristics by taking care of the child, Rena. She shows the beginning of a metamorphosis from staid nurse to loving mother by putting off calling the authorities so she can enjoy the child bit longer. But what really defines her is how she acts in a moment of crisis. Rena, a magical child, or at least a precocious one, tells Helen they have to leave, that her invisible playmate says “they” are after Rena and when they find her, they will kill Helen. Helen doesn’t hesitate. She packs up her car and her life and escapes with the baby.
Helen’s decision defines not only her own character, but also the character of the baby, the character of the invisible playmate, and perhaps even the story itself. It is through such defining moments that we can create a character so real readers believe they know more about the character than was ever actually written.
In older novels, especially the classics, authors wrote page after page of character description, telling us who their characters are. Those authors dissected their characters’ motivations, told us their every thought, explained every feeling. Today’s readers, myself included, have no patience for such long drawn-out static passages. We want to get right into the heart of the story. We want to learn who the character is by what she does, who she knows, and how she acts and reacts.
Showing, not telling, is a basic axiom of writing for today’s market, but it is often hard to resist the urge to explain since you know far more about your characters than you can or should put in your novel. Still, by restraining yourself and letting readers be part of the creation process, letting them find their own explanations for what your characters do, you give them a stake in the characters and the story. And so your characters come alive.
This article is anthologized in the Second Wind Publishing book: NOVEL WRITING TIPS AND TECHNIQUES FROM AUTHORS OF SECOND WIND PUBLISHING, which was the 100th book released by Second Wind.
“As someone who constantly evaluates novels for publication, I was astonished at the breadth and clarity of the wonderful advice contained in this handbook. It addresses concerns as grand as plot development and as simple but essential as formatting your submission. It offers crucial advice on literary topics ranging from character development to the description of action. Virtually every subject that is of great concern to publishers — and therefore to authors — is covered in this clear, humorous and enormously useful guide.” –Mike Simpson, Chief Editor of Second Wind Publishing
Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.